There’s no ‘crisis’ in the Garda, just a carnival side-show

The underlying failures of Irish democracy keep popping up through different holes

‘Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald referred to what is happening in the Garda as a crisis. It is not – alas.’ Photograph: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

‘Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald referred to what is happening in the Garda as a crisis. It is not – alas.’ Photograph: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland


If Humpty Dumpty was an Irish rhyme, it would go: Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall./ The State had a big inquiry/ And managed to put Humpty together again.

But before we get too excited, we must remember that, for the Irish establishment, no system is so badly broken that it can’t be glued together with a long and lucrative inquiry and some phoney “reform”. And then hoisted back upon the high wall of authority. In a functioning democracy, the Guerin report would be taken as a signal that the State and its official culture are in need of radical transformation. In the State we actually inhabit, the best official minds will already be thinking very hard about how to “move on” with the least disturbance to the status quo.

I keep hearing in my head ex-commissioner Martin Callinan, then in his pomp, before an Oireachtas committee last November: “We have had one or two problems in the past. I am a firm believer in parking it, moving on and learning from the lessons of the past.”

Cover-up culture
What was telling was not so much what he said as the machine-like way he said it, as if he had learned it by heart. As well he might have done: in the world of those who run the country this formula is better known than the words of the national anthem.

To make another Irish variation on a well-known theme – how many tribunals of inquiry does it take to change a police force? We’ve already had in the last decade alone two searing indictments of the Garda culture of covering up abuses. The Morris tribunal’s first report on bogus explosives finds in Donegal, published in 2004, notes, among many other things, that Garda culture “generally militates against open and transparent co-operation with investigations, both internal and independent”, and manifests itself in a “policy of ‘don’t hang your own’ ”. This last phrase came from the evidence of Garda Martin Leonard: “It is the nature of the Gardaí, we don’t name the names – we don’t want to get anybody into trouble in the Garda Síochána internal matters . . .We try our best to make sure – we are not going to be hanging our people.” What happened? Lots of “reform”, of course, to hoosh Humpty back up on the wall: park it, move on, learn the lessons from the past. And then, almost a decade later, last December, the Smithwick tribunal found exactly the same culture, serenely unchanged: “I regret to say . . . that there prevails in An Garda Síochána today a prioritisation of the protection of the good name of the force over the protection of those who seek to tell the truth. Loyalty is prized above honesty.”

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald referred to what is happening in the Garda as a crisis. It is not – alas. The State doesn’t do crises – it does crisis management. A crisis is a point of no return: things fall apart and everything has to change. It is a big drama that has a profound resolution. What we have instead is a carnival sideshow game of whack a mole. The underlying failures of Irish democracy keep popping up through different holes – the banks, regulators, inability of the justice system to deal with white-collar crime, systemic corruption of local government, politicians on the take, and so on. This has been going on so long that the system has become superbly adept at dealing with these eruptions: hit them with a heavy (and preferably very long) inquiry. Institute some “reforms”. If absolutely necessary, sacrifice someone on the altar of public outrage. Then wrap it all up as “the past” from which we have all “learned”. And carry on as heretofore: prize loyalty above honesty and don’t hang your own.

“Your own” extends far beyond the Garda itself – it is the entire nexus of power that connects ministers, unelected advisers who have gathered enormous influence, the most senior civil servants, major institutions of the State and the most influential lobbies and interest groups. This nexus has an instinctive sense of common interest and a visceral hatred for anyone who threatens it.

Damning indictment
Its ethic is summed up in a single line of the Guerin report, referring to Alan Shatter’s handling of Maurice McCabe’s complaints against Martin Callinan: “In effect, the process of determining Sergeant McCabe’s complaints went no further than the minister receiving and acting upon the advice of the person who was the subject of the complaint.” Perfect.

The creators of the mould-breaking TV comedy Seinfeld adopted two rules: no hugging, no learning. We need to apply those rules to our current episode of the dark farce of Irish “reform”. Of course, the details should be properly investigated but on the larger scale, there is nothing new to be learned here. The new inquiries will find what the old ones found: a culture in the Garda, Department of Justice and in the State as a whole of burying unwanted truths. We know too that there’s only one remedy for this illness: a strong and repeated dose of real democracy.

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