‘You could not get into Fortress Garda,’ says former GSOC commissioner

Brady’s disillusionment with limitations of office prompted his decision not to seek reappointment

Conor Brady: his judgment on the force    now is implicit in his decision not to seek reappointment to GSOC. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Conor Brady: his judgment on the force now is implicit in his decision not to seek reappointment to GSOC. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


The contrast between “the great pomp and ceremony” that attended the birth of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the immovable obstacles later hurled in its way is described in measured tones by its founding commissioner, Conor Brady.

But his disillusionment is deep. “The process for our appointment was even more rigorous than that applying to judges. We could only be removed by a vote of the two Houses for stated misbehaviour. We were appointed at the highest level that is within the State’s capacity to give. But I just could not move the rock. You could not get into Fortress Garda”.

If anyone was capable of breaching that fortress, it was Brady, a former editor of the Garda Review and The Irish Times and author of a Garda history in 1974, titled Guardians of the Peace. His father, a teacher, was appointed a Garda superintendent at the age of 23 at the foundation of the force. His early death, when Brady was 12, triggered an abiding curiosity in the boy about the job his father did and the organisation itself. Policing remained Brady’s great, lifelong interest.

Declined to be considered

GSOC faced two main challenges: the lack of legal instruments – the Garda commissioner was beyond their remit for example – and “the guards’ way of just slowing things down. They’ll rarely say ‘no’ but you’ll ask for something and they’ll say, ‘Well why would you be wanting that?’ – and ‘Maybe if you’ll let me have it in writing’. So you send it to them in writing and then you get a letter back saying, ‘thank you for your letter received two months ago, could you clarify the following points . . .’ This is not how the guards do business with people they are investigating”, he says pointedly.

His new book, The Guarding of Ireland, takes the history of the force from 1960 to the present day, through the State’s fight for its very survival against subversives – his access to the 1970s Finlay report lays bare the State’s terrifying vulnerability – only then to collide with the hydra-headed monster of organised crime.

‘The subversives’

More Garda lives were lost in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s than in the early decades of the State, he points out. But in tandem with “the idealism, the courage, the commitment to the community” – were the negatives: “the covering up for misconduct, the instinct to close ranks against outside criticism or scrutiny, the tolerance of lazy performance, the abuse of authority and the petty corruption, such as the fixing of penalty points”.

But society also stands accused. “Police forces are almost always a mirror image of society’s prevailing values,” he says.

During the Troubles, the Garda lived in conditions “of absolute ambiguity”, much as the population did. Gardaí knew of background links between subversives and certain elements of the government for example, so how could they know what was expected of them?

This is the book’s central theme, what Brady calls the “terrible, cultivated ambiguity in which the guards were asked to do their job over all these decades, because they remain directly under political control . . . The idea that the national police service can be the plaything of those in political power is deeply embedded in the Irish political psyche”.

The 2005 Act – which set up GSOC and the inspectorate – “was supposed to be the one that would fix everything and here we are now . . . years on, and we realise it was only a sticking plaster”. This is why Frances Fitzgerald’s proposed reforms are critical, he says.

Gardaí under scrutiny will always invoke “security” because they are the State’s primary security agency as well as the civil police. Those who make the most senior ranks are almost invariably those who have shone in the security sector.

Despite this, the extraordinary new powers of investigation granted to the Garda by then minister for justice Dermot Ahern – “as sweeping a set of legal measures as any democratic state could give its police” – were denied to the Garda Ombudsman. “Wrongdoing by criminals could be investigated using these powerful new legal weapons but police officers operating outside the rules would still have to be investigated by traditional methods which the gardaí themselves claimed were ineffective.”

Public opinion

Perhaps because they are so embedded in the culture, scattered “in penny packets” across 700 stations still, compared to about 200 in Scotland and some 70 in Norway.

His hopes now lie in Fitzgerald’s proposed reforms, especially the establishment of a police authority, a body, finally, to which the Garda commissioner would be accountable.

“For now she/he sits down with 12 deputy and assistant commissioners, each of whom has been trained and conditioned exactly the same as he has been, each of whom has come through the same back background – and most of whom are after his job. That’s a very lonely post”.

The Guarding of Ireland: The Garda Síochána and The Irish State 1960–2014, published by Gill & Macmillan at €24.99.