Drew Harris has ‘a clear vision’ for an Garda Síochána. Can he make it a reality?

Crime & Law
Subscriber Only

The Irish police force, now 100 years old, is undergoing its biggest transformation

The story of the reform of An Garda Síochána is largely the story of Jeremy Andrew Harris, or Drew as he is known.

Since his appointment as Garda Commissioner in June 2018, the Belfast man’s reputation and authority have been instrumental in delivering badly needed transformation to a police force which had been beset by a seemingly endless series of controversies.

His ownership of the reform process was further cemented this week with the news that he will remain in his position until 2025, an announcement seemingly timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Garda Síochána's foundation. It also served to quell rumours that Harris was considering applying for the newly vacant position of London Metropolitan Police chief.

In the past three years, the former Police Service of Northern Ireland deputy chief constable's leadership has made a strong impression both inside and outside the force, particularly with his strong focus on internal discipline and vocal support for a process of reform.

"He has had a very significant impact," says Bob Collins, chairman of the Policing Authority, which oversees the Garda. "Nobody is perfect and nobody can be expected to be perfect, but I think he has a clear understanding of the challenges, he has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve, and I think that's not a bad start."

But the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020 stalled much of that reform. That, combined with a fresh set of controversies and planned drastic changes to the Garda power structure, means Harris’s legacy is far from secure.

The two-year extension to his term will be crucial to offset the reforming opportunities he has lost as the Garda was forced to focus on the more immediate challenges of pandemic policing.

Meanwhile most other senior managers in the Garda organisation will reach retirement before him, some in the coming weeks (though a number may be granted extensions of service).

When Harris came into the job, in September 2018, his immediate priority was to steady the ship after years of battering controversy. Former Garda commissioners Martin Callinan and Nóirín O'Sullivan had become hate figures in the eyes of many. The Disclosures tribunal subsequently found that Callinan had been part of a "campaign of calumny" against whistleblower Maurice McCabe. And, while O'Sullivan was cleared of any wrongdoing by the tribunal, she had retired after years of pressure.

Much of that first task, to calm what was a highly charged atmosphere around the Garda, was largely completed by the time Harris came into office, thanks to Dónall Ó Cualáin, who had occupied the commissioner’s post on an interim basis in the preceding year. In that time, Ó Cualáin was a largely anonymous figure who garnered little attention from those who saw Callinan, and later O’Sullivan, as barriers to Garda reform and had campaigned for their removal.

Since taking on the top job, Harris has simply not become a target in the way Callinan and O’Sullivan were.

“So you could say his biggest assets are the fact he’s not Callinan or O’Sullivan and he didn’t come up through the Garda ranks. He was appointed from outside when there was a clamour for an outsider. So he got a lot of breathing space that maybe an insider wouldn’t have got,” a Garda source says.

"Whether they're from Northern Ireland, the UK or Australia, Canada or wherever, it doesn't really matter. But sometimes you do need someone from the outside to come in," says Pat Leahy, the recently retired assistant garda commissioner responsible for the Dublin region.

In 2019, it emerged that thousands of crimes committed by youth offenders had fallen through the cracks and not handled properly due to Garda inaction in the cases

Collins has been struck by the Commissioner’s willingness to make comments that would perhaps “not be appreciated” in some sectors.

For example, Harris has acknowledged several times during Policing Authority meetings that “prejudices which circulate in society also circulate in An Garda Síochána”. It is perhaps an obvious statement of fact, but one which had never been articulated by his predecessors.

“That was a very, very important thing to say, a courageous thing to say,” says Collins. “A new dynamic is introduced when somebody comes from outside an organisation and sees it through a different lens and isn’t encumbered by being brought up in an environment.”

Harris “understands the tradition but is not of the tradition,” Collins adds. “That brings its own difficulties. For example, you don’t have the same network of people around you you might have otherwise. But he knows that.”

Harris’s next task, that of imposing stricter discipline, has been subject of most debate inside the Garda and, perhaps, gives the public the most reassurance that real change is under way.

“I remember asking people I knew in the PSNI what he was like and discipline is the one area that came up,” says one garda. “They said he’d come in and he’d make sure everyone knew the old way of doing things was over and really that is what happened.

“The number of suspensions shot up and even senior people were suspended at times. It was real ‘shot across the bows’ stuff and it was the talk of the job.”

However, many gardaí believe that process has gone too far and that too many of its members are being suspended from duty for what are seen as minor infractions. They point to cases where guards were simply complying with the direction of superiors and other instances where guards were subsequently cleared. Just over 90 gardaí are currently suspended pending inquiries, including three who have been out for more than five years. Some members believe the default to suspending gardaí under investigation, and some of those inquiries taking years to complete, will inevitably lead to innocent people’s careers being irreversibly damaged.

“If you look at the things he has taken up and is driving through, it is going to change the organisation long term. These things won’t fall by the wayside once he eventually retires,” says another source.

The same source lists several key actions that will change the Garda culture: the creation of the Anti-Corruption Unit; the imminent introduction of random drug testing; ongoing vetting for Garda promotions; repeated warnings about corruption; and a detailed definition of corruption, right down to the acceptance of free food at takeaways.

Another agrees, saying these measures should create a fairer and improved workplace, though one that may feel very strict to long-serving gardaí. The same person raises, as an example of meaningful change, Harris's decision last year to carry out checks into ongoing and historical investigations. These were aimed at ensuring any gardaí accused of domestic violence, sexual misconduct or sex crimes had been properly investigated. This came in the wake of the murder and rape of Sarah Everard in the UK by London Met officer Wayne Couzens.

There have been several serious investigations into Garda members amid allegations of corruption, domestic and sexual violence

Harris’s remaining challenge is to reform the Garda for the future. This is still very much a work in progress. The Garda is expanding with the recruitment of thousands of additional sworn members and civilian workers. An operational policing model has involved the amalgamation of Garda divisions. And specialist investigation teams are being established in each division to ensure a better quality and more consistent policing service across the Republic.

But old habits die hard. Not long into Harris’s term, it emerged that homicides were still being classified incorrectly in Garda data, though that controversy – in which Garda analysts who exposed the problem said they were vilified in their jobs – first surfaced before he be came commissioner.

In 2019, it emerged that thousands of crimes committed by youth offenders had fallen through the cracks and not handled properly due to Garda inaction in the cases. Also in 2019, a report by the Policing Authority found that many members of the Garda still did not appreciate the pressing need for cultural change within the force. Instead, they believed colleagues who were pressing for reform were simply dissatisfied about austerity-related cutbacks.

There have been several serious investigations into Garda members amid allegations of corruption, domestic and sexual violence and helping those charged with offences to sidestep the justice system.

More recently, it emerged that thousands of 999 calls had been cancelled or prematurely “closed”. In some cases calls were never recorded, meaning no follow-up action was taken. Some of those whose calls were cancelled were domestic violence victims. Even after the issue was highlighted and reforms were introduced to stop the practice of cancelling calls, more 999 calls were cancelled.

Some have put the often slow pace of reform down to the pandemic. “It was a difficult time for everyone; Covid became the number one issue for everyone,” says Leahy. “It will take time for a lot of the things to be realised.”

The view is shared by Harris, who said in a statement this week: “While we have made many significant changes to the organisation in recent years, the pandemic also meant that we had to put on hold some of the elements of our reform programme that we had planned to introduce.”

Observers – both gardaí and people who have worked in Garda oversight agencies – are concerned that some basic changes have not been achieved.

“They still can’t seem to get a handle on giving advanced driving courses,” says one. “Just before the pandemic there were 3,000 gardaí waiting on that training and the Policing Authority was being told senior Garda management weren’t even sure that was the true figure.”

Said another source: “The CSO is still publishing the annual crime statistics with a warning they mightn’t be accurate. That has gone on for years now. You would have expected that to be resolved by now.”

Notwithstanding the seriousness of these problems, the biggest challenges to Harris’s legacy might still lie in the future.

The Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill that is currently making its way through the Oireachtas will transform how the Garda operates. It has been described by the Department of Justice as the "most wide-ranging and coherent reform of policing in a generation".

The Bill contains a vast number of provisions, some of which go far beyond the Garda. The most controversial changes relate to how the commissioner will be held accountable to government and the various oversight agencies.

Instead of being accountable to the Policing Authority, which was set up in 2016, the commissioner will answer to an internal board comprised of experts in areas where police officers may lack experience, such as finance and human-resource management.

According to the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing, on which the Bill is based, this will allow the commissioner to assume the role of a “true CEO” who can focus on policing matters rather than internal governance.

Furthermore, the Policing Authority will become the Policing and Community Safety Authority. It will retain some oversight functions but will lose some of its current powers to hold the Garda commissioner accountable.

Harris has come out swinging, calling the proposed new powers 'draconian'

It is proposed that the new internal board will be appointed by the minister for justice and that members, or the entire board, can be removed by the minister in certain circumstances.

In a submission on the Bill last year, Dr Vicky Conway a policing expert in the School of Law at DCU and a member of the Policing Authority, wrote: “The board represents a backward step in police governance and accountability. It took numerous scandals and events to justify the movement of certain key oversight and governance functions from the minister to the authority, having been shown that policing in Ireland needed to be depoliticised. It is now proposed to move these to a board that will be internal to the gardaí, with a number of powers also being returned to the minister.”

“This is even less independent than the arrangement which existed prior to the establishment of the authority. At a minimum it reflects a repoliticisation of policing in Ireland.”

Along with management consultant Eddie Molloy, Conway was one of two members of the Commission on the Future of Policing who objected to the new system. A main sticking point for both is the description of the new board as being “supportive” of the commissioner.

“I’ve made a living for over 50 years going in and out of organisations and I’ve never heard that phrase being used,” Molloy says. “A board’s job is not to be merely supportive. And given the context within the guards, the last thing it needed was ‘a supportive’ board. A good board will support, but it has to have teeth, it has to have an edge.”

In her submission, Conway said such a system “is highly unlikely to disrupt the deeply embedded culture of resistance to external oversight and accountability”.

The new system has also drawn strong criticism from Harris himself, albeit for different reasons. “As it is currently drafted, the scheme falls well short of our shared ambition for a transparent, accountable, trusted and effective policing service for the future,” he told the joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice.

He said there is a lack of clarity on how the board’s operation will overlap with the new Policing and Community Safety Authority and that this risked “encroaching on the operational independence” of his office.

The new law will also give the Garda Ombudsman’s office (Gsoc), which is responsible for prosecuting criminal offences by gardaí, much stronger investigative powers. By some interpretations, the new Gsoc will have stronger powers to investigate crimes than the Garda Síochána.

This, unsurprisingly, has caused deep unease across all ranks, including in the Commissioner’s office.

“We already have people suspended for months on end, having not being convicted of anything. There is a worry the new system will drive honest gardaí out of the job,” one mid-ranking garda said, pointing to a reduction in overall Garda numbers over the last year.

For Leahy, the worry is that gardaí may be reluctant to intervene in situations if it means dealing with a months-long Gsoc inquiry afterwards.

“You can provide oversight to a point where you can actually prevent police from doing their job, where they are almost dissuaded from doing it.”

Harris has come out swinging, calling the proposed new powers “draconian”. However, there are few signs the Government is for turning or that the general public would accept a watering down of the proposals.

If this holds true, Drew Harris will be forced to accept the new system, whatever the consequences for his legacy.

GARDA 100 continues next week

Monday: Morale within the force

Tuesday: Future policing challenges

Wednesday: Policing a diverse society

Read More

Recommended