Is Drew Harris making necessary change or making gardaí paranoid and confused?
‘Distant but decisive’ ex-PSNI man has impressed many, but others say the jury is out
Drew Harris is seen by some as being more akin to a chief executive than a traditional Garda commissioner. Photograph: Alan Betson
One year ago this week, Drew Harris, formerly the deputy chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, became Commissioner of An Garda Síochána, an outsider in a force long suspicious of outsiders.
The scale of the challenge in a force left demoralised by the Sgt Maurice McCabe debacle, the inflating of alcohol breath test and checkpoint figures, the underestimation of crime figures and the departures ahead of time of his two predecessors was gargantuan.
Besides scandals and controversies, the Garda had been starved of resources and required urgent modernisation and reform. Even more urgently, action was needed to rid the belief that it was an old boys’ club where promotion depended on contacts, not talent.
Less than a third of gardaí who replied to a PWC “cultural audit” carried out before Harris’s arrival believed everyone enjoyed the same chances in the organisation; just 42 per cent had faith in senior leadership, while only 48 per cent believed speaking up was wise.
Harris has, in the eyes of supporters, steadfastly presented himself as his own man who is prepared to create a new culture. In the the eyes of critics, he is remote.
In personal dealings he is friendly: “He knows a lot of members’ names and when he meets them he calls them by their name, he asks them little things about themselves and their work,” says one officer.
The fact that he is ex-PSNI was not popular with many gardaí a year ago. Today it is barely mentioned. However, his habit of remaining distant is. He is close to nobody in Garda Headquarters, having “professional” relationships with his senior managers but not friendships.
Indeed, he has suspended two members of that team since taking office; something that sent shockwaves through the force.
The Garda’s civilian head of human resources, John Barrett, remains suspended due to an inquiry into alleged issues surrounding his dealings with a Garda colleague; something the Garda has described as an “internal employment matter”.
Harris extolled the virtues of keeping distance: 'I am determined to break down this sense of favouritism or cliques or inner circles. I’m in nobody’s inner circle'
Former assistant commissioner Fintan Fanning was also suspended earlier this year (on foot of allegations he described at the time as “outrageous and spurious”) pending the outcome of an inquiry by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. That inquiry was quickly dropped and Fanning’s suspension lifted, though the suspending of an officer of that rank was unprecedented.
Fanning has since retired after reaching the maximum age for a Garda member. There were no adverse findings against him and he is seeking an order stating that his suspension was unlawful, as well as damages.
Speaking in June to the Policing Authority, Harris extolled the virtues of keeping distance: “I am determined to break down this sense of favouritism or cliques or inner circles. And, you know, I’m in nobody’s inner circle. I’m playing all that I see with an entirely straight bat.
“I believe fervently in the importance of visible and ethical leadership. And I believe fervently in the importance of integrity and honesty in terms of preserving and growing public confidence.”
Harris knows this is what the public and many gardaí want, tired of years where the force stumbled from crisis to crisis. However, words and promises come easy – the job of reorganisation and reform remains.
Plans are laid for both, but the jury is still out on the execution. However, there has been a sea change in the approach to discipline under Harris; something referred to repeatedly by many Garda members who spoke to The Irish Times.
“There may have been a more relaxed attitude before; that certain incidents wouldn’t be escalated to an investigation, especially if the [Garda] member was well got with the local superintendent or whatever,” said one member.
“But I think the person who might not have escalated it in the past would be much more likely to do things by the book now. There is a sense now that an incident and any shying away from investigating that incident are both far more likely to come back at you now.”
The planned anti-corruption bureau will move discipline up a level. That dedicated bureau is Harris’s idea and will be operational by the end of the year
Another noted how Harris had blocked some promotions by refusing to sign off on the moves up the ranks because disciplinary issues were unresolved against them or because he wanted more information about the candidate.
“That jarred with some people because [the candidates] had gone through a promotions competition,” said the source. “But it did also show that people who would have been just waved on through before were being closely looked at.”
Another source said while he did not believe the Garda was ever unwilling to arrest its own members as part of criminal investigations when the need arose, there were subtle differences of late; a willingness to publicise the arrest of members and to clearly refer to some as being under investigation for possible corruption.
“We would have tiptoed around that before,” the source said.
In reality the numbers on suspension remain relatively modest, though they are higher than before – from 32 or 33 before he was appointed to 45 by last March. Currently the number is 42.
Seen as a disciplinarian, Harris appears keen to apply such rigours throughout. The planned anti-corruption bureau will move discipline up a level. That dedicated bureau is Harris’s idea and will be operational by the end of the year.
It will investigate cases brought forward to it, but it will seek out corruption, too – on the job, or outside of it. In Harris’s view, corruption is anything that militates against the Garda being an ethical and “healthy” organisation.
The lifestyles and assets of Garda members, if they appear at odds with incomes, will be checked; so too will inappropriate relationships with criminal elements or victims, especially vulnerable female victims.
Some potential changes are causing discomfort, particularly the idea that gardaí would be financially profiled.
However, Harris believes vetting should happen throughout a garda’s career, not just before they are taken into Templemore.
Said one source: “If we see a number of successful cases and if we see gardaí of all and any ranks being investigated and generally dealt with in the same way, that is a force for good and it will blow away the idea of an untouchable clique.”
This country seems to want robotic police, and if they get that, it won’t be a great country
Sources in the southern region say some of Harris’s actions and plans are leaving gardaí paranoid and confused about their roles.
Accepting that greater transparency is needed, one long-serving southern figure worried about the “danger” that new procedures will “throw the baby out with the bathwater”, and lay a breeding ground for apathetic gardaí.
“When I was going through the Garda Training College in Templemore, we had a full lecture on discretion. That just seems to be gone and we are no longer able to use our discretion,” a source says.
“This country seems to want robotic police, and if they get that, it won’t be a great country. Some of the stuff [the commissioner] is changing, I’d be all on for, but only to an extent,” the officer says.
Efforts to stamp out corruption where it exists is welcomed, but policing – particularly rural policing – requires discretion and a delicate hand.
“You’re going to have incidents where you stop a driver who’s speeding because of a personal emergency situation, such as their pregnant wife has fallen or their wife is dying. Do we now say, ‘I’m sorry, you were speeding, I have to give you a ticket’.
“How does that make us look? Where does this all stop? Where can we make our decisions? Where can we be a human being?
“Does the garda get money for it, no. Does the garda pay off their mortgage, no. You’re just doing a favour for someone.”
In some divisions, gardaí are no longer as comfortable as they may have been previously to support colleagues suspected of working loosely around the rules.
“There was always a mentality within the force to bend the law some bit. I know for a fact gardaí coming through the ranks now won’t do what the old gardaí used to do,” adds the source.
However, people in this same division want Harris to succeed, following years of poor morale.
“The negative stuff is not nice to hear, so we are trying to get it right, so if Commissioner Harris can do it the right way, we’ll all be happy.”
If the cultural changes must address and seek to ensure no repeat of the finding of last year’s cultural audit, the structural changes needed from Harris must execute the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. It concluded no value was placed by the Garda in community policing, saying this had to change.
The model recently unveiled by Harris attempts to implement a large chunk of those recommendations; putting the community at the centre of what the Garda does and getting as many member back to frontline policing as possible. It reduces the number of Garda divisions around the country from 28 to 19, with a chief superintendent in each given more autonomy to set policing plans and run all aspects of policing in their area.
The emphasis is on civilianising more administrative posts and freeing up more gardaí for front-line duties. There will also be specialist units in each division that will be trained to deal with serious crimes – sex offences, frauds, cybercrime and others.
Fewer divisions should make the remaining divisions stronger and better able to respond to challenges. However, it is still very early days. Harris has said it will take all of next year to break the back of the plan. Others believe it will take the remaining four years of his term.
Many in the Garda staff associations were annoyed by the lack of consultation. Some added Harris did little to endear himself to members by the way he launched his plan.
“He seemed to bring in the staff associations very late in the day to brief them on the plan he was going to launch; the day before in some cases,” says one.
“When you are launching a major plan like this, especially when you are still fairly new to the job, that’s not the way to do it. It doesn’t endear your plan to people and Garda members do have to buy into this.”
However, another source says Harris briefed senior sworn officers and civilians in April, where the reduction in divisions from 28 down to 19 or 20 was flagged, as was the plan that each would have 600 to 800 gardaí.
Another conference was held in July where more detailed plans were sketched out. Harris was annoyed when details leaked the next day, believing trust had been broken, which influenced his later decisions about briefings on the final plan ahead of the formal launch two weeks ago.
'He has launched plans, yes. But they haven’t happened yet. He hasn’t really been tested yet on anything'
Another Garda source described Harris thus: “He’s very good at taking the big themes and running with them. He has given a great sense that civilianisation is really taking off now, though the numbers are still low if you look at them.
“On the front line, gardaí still say they don’t feel they are trained enough, don’t have access to the new uniforms and that any upturn in resourcing hasn’t landed where they are.
“He has launched plans, yes. But they haven’t happened yet. He hasn’t really been tested yet on anything.”
Harris has, however, earned praise for coming out quickly to accept that mistakes were made when gardaí wore masks or balaclavas when they were present at an eviction at an office on North Frederick Street in Dublin not long after he took over. It was an example of “not shying away when something needed to be said”, says one colleague.
The commissioner’s apology to Majella Moynihan – a former garda who faced dismissal over the birth of her son outside of marriage – and his decision to meet the family of Clodagh Hawe, who was murdered with her sons by her husband and the boys’ father, Alan Hawe, earn praise, too.
In the past, difficult decisions were sent upwards to the commissioner: “If he or she was especially busy, then a decision might not be made, even though everyone would have been drowning in paperwork,” the source says. Harris wants decision-making decentralised.
On the disciplinary issue, one middle-ranking officer says: “There’s no messing with him.”
However, his proposed divisional changes have been criticised by the Association of Garda Superintendents which believes reducing the number of divisions from 28 to 19 will create areas that are too big to police effectively.
One senior officer questions civilianisation, sceptical that it could free up 1,000 gardaí: “I think politicians will soon realise they are being sold a pup on that one – I don’t believe there are 1,000 gardaí in back-office jobs. Many of those in offices are there for good reasons,” he says.
“Some may have been injured in the course of duty and some may not be suited to front-line duties, they may not be able to handle the stress of front-line policing and have been utilised instead in providing back-up services.”
Politically, Harris is still in the honeymoon phase. For Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, Harris is “doing a difficult job well. He has had a very good year. He has my full support and backing.”
The Opposition agrees, saying he came with “no internal Garda baggage”. Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan says: “His status as an outsider helped in calming a very difficult relationship that had developed between politics and policing.”
This view is echoed privately by other members of Oireachtas committees, who say that in the past commissioners have been “too deferential” to politicians during sometimes long and arduous hearings.
“He is always very relaxed. Maybe it is easier for him to be that way when he does not have that historic involvement with the force. He does not act deferential to politicians and give them too much leeway, as has happened in the past,” says one TD.
A flashpoint will come, something big, and then we’ll get the measure of the new man
Joint leader of the Social Democrats Catherine Murphy says his status as an outsider is “noticeable”, but she is impressed: “There is always resistance to change. The gardaí have been doing things their way and only their way for far too long.”
Within the Garda, Harris is seen as being more akin to a chief executive than they have traditionally seen in Irish policing, where he is comfortable from his past experience with dealing with oversight and being accountable for budgets for decades.
“He’ll write to you one day about something and you’re expected to respond the next day,” says one senior officer. “I don’t know him personally, but then I didn’t know any other previous commissioners personally.”
“He’s businesslike. He keeps on top of overtime spending, human resources issues, He chases that detail and keeps on top of that stuff like a business owner or senior executive would.”
However, others believe that Harris has yet to face stern tests: “Once Nóirín [O’Sullivan] went, a lot of the people who had been pounding the organisation lost interest; their main interest was in making sure Nóirín and [Martin] Callinan were toppled,” says the officer.
“And since then there hasn’t been that crazy pressure. But a flashpoint will come, something big, and then we’ll get the measure of the new man. We don’t know him yet.”