Gardaí must end culture of silence on difficulties they face

Officers can no longer give the impression the force is not struggling

As the full extent of the resourcing and operational shortcomings dogging the Garda were revealed yesterday, the words of interim Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan shortly after she took office sprang to mind.

When appearing before the Public Accounts Committee in July and invited to outline the impact of Garda cuts in recent years, O'Sullivan said, incredibly, that the policing service available to the public had not deteriorated.

Rather than raising the flag and outlining the pressure that her members were under daily, for want of more personnel and more money for overtime, Garda vehicles and infrastructure, O’Sullivan said the cuts of recent years were a good thing.

She suggested they had forced the Garda to examine how it might become more streamlined and effective.


Those sentiments were yesterday very firmly shown the door by the head of the Garda Inspectorate, chief inspector Robert Olson.

He said the recession had created the perfect storm for policing to regress as far as it has.

10% of the time

Middle managers such as Garda sergeants and inspectors were so overburdened by administration they spent only about 10 per cent of their time working with their charges.

As a result, there was little or no oversight of Garda operations. In many cases, those members appointed to posts as detectives waited for six or seven years without receiving any training in how to be a detective.

“Probationary gardaí were mentoring probationary gardaí,” Olson said of the situation where those in the first months of wearing a Garda uniform turned to colleagues just in the door of the Garda College ahead of them for advice because everyone else was too busy.

Olson added the reforms needed in the Garda Síochána would take many years. He estimated the IT needs alone would swallow a budget of €40 million – if it were made available. He noted yesterday that technology in use by other police forces for 30 years was still not available to the Garda.

This includes basic dispatch systems, under which a bank of data would emerge over years, enabling the force to establish accurately what resources are really needed, and when they should be deployed.

When asked by one journalist how many gardaí he felt were needed in the force, Olson said he did not know. Throwing his hands up in the air (just a little), he added that nobody seemed to know.

He has previously described other areas of resourcing, such as the ageing fleet of Garda vehicles with very high mileage as a “ticking time bomb”.

However, no senior officer will ever make any of those comments. And the reasons for that are at the heart of why the force is now in the mess it is in.

While politics is still so close to policing, and especially when the government of the day makes all appointments to the most senior policing offices in the land, speaking out is anathema.


However, if the Republic had a functioning system of Garda promotions, where senior officers were not afraid to speak out for fear of their advancement being blocked, there would have been no shortage of detail that could have been outlined to the Public Accounts Committee back in July.

We would have a society where shortages of Garda resources were actually acknowledged by senior officers, and so could be given the attention they deserve.

Instead, we have a force afraid to say anything apart from insisting that everything is okay, until a once-in-a-decade event – such as the Morris tribunal or yesterday’s report – inevitably exposes the reality.

The new policing authority will create a buffer between politics and policing.

However, further efforts need to be made to encourage senior police officers to engage in public debate about policing, as well as the challenges being posed by society and the legislative, human and budgetary resources needed to meet them.

Speaking out

Provisions in the Garda Síochána Act that prohibit gardaí speaking publicly about their jobs need to be relaxed or abolished.

Just last week the new head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland warned policing in the North was facing "impossible" further cuts to its budget.

Chief Constable George Hamilton said any further depletion in resources would “fundamentally change how policing is delivered”.

He sounded the alarm without disclosing any facts that would derail prosecutions and without damaging the force he leads.

But the net result of those comments was to inform the public and all justice stakeholders that their police service needs more support.

Such frank public remarks also put pressure on political leaders to provide resources. And they avoid perpetuating a culture of silence and fear in which rot can get to work, unseen and untroubled, at the heart of a service as important as policing.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times