Facing the centenary of the Garda Síochána, former Garda commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan believes the relationship the force has with the community, despite controversies, remains unique.
“Sometimes it can be very frustrating for onlookers, and indeed for people inside the organisation, the time it takes to deal with some of the issues.
“But working in partnership with the community will sustain us for the next hundred years. Despite all the perceived dysfunction, I think we compare very well,” she said in an interview with The Irish Times.
"We are appreciated more outside this jurisdiction than we are within it," she said, mentioning the citations that come back when gardaí serve abroad in UN missions, or with Europol.
I wanted to do a lot, and I felt it was so badly needed. There was a real appetite for change, within the ordinary women and men
The relationship is based on foundations left by the first Garda commissioner, Michael Staines, who decided that the force should "succeed not by force of arms or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people".
Speaking to mark the centenary of the force, O’Sullivan said the quality of its members, and its relationship with the community, sets it apart internationally.
Following her resignation in 2017, O'Sullivan went to New York to work as assistant general secretary for safety and security for the United Nations, a position she left in 2021.
Appointed as Garda commissioner in 2014, the first woman to fill the role, O’Sullivan said she set about introducing “deep-rooted cultural and structural reforms”.
However, she said that, on reflection, it may have been “too soon” for the organisation to accept that a woman who had risen from within the ranks should lead that change.
“I wanted to do a lot, and I felt it was so badly needed. There was a real appetite for change, within the ordinary women and men,” she said.
Her successor, Drew Harris, was in a position to benefit from the work that had been done identifying the reforms that were needed, she said.
These reforms were designed to ensure that “good people” were supported, while “rooting out the wrong ones, and that bad culture that needs to be dealt with”.
O’Sullivan spent a large part of her early Garda career involved in the fight against drug crime, rising to the rank of detective superintendent while doing so. “The criminals saw the money that could be made from drugs, and very quickly it spread out from Dublin, and became national, and then international.”
The Garda had to restructure nationally, and quickly develop “robust” relationships with other police forces. “That sort of internationalisation took place pretty quickly,” she said. “The globalisation of crime and the globalisation of terrorism means that there are no boundaries and no borders.”
The Garda had to be careful to help some of those who became enmeshed in the drugs trade, she said: “You need to be very careful not to criminalise users or people who are actually victims of very sophisticated drug networks and who have been intimidated. When you look at everything from punishment beatings to families who are intimidated into paying over money, there is a lot of victimisation that happens in that drugs/organised crime nexus that is not always that visible,” she said.
O’Sullivan saw this first-hand during the early 1980s: “Addiction was tearing families apart. I still meet people today who saw their families, their children, dying, and then their grandchildren become addicted. And then, on the other side, I know one particular woman, and her proudest claim is that she put all her grandchildren through college, even though her children had died from drugs.”
When O'Sullivan joined the force in 1981 less than 1 per cent of gardaí were women. Following Templemore, she was sent to Store Street in Dublin 1, policing one of the most deprived urban communities on the island.
In her early twenties, she was chosen as a member of the Garda’s first undercover drugs unit, working with five others to get inside the “fortresses” that the criminal gangs set up as the heroin trade took hold.
Because it was the practice at the time for detectives to wear suits, shirts and ties, they “might as well have had a blue light flashing” when they approached flats complexes. “It wasn’t popular. We didn’t look like normal detectives, we didn’t wear suits and ties. We were dressed in street clothes, and it was very different and unusual at the time. Some people in traditional policing circles didn’t see the need for it.”
It was exciting work but dangerous, as the group posed as users wanting to buy drugs as a means to gather information about who was behind the supplies, making arrests along the way.
She lists off the injuries, including bites, that her colleagues suffered when situations turned violent, before casually mentioning that she has a chipped tooth from a head-butt. Her husband, Jim McGowan, who was also part of the undercover team, suffered a skull fracture in one incident.
“We [the undercover team] worked really well together, and it was that whole thing of having a sense of purpose, trying to identify who were the main dealers, how to get in there, get the evidence to bring to court, and at the same time to make sure that the people who needed help got help.”
Dubbed the "mockies" – or mock drug addicts – the undercover unit was supported by the then detective inspector of the drugs squad, Dinny Mullins, and from the late Tommy O'Reilly, who was the superintendent in Store Street.
“I always felt that we as the police, and we as the unit that we were, that we owed the community a duty to do something about drug dealing, and to be seen to do something,” she said.
Later, as assistant commissioner crime and security, O’Sullivan had the lead role in national security and intelligence-led operations aimed at disrupting domestic and international terrorism and organised crime.
‘Archaic’ disciplinary procedures
She believes it is a strength of An Garda Síochána that it deals with both national security and regular policing. “The way we define terrorism needs to be the subject of a new conversation. There are [Republican] dissidents, international terrorism, terrorism financing, narco-terrorism, cyber terrorism. Once again it is all about protecting the community.”
Despite controversies, the Garda consistently has a high public trust rating of more than 85 per cent, a figure that is the envy of most other police forces, she said.
Supporting Harris’s anti-corruption policies, O’Sullivan warned that the Garda had to be vigilant to ensure that officers “struggling to pay a mortgage” are not tempted into wrongful behaviour.
“You have to be very proactive in making sure that you minimise the opportunities for any type of corruption that might be there. I think that is really, really important.”
The vetting of new recruits needs to be “robust”, and once in the force members need to be subject to supervision that is “almost intrusive”, she believes.
Asked if it is too difficult to fire a garda, she responded immediately that it is, adding that “archaic” disciplinary procedures must be modernised.
“No good police officer wants to be on a patrol, in a car, in any place with somebody that is known to be a rogue, or bad. They want to call out behavioural issues, and do the right thing, by and large. And I think there is an obligation on the organisation that structures be in place to support that and weed out wrongdoing, so as to address any behavioural issues very early on.”
Policing, and especially frontline policing, is a very stressful occupation, and on occasion members can have “blue mist” or “red mist” episodes and feel inclined to strike out, she said.
“At the end of the day everyone is human and people are afraid, and that is where we really need to be clear about professional standards and that line that you do not cross.”
Garda do an extraordinary job every day, she said. “Putting on a uniform does not make you immune to fear and dread.”
The arrival of smartphones and social media have made frontline policing all the more stressful, she said, with the latter sometimes being used to try to identify members of the force and publish their home addresses.
“You are there and all of a sudden there is this mayhem all around you and you have these people putting cameras in your face,” O’Sullivan said.
Body cameras would help relieve the pressures created by people videoing Garda members while at the same time verbally abusing them in an effort to provoke a response.
“I think a lot of people who engage in this type of behaviour would be more reluctant to do it, if they knew that the guard had a body camera and could record that person’s behaviour.”
“In my experience, the guards have nothing to fear from having them. It is the opposite. They can be a protection.”
An Garda Síochána face the same types of violent incidents as other police forces, O’Sullivan said, but are particularly good at managing them.
“The guards are very tolerant of what I would say are abusive situations, and try to de-escalate and de-conflict situations that would escalate very quickly in other jurisdictions.”
Asked if she believes members of An Garda Síochána tend to protect and cover-up for colleagues who have acted improperly, O’Sullivan said a lot has changed in recent years.
“In my experience most people who join the police, join to do the right thing. They don’t want to see wrongdoing, they want wrongdoing to be challenged, and they are willing to call it out. And you have to have the mechanisms in place to allow them to call it out and to speak up.”