Drew Harris: Garda take an outside chance on new commissioner
New inter-country security appointment is rare, and come with risks
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and new Garda commissioner Drew Harris at Government Buildings. Photograph: Maxwell
When Drew Harris OBE takes up his position as Garda commissioner on Monday, he leaves behind his role as deputy chief constable of the PSNI. He swaps a complex and dangerous security environment in the North for a Garda force in need of modernisation after years of crises.
He must now extricate himself from his senior post in the security services of the British state, where he has previously been the link man between the PSNI and MI5. He relinquishes his loyalty and sworn oath to serve Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, and swears a new oath, switching his allegiance to the Garda and Republic of Ireland. He has also applied for an Irish passport.
Nobody knows how this literal and metaphorical change of clothes will work, because it has never been tried before at such a high level.
Father-of-four Harris (53) joined the RUC in 1983 when the Troubles were raging in the North. He has been PSNI deputy chief constable for the past four years. His salary of approximately €180,000 now jumps to €250,000 as Garda commissioner.
His father, RUC superintendent Alwyn Harris, was murdered in an IRA car bombing in 1989 at the age of 51, on his way to a Harvest Thanksgiving church service near the Harrises’ Lisburn home.
In his new role, Harris will have an armed Garda escort and travel in an armoured vehicle, because he is a target of dissident republicans, like all PSNI officers.
Some in Sinn Féin resented Drew Harris for the 2014 arrest of Gerry Adams, in connection with the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville. They believed Harris was responsible for the decision to arrest rather than simply interview Adams.
Drew Harris is a man with vast experience. Those who know him describe him as someone of great integrity and professionalism, with a calm and understated leadership style.
His appointment as Garda commissioner will be debated under two broad headings. The first is that his is the most unusual transfer in the European security community in the modern era. The second is: can he modernise and reform the Garda, and how will he perform in leading regular policing?
Hiring Harris is a risk. The Department of Justice’s own officials warned Government ministers of the risks of hiring somebody from outside the jurisdiction as the recruitment process was getting under way.
Last December, in a report prepared for Cabinet ministers, the justice officials warned a foreign candidate may be subject to, or seek to promote, the interests of their country of origin at the expense of Irish national security interests.
The report, the contents of which have been seen by The Irish Times, also advised Irish Government ministers that 23 of 24 nations canvassed for a view by the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU said they would not consider foreign nationals for their top policing and security posts. Some would not even consider candidates with dual citizenship.
One source who has worked in the domestic and international security and intelligence community says it is clear the deep vetting that should have been done on Harris as part of the recruitment process was not performed.
“He would not have passed it because of his links with the security services of another state. He is directly related to MI5,” the source says. “He would not be given the security clearance to have access to all of our [secret security] information. That’s not a comment on the man personally; it’s about who he is and the roles he has held.”
Another source familiar with State security says while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insists vetting was done, the deep vetting required would be impossible to do on a person from outside the State. And even a best effort that fell short would take six months.
No sovereign state would appoint somebody from the security service of another state, even a friendly one, to head their security service
“The British state will have set a task for its security services to find out, overtly or covertly, what [Ireland’s] views are on a whole range of issues related to Brexit,” the source says. “They’d love to know how far we will compromise in areas of border security, what our future trading concerns are and so on. They will want to learn information to use in negotiations against us and Europe. State security is not just about terrorism anymore.”
John O’Brien, a retired Garda chief superintendent who worked in the force’s Crime and Security Branch, says he is surprised that the debate around Harris’s appointment has been so muted to date.
“No sovereign state would appoint somebody from the security service of another state, even a friendly one, to head their security service,” he said. “It wouldn’t be done; not in western European countries. The British certainly wouldn’t do it.”
O’Brien also points to the evidence Harris gave in 2012 to the Smithwick tribunal, saying it is very problematic for him now.
The tribunal was investigating allegations of Garda collusion in the Provisional IRA murder of RUC officers Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan in an ambush in 1989 as they drove home after a meeting in Dundalk Garda station.
Harris’s evidence, in 12 pieces of intelligence, suggested Garda collusion. But he declined to share the evidence in full. He said to do so would be a risk to the PSNI’s sources and would reveal how the force worked, which it was unwilling to reveal for security reasons.
Lawyers for then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan said the evidence amounted to “nonsense on stilts”. However, the tribunal concluded that Garda members unknown had colluded in the murders.
“He needs to urgently explain whether he still stands over those allegations,” O’Brien says. “It amounted to Garda collusion in carrying out those murders. Can he please now share the information with the Garda?”
This is a question Harris has now been challenged on by the Garda Síochána Retired Members’ Association. It has written to him asking him to explain the evidence and requesting he share it with others in the Garda for investigation.
In recent weeks Ciarán MacAirt asked the High Court to judicially review the Government’s decision to appoint Harris. MacAirt’s grandmother, Kathleen Irvine, was one of 15 people killed by an explosion at McGurk’s Bar in Belfast in December 1971. The bomb was planted by the UVF but the RUC initially blamed the IRA, saying a bomb it was preparing had exploded accidentally in a nationalist area.
One of MacAirt’s arguments in taking his case was that because of Harris’s obligations under the UK’s Officials Secrets Act, he could not credibly stand over any inquiry into murders involving alleged collusion between the British security service and loyalist terrorists.
He lost the case, but his grounds are a flavour of other campaigns that may now be waged. And they may take place amid claims that Harris has information that could solve historical cases if he would only share it with the Garda.
While large sections of Irish society will want to see Garda modernisation and reform under the new commissioner rather than a protracted poking around in the Troubles, the legacy questions are something he will need to address clearly and early in his term.
At a time of crisis in policing, the Republic has opted for an outsider in Drew Harris to kickstart badly needed reforms.
The controversy around allegations made by whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe contributed greatly to the early retirement of Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan last September and the departure of her predecessor Martin Callinan in March 2014.
With the Charleton tribunal into allegations of Garda mistreatment and smearing of McCabe now concluded, its report is being readied for publication in October. It means that controversy should be at an end soon.
Similarly, the worst should also be behind the Garda in relation to the inflating of alcohol breath test numbers and inaccuracies in the State’s crime statistics.
A major review of the misclassification of homicides continues. But because the issue predates Harris’s time in the Garda, he should escape reputational damage.
Sources in the Garda point out that Callinan and O’Sullivan became very unpopular with sections of the public, many politicians and the media mainly because of the McCabe controversy. “New controversies might come up for Drew Harris, but he won’t already be damaged by the McCabe controversy like Nóirín and Martin,” says one source who worked with both former commissioners.
“So there should be a sense of normality returning, and things have already calmed down a lot since Nóirín went.”
Harris needs to slim it down and pick certain objectives to prioritise
Asked what the key issues are facing Harris, experienced officers in the Garda say the upper echelons of the force have been weakened by divisions among senior personnel. “He needs to try and bring them together,” says one source familiar with the politics in Garda Headquarters.
“And he needs to be sure he is not seen as being closer to one set of people in the Depot [Garda Headquarters] over another set. That is absolutely vital for him.”
Several Garda Headquarters insiders say persuading Deputy Commissioner John Twomey – who went for the top job and was beaten to it by Harris – to stay on in the Garda should be Harris’s top priority in the short term.
“John can be a significant ally; he can run the day-to-day policing; that would be huge for Harris,” says one source who knows Twomey. “And I think he will get behind him and get others behind him. He needs John to stay on.”
Others say the modernisation and renewal programme for the Garda under Nóirín O’Sullivan was too big. “Harris needs to slim it down and pick certain objectives to prioritise,” says one source.
“Can he accelerate civilianisation, bring in a lot of outside professional expertise and get more guards on the streets? If he could do that and clearly show he had done it, then that is a big win that is easy for the public to understand. With Nóirín, there was too much management jargon and not enough evidence that progress was being made.”
The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is reporting within the fortnight. Headed by former US police chief Kathleen O’Toole, it has considered a wide range of possible reforms for the Garda. These include a possible rebranding of the Garda, like the RUC’s transformation to the PSNI, opening up recruitment into the force, boosting the ethos and values of the Garda after years of controversies, and making recommendations for better training. It has also considered policing powers and procedures. The creation of an independent State security agency, outside of the main Garda organisation, has also been mulled.
“When the commission reports, does Harris set aside Nóirín’s modernisation and renewal report and pick a priority number of reforms from the commission and just go at them?” wonders one Garda source. “Does the commission report become the reform bible? Nobody knows until it reports.”
Begin the process
The commission wanted to wait until it had reported next month to even begin the process to recruit a new commissioner. However, the Policing Authority – which recommended Harris to Government and devised the new open and international recruitment process – objected.
In the end, the commission briefed the authority about its plans for Garda reform. In that way the plans fed into the recruitment process, allowing it to commence at the start of this year.
“I think members will give him a chance,” says one source of Drew Harris. “Most [Garda] members are sick of constantly being under siege; staggering from crisis to crisis. They want change and for things to get better.”
Another agrees but adds if Harris doesn’t have enough resources he needs to be honest with the public and the Government. “In the North, when cuts are made [in the PSNI] the senior officers have been very blunt about how policing will suffer,” said the Garda member. “We’ve never had that here.
“Will Drew Harris call for more resources from the Government if he doesn’t get what we need to reform? A lot of people are waiting to see how he handles that one. He needs to speak up. That would be a big start in members getting behind him.”