Replacing a garda commissioner won’t resolve ‘embedded dysfunctionality’ in the force
Opinion: Blizzard of controversies suggests it’s time for a rethink of police system
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: David Sleator
Martin Callinan has been the 19th person to hold the position of Garda Commissioner. One may exclude the former Co Clare IRA commander, Patrick Brennan, who was briefly “elected” to the post by the members of the Civic Guard who mutinied at the Kildare Depot in 1922.
Of the 19 incumbents, a little more than half have made it safely to retirement at full term and without controversy. This stands in stark contrast to the Defence Forces where successive Chiefs of Staff have put in their time without mishap.
To be Commissioner of the Garda Siochana is to live dangerously in career terms. The first Commissioner, Michael Staines, lasted just five months. His successor, Eoin O’Duffy was sacked by de Valera in 1932. More recently, Edmund Garvey was sacked in 1983. His successor, Patrick McLaughlin, was obliged to stand down after it was revealed that the gardaí had tapped journalists’ telephones at the instigation of the Minister for Justice, Sean Doherty. A number of later Commissioners reached the finishing line in a state of scarcely-concealed warfare with their Ministers.
There is a dangerous fault-line where the functions, powers and responsibilities of the Garda Commissioner meet those of the Minister for Justice, with the senior mandarins of the Department of Justice playing a central role in relationships. It is rooted in history and it has never suited the political and administrative establishment to address it in any fundamental way. Thus we have had recurring crises in the Garda Siochana, with failures in policing standards – often related to political pressures – and with senior Garda officers usually taking the fall.
It may now be, with a blizzard of controversies around the operation of the force, that there is to be a fundamental rethink of how the State’s police system operates; a rethink that may go beyond the flawed and timid vision of the 2005 Garda Siochana Act. The Taoiseach has indicated that there is agreement, at least in principle, among the Coalition partners that some form of Garda authority is called for.
Extraordinarily, the Garda Siochana’s model of governance dates back to 1835. In that year, the Under Secretary for Ireland, Thomas Drummond, established the Irish Constabulary on a permanent, centralised basis across the country.
Unlike England, where local police forces were controlled by “Watch Committees,” later constituted as “Police Authorities,” the Irish Constabulary was to be controlled directly by government through an Inspector General who reported to the Under Secretary in Dublin Castle.