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Department of Justice must address Drew Harris’s MI5 role

Incoming Garda Commissioner must be free from any accusations of conflict of interest

The appointment of Drew Harris as the new Garda Commissioner has prompted considerable discussion, including criticism that Harris, a former deputy chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) who has worked closely with the British security service (MI5) on intelligence and counterterrorism operations, is unsuited to the role of primary custodian of the State’s security.

Harris, who takes up his role next week, is a highly intelligent, capable police officer. Thankfully, he has offered his professional experiences and abilities to the State.

At a bare minimum, the Oireachtas and wider public should give him the benefit of the doubt and judge on results. His desire to take up his new position, a decision that surprised many in Belfast in London, is testament to his professionalism and his commitment to Irish policing.

Harris could very likely have taken up a leadership role in the Metropolitan Police or in another constabulary in Britain.


His move to Dublin has shocked some unionists. The PSNI is a unique police service within Britain. Like its predecessor the Royal Ulster Constabulary (and the Royal Irish Constabulary before it) the PSNI to some extent resembles the gendarmerie-type police seen in France or Spain – armed and capable of quasi-military operations if required.

Proud tradition

Harris comes from a family with a proud tradition of service in the RUC – which some in unionist circles still (wrongly) believe to be a superior version of the PSNI, more unambiguously committed to physically and symbolically upholding the union.

Nevertheless, the PSNI’s role in policing, guaranteeing the integrity of the UK’s only land border mean that some unionists still see it as a fundamentally British institution (whether its Catholic, nationalist recruits like it or not), one whose sacrifices continue to be represented on Remembrance Sunday and other national ceremonies.

Many republicans are outraged at Harris’s appointment. They particularly recall his supposed act of “political policing” when he ordered the arrest of Gerry Adams in 2014 as part of the investigation into the abduction and murder of Jean McConville in 1972.

Former senior Defence Forces’ officers and gardaí are worried that although Harris is of course an Irish citizen, he cannot be securely vetted, since he worked in sensitive intelligence positions in another state and that he faces a conflict of interest when it comes to overseeing historical inquiries into the past (which may involve questions of releasing sensitive material passed by the RUC to the Garda, which the PSNI may not want released in the public domain lest it compromise agents who supplied critical intelligence).

Sensitive intelligence

Some also point to his evidence to the Smithwick Tribunal where Harris drew upon sensitive British intelligence to make allegations of Garda collusion with the Provisional IRA in the Dundalk, north Louth Border area as evidence that he is unfit to take up the role of commissioner, since he did not offer more concrete information, including details about his sources (even if this is often a “no go” for intelligence officers since it could put agents’ lives in danger).

If Harris is to maximise his professional strengths as a police officer, then the Department of Justice must move to address his political weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Despite his oath to the Irish Constitution – which this most scrupulous of officers is likely to take with the utmost seriousness – he is open to political attack on State security and intelligence matters. The Government should now move to separate the security intelligence function from the main Garda organisation.

There is already a useful precedent for such a move: in 1996 the then government established the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab). The chief bureau officer is drawn from the ranks of the Garda, is appointed by the Garda commissioner, holds the rank of chief superintendent but operates independently and reports directly to the Minister for Justice.

Other Cab appointments are made directly by the department. This new security and intelligence agency would draw upon Garda crime and other policing data. But it would have separate, dedicated resources and the authority to conduct medium- to long-term intelligence operations and analysis, including in counterterrorism and counterintelligence.

It would also deal with allegations of Garda collusion, investigations related to policing during the Troubles.

‘A peeler’s peeler’

The label “peeler” is not often used when offering a compliment about a police officer. But Harris, like his father, is regarded within the PSNI as “a peeler’s peeler”, a reference to his unflinching application of the “Peel principles”. These are the fundamentals of policing named after British home secretary, later prime minister, Robert Peel, and still referenced in police colleges worldwide.

The most important of these principles is that “the police are the public and the public are the police” – the key to successful policing is securing public co-operation rather than the threat of force or other means of coercion. But that does not mean shifting policing priorities or practices according to populist trends.

Good police officers will, according to the Peel principles, “seek and preserve public favour not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law”.

If that means irritating or inconveniencing certain public representatives or institutional interests then so be it. Adams was on the receiving end of the firm application of a Peel principle. This is exactly the type of approach that is required in Garda HQ in 2018. Drew Harris is the right man at the right time.

  • Dr Edward Burke is director of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism at the University of Nottingham