Opinions divided in Garda about naming outsider as commissioner

Several gardaí say major investment badly needed regardless of who next leads the force

It’s a September morning in 2014 and a group of young men and women shuffles into a small lecture theatre. They’re suited and booted and finally getting their longed-for careers under way.

They are the chosen ones; the small select group to have emerged from a race of thousands to secure places in the first class of recruits to enter the Garda College in Templemore, Co Tipperary, since the recession brought the shutters down.

Nóirín O’Sullivan steps up to address them. She’s in a race of her own of course. Five months have passed since Martin Callinan’s no-notice retirement from the Garda commissioner’s post. O’Sullivan is acting commissioner.

Within weeks she will win that contest and become the first female Garda commissioner in the force’s history. But when she addresses the young guns she’s still fighting for the top job.

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She talks to them about how policing is the best job in world. She tells them they will have great days and also the kind of days that will test them in more ways than they can imagine. Her enthusiasm for the job, despite being more than three decades into her own career, is infectious; electric even.

Fast forward three years and she is gone from office; retiring under pressure and amid controversy just like her predecessor.

Most of her three years in charge were spent under pressure as the Garda force lurched from one crisis to the next. Most seriously there are allegations about how she treated whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. The Charleton tribunal, which is now ending, will decide whether any of those allegations were true.

Package of reforms

As the tribunal has progressed, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland has been working away, formulating a package of reforms. Some in the Garda believe its recommendations will be more important than who becomes next Garda commissioner.

But all the while the competition has been under way to fill the vacancy at Garda commissioner. The post is open to anyone to apply, with policing experience not deemed essential.

The contest, which is now at an end, has been run by the Public Appointments Service. The authority and Government were both represented on the interview panels.

One of the Garda candidates already out of the race appealed his failure to progress to the next round on the basis he was asked during interview whether he had a big ego. While the appeal was not successful, the Policing Authority will be hopeful the challenge does not develop into a protracted legal battle in the courts.

When a preferred candidate is identified, that person’s name will be considered by the authority for recommendation to Government, which will accept or reject the person for appointment.

Several sources said they believed the final interviews were held late last week, and that an announcement was imminent.

Still in the running are two internal candidates; Deputy Commissioner John Twomey and Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy. PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris is also in contention.

Sources say two other external candidates – from Scotland and North America – are also still in the race.

Run of the place

Most members of the Garda believe hiring an external candidate is a risk.

“Anyone coming in from the outside is going to face a very steep lead-in,” said one recently retired senior officer. “They are maybe looking at a few years to get to know the run of the place. Does the organisation really have that kind of time? Will somebody else already there really be running the place?”

Another, serving, officer says he can see why there is an appetite among the public, and possibly in Government, for bringing in a new commissioner from outside the force.

"There is the impression that the depot [Garda Headquarters, Phoenix Park] would still prefer to hide problems rather than face up to them. Would an outsider stop that? They might. But we don't know because we have never tried it."

And that is a point a large number of sources come back to; that the Garda has no experience of hiring in police officers from the outside and bedding them in.

A paper was prepared for Cabinet last year by the Department of Justice warning about what might go wrong. If an external candidate, especially one with no policing experience, were recruited members of the Garda may look to the head of operational policing as the “real commissioner”, it said.

Ministers were also warned there was a risk a foreign candidate may be subject to, or seek to promote, the interests of their country of origin at the expense of Irish national security interests.

Meanwhile, if crime increased or an international terrorist attack occurred in the Republic a candidate with no policing experience might be blamed for that situation, the documents indicate.

Investment

“In reality, nobody knows how a candidate hired from the outside will do,” said one Garda source.

“But the Government needs to accept that a huge level of investment is needed for the Garda. There has been a lot of talk about culture and the need to change. But we are also way, way behind other police forces even in basic IT.”

Several Garda sources point to the fact that crime is migrating online. Yet some Garda stations still do not have access to the Garda’s computer Pulse database.

“We are still debating why members at checkpoints don’t have hand-held devices so they can check if motorists they’re stopping are banned from driving or not,” said one source.

“You can bring in who you like from the outside. It actually won’t have much impact on the guys on the street. Bringing in someone from the outside won’t sort out a lot of the modernising we need to do.”