When members of the Garda Representative Association (GRA) meet in Kerry for its annual conference on Tuesday it will be against a backdrop of deep mistrust within the organisation.
The GRA is not a union; it does not have the power to strike or affiliate with the wider trade union movement. Nevertheless it is a powerful organisation which represents 12,500 gardaí (over 80 per cent of the force) and which has a yearly income of almost €4 million in membership fees alone.
Internal GRA strife can have a significant impact on the running of the Garda and has previously been a cause for concern for Garda management and the government.
The latest dispute involves various factions in the GRA's Central Executive Committee (CEC) and its full-time executive.
Most recently there has been significant anger over the placing of €4.5 million of GRA money in a private investment fund. The investment of the money is not the problem per se, it is that it was allegedly done without consulting members of the CEC, which only found out about it last month.
“We didn’t see a shred of paperwork,” a disgruntled committee member said.
The most vocal critics of the current regime are GRA representatives from the Kerry, Meath, Galway and the Dublin Metropolitan Region East Divisions. Last month these delegates introduced a motion to the CEC calling for an independent review of current GRA management.
“In light of clear evidence of the leadership’s repeated failure to conduct GRA business in accordance to the constitution and rules of the GRA and the legal framework governing the Association and its means of operation, the CEC instructs that an independent review of current management of the GRA be urgently carried out,” the motion read.
It cited 18 areas of concern including an alleged lack of transparency surrounding the tendering process for the publication of the GRA magazine the Garda Review. The motion was voted down.
The organisation’s diversity policy is another area of contention. In 2018 a damning external report described the GRA as a “jobs for the boys” club which operated out of an “ivory tower”.
Three years later a promised diversity and inclusions policy is still pending and just three out of the 31 CEC members are women, CEC members complain.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has taken an interest in the implementation of the report's recommendations and has requested periodic updates.
The biggest flashpoint within the organisation is perhaps the question of expenses, with members querying how some officials have increased their travel and subsistence bills during periods of Covid-19 lockdowns when the expenses bills of others dropped to near zero.
Earlier this year former GRA president Jim Mulligan wrote to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to complain about the "huge disparity in expenses claims".
GRA general secretary Philip McAnenly responded that it has considered these concerns but found that CEC expenses actually dropped by 30 per cent in 2020.
At last year’s conference Mr Mulligan also condemned what he called the “militancy” of some in the GRA, including “calls for industrial action at the height of a pandemic” and “unauthorised lobbying of politicians”.
The decision to hold this year's conference in-person, in a hotel in Killarney at a time of extremely high Covid case numbers, is another source of acrimony. Several delegates have dropped out due to being close contacts, while others will not be attending in person out of principle.
A GRA source estimated about a third of delegates are against an in-person conference. “There’s only five motions on the agenda. It could easily be held online like last year,” said another.
Officials from the Department of Justice are understood to have also privately questioned the need for an in-person conference. As is tradition, Ms McEntee will address the conference but only via video link. This has been viewed as a snub by some members and as an sign that the conference should have been moved online by others.
A decision by Garda Commissioner Harris, who is currently in Europe on Interpol business, not to attend has also caused frustration. Instead the conference will hear from Deputy Commissioner Ann Marie McMahon, and only then via video link.