New Garda Commissioner Drew Harris faces first big challenge

Clashes with both Government and officers about overtime may test leadership approach

New Garda Commissioner  Drew Harris pictured at the Garda Passing Out Ceremony in Templemore, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Don Moloney/Press 22

New Garda Commissioner Drew Harris pictured at the Garda Passing Out Ceremony in Templemore, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Don Moloney/Press 22

 

The Government has big expansion plans for the Garda. Recent recruitment has increased the force to 16,000; about 14,000 of those sworn officers. By the end of 2021, the Garda workforce will reach 21,000. That will comprise 15,000 sworn officers, 4,000 civilians and a 2,000-strong Garda Reserve. And with about 90 per cent of the €1.62 billion Garda budget spent on salaries each year, a much bigger budget looks inevitable.

The “battle of the budget” has already started.

The Government says the Garda has enough for now. Members of the force say this is not true. And the new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris says he doesn’t know. But he plans to have a poke around to test how effectively current resources are being used. But, if required, he would “speak truth to power”; tell the Government more is needed if his review comes to that conclusion.

It may sound like a simple thing but what most Garda members want is a leader who will speak truth to power.

They have looked on in envy as the leadership of the PSNI has down the years spoken in unvarnished terms publicly about how government cuts to the North’s policing budget have resulted in cuts to the policing service offered to the public.

We’ve always had a more Irish approach in the Republic.

Resources

Successive Garda commissioners have stated publicly they have all the resources they need, for fear of crossing the Government. And that has enabled successive ministers for justice, and at times taoisigh, say they had been assured by the commissioner of the day the force was not being hampered by lack of resources.

It has meant the conversation on basic matters, such as what size Garda force the Republic needs, never gets off the ground.

Occasionally the pretence becomes unsustainable; usually when a gangland feud becomes so violent that something big has to be done and seen to be done. Gardaí are then given the resources they need, and feuds are slowly brought under control. When the problem is regarded as “solved”, the money is pulled back and the cycle begins all over again.

At present we’re at an unusual point of the cycle. Nobody dares to declare the Kinahan-Hutch feud “solved”; though it has been spectacularly quelled because the Garda was well enough resourced to tackle it.

However, while the Government can’t be seen to cut back on spending for dealing with the feud, it still wants the Garda to cut back generally on overtime. The Government 12 months ago refused to give the Garda all of the supplementary budget it needed to pay for overtime. And so overtime had to be cancelled across the State for almost a week before the 2018 budget began.

Negates the need

The Government is now saying all of the additional gardaí being hired negates the need for such a large overtime budget; some €132 million last year.

But Garda members say issues like the Kinahan-Hutch feud are only under control now because of additional funding. They believe the situation will spiral again if funding is reduced. And they insist much of the work cannot be planned long term and cannot be done by those working regular shifts; therefore it necessitates overtime.

Senior Garda sources also say with the number of personnel now rising, an increase in the overall Garda budget is required each year until at least 2021.

What Mr Harris finds during his review of how the Garda is using its resources, and how he handles that information, is his first big test.

This will be watched very closely by Garda members who believe his handling of the budget question will say much about his leadership. The Government wants Garda overtime spending cut back. Gardaí say the force is at breaking point and that no part of its budget can be reduced. Mr Harris can’t please them both.