Subscriber OnlyIreland

Harris will need all his experience to renew An Garda Síochána

New Garda Commissioner has described the Patten report as ‘a seminal document’

Incoming Garda Commissioner Drew Harris made a point of bringing a copy of the Patten Commission report with him when interviewed by The Irish Times late last year. The then PSNI deputy chief constable was considering applying for the big Garda job, although at the time he kept his intentions to himself.

A “seminal document” was how he described the 128-page report. “It is looked at right across the world,” Harris added.

It seems reasonable to deduce that during the interview process he made reference to the 1999 Patten report into policing in Northern Ireland, and how some of its 175 recommendations could be applied to the Garda.

He might have pointed out that the official title of the report is A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland and that if successful, he would be taking over as Garda Commissioner when a similar report on policing in the Republic is about to be published by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.


Indeed, Harris is assuming the helm when the hope is that the commission’s document will deliver a reform template similar to that provided by Patten.

Harris joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1983, rising steadily through the ranks. He was a senior officer in 2001 when under the Patten proposals the transition was made to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and when that new policing regime gradually bedded down in subsequent years.

So perhaps this is an auspicious time for the Garda and for Harris. And here it should be noted that the challenges they face, great as they are, really are not as daunting as those confronted in implementing Patten.


Considering the alleged smears, the phantom breath tests, the wrongful convictions, past alleged collusion with the IRA and other scandals, Harris will need all his experience to put into practice whatever the commission devises to change Garda culture.

But, as Dr Aogan Mulcahy of University College Dublin observed, what Patten was about, and what Harris was party to as a PSNI officer, was much more radical.

In the North, where symbolism can be a societal powderkeg, the RUC lost the “royal” in its title while transitioning into the PSNI.

Moreover, other symbols of Britishness were removed: the Union flag no longer flew over police stations, the badge and uniform were changed, and to entice Catholics to join, a fifty-fifty Catholic Protestant recruitment policy was introduced.

Dr Mulcahy, a sociologist with a focus on policing and criminology, noted the “difficult birth” of the PSNI and how unionists bitterly opposed the name change and recruitment policy. They alleged betrayal and complained that the Patten report did not properly acknowledge the sacrifice of the RUC, which lost 302 officers during the Troubles.

There is a demand for immediate reform of the Garda but, as Dr Mulcahy pointed out, implementing Patten involved a “protracted and tortuous process” of two police Acts and two implementation plans. Sinn Féin was tardy in signing up to change, not endorsing the PSNI until 2007.

So, if Patten is to be the yardstick, then patience will be required in seeing Garda reform fully executed.

Where Patten could be mirrored by the Garda reform commission, according to Dr Mulcahy, is in creating strong accountability systems. Under Patten the Policing Board, comprising 10 politicians and nine lay people, was formed to deliver accountability and effective oversight of the PSNI.

It is not fully functioning at the moment due to the collapse of Stormont but, said Dr Mulcahy, it did deliver what was envisioned. Northern Secretary Karen Bradley stated earlier in the summer that if Stormont is not reinstated she will take action in Westminster in the autumn to recommission the full board.

Equally, the office of the Police Ombudsman, currently headed up by Dr Michael Maguire, deals with complaints against police officers and under his tenure and more publicly when Baroness Nuala O'Loan was in charge, demonstrated its independence and impartiality.

Dr Mulcahy said the Policing Authority in the South and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) lack the teeth of their respective bodies in the North, and this is an area where lessons could be learned from Patten to create a "robust" oversight accountability system for the Garda.

But, added Dr Mulcahy, while lessons can be drawn from Patten, what was key was that those effecting the overhaul in the South have the power and resources to see reforms carried through.

He recalled how the British government provided very generous severance payments for RUC officers who could not tolerate the changes and how the British and Irish governments, notwithstanding unionist outrage and opposition, maintained a fairly brass-necked resolve to ensure Patten was put into operation.

A ‘copper’s cop’

Dr Mulcahy said Harris strikes him as a “copper’s cop” and that there is “not much of the song and dance about him”, which might work well with rank and file gardaí.

Denis Bradley, a former vice-chairman of the North's Policing Board, agreed Harris should be able to gain the support of gardaí from the different ranks. If Harris is to get a fair wind, the Policing Authority and Gsoc must be beefed up in line with their counterparts in Northern Ireland.

Learning from the North, Mr Bradley believed it was imperative the commission recommend there is political representation on the Policing Authority: “I think the authority is struggling to some degree for credibility because it does not have a political core to it.”

If politicians are clamouring for Garda reform then they needed to be inside the tent and bearing responsibility for that reform, he said.

Harris surely would agree with Mr Bradley’s assessment.

In that Irish Times interview last year he noted how the Patten Commission report required "politicians, church and community leaders to all put their shoulders to the wheel" to ensure there was a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland.

What also was fundamental to the enactment of Patten, as Mr Bradley recalled, was leadership and centrally that was provided by the first chief constable of the PSNI, Sir Hugh Orde, who had the support of ordinary police officers and was also political and media savvy.

While Harris appears to be more reserved, Mr Bradley believed that with the necessary resources and political support he could oversee badly needed and major Garda reform. “Drew was involved in very intricate changes under Patten. He would have learned a lot from Orde and from that period,” said Mr Bradley. “Drew will do all right.”