Dark side of the Garda will persist in the absence of radical reforms
Fundamental flaws in Garda governance cannot be papered over by an endless succession of inquiries
The Policing Authority does not displace the government or Department of Justice in Garda governance to any significant degree. It is a pale shadow of the old police authorities in England and Wales and the current Policing Board in Northern Ireland
There is a dark side to the Garda Síochána. For the most part it is obscured by the excellent service given by many gardaí daily up and down the country. Every so often, the dark side is exposed by accounts of the most egregious corruption and abuse in reports of inquiries, court cases, media investigations and other sources.
The treatment of Sgt Maurice McCabe by Garda management is just the latest example. Such episodes have become so persistent and extreme in the past decade that without radical surgery to address their source they will propel policing in this State into an existential crisis from which it will take many years to recover.
It would be tempting to attribute the source of the problem to the actions and neglect of a relatively small number of corrupt gardaí. These, however, are merely symptomatic of a self-perpetuating sub-culture that permeates the whole organisation. Its tentacles spread in a manner and to a degree that can frustrate professional and diligent police officers, such as McCabe, from delivering a service to the highest standards of their office.
This sub-culture is facilitated, even fuelled, by a powerful cocktail of a mutually convenient cosy relationship between government and senior Garda management; an appointments and promotions culture that seems to favour insiders; and the designation of the Garda as the State security service in a manner that shields it from external scrutiny.
Reform efforts by the current and previous governments seem more intent on conveying the appearance, rather than the substance, of remedial action.
When introducing the Garda Síochána Act 2005 in response to the revelations of the Morris tribunal, for example, minister for justice Michael McDowell described it as “a modern constitution for a modern and even more professional police force”, and “the most important legislative proposals ever to come before the Houses of the Oireachtas”.
The reality is that it only introduced reforms to the complaints and inspectorate procedures that were already standard in comparable jurisdictions elsewhere.
Such episodes have become so persistent and extreme in the past decade that without radical surgery to address their source they will propel policing in this State into an existential crisis
These limited reforms served conveniently to divert attention away from other provisions in the Act which involved a substantive tightening of the noose of departmental control over the Garda.
Less than 10 years later, in response to the Guerin report on McCabe’s allegations, the current Minster for Justice followed a similar script. She proclaimed yet another programme of reforms that would supposedly transform the oversight and governance of the Garda.
At the core of these reforms is the establishment of an “independent” Policing Authority. Superficially this heralds a new dawn in which the delivery of professional policing will finally be freed from the corrosive and stifling influence of the current governance arrangements.
Once again, however, the substance falls disappointingly short of the appearance. The Policing Authority does not displace the government or Department of Justice in Garda governance to any significant degree. It is a pale shadow of the old police authorities in England and Wales and the current Policing Board in Northern Ireland.
While the authority is given some useful functions in respect of senior Garda appointments, it lacks key budgetary and decision-making powers that are essential to shape how policing is delivered.
Its general subordination to government in most aspects is compounded by its exclusion from State security policing which is defined in very broad terms. With respect to policing generally, the Garda Commissioner is still accountable through the Department of Justice to the Minister, as distinct from the Policing Authority.
In short, and despite appearances, the old regime is still largely intact even though it should be abundantly clear by now that it is not fit for purpose.
Tinkering around with Garda complaints and oversight procedures, no matter how the changes are dressed up, will not staunch the repetitive cycle of crises within the Garda organisation.
Equally, the fundamental flaws in Garda governance cannot be papered over by an endless succession of inquiries and investigations. The root source of the problem must be tackled meaningfully.
There are three essential interlinked prerequisites for real reform. First and foremost is the establishment of substantively transparent governance and accountability structures that will place professionalism, rather than cosy relationships and protected interests, at the heart of the Garda organisation.
The old regime is still largely intact even though it should be abundantly clear by now that it is not fit for purpose
The second is the long-term achievement of a mix of internally promoted and externally recruited personnel to senior management ranks. For too long Garda management has been recruited incestuously to the benefit of internal self-perpetuating networks and established lines of influence. That cycle needs to be broken by a sustained injection of new blood and new-thinking which instinctively prioritises professionalism, integrity and ability in promotions.
The third is an institutional and political acceptance that State security can no longer be used as an artificial shield to protect Garda management and practices from external examination and oversight.
Without real and sustained progress on these three fronts there will be more “crises”, more government hand-wringing and more exaggerated proclamations of fundamental reform but no substantive change. Dermot Walsh is professor of law at University of Kent