Garda Commissioner: Issue greater than one individual
Departure of Nóirín O’Sullivan must not distract from need to transform force
Former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan: there was considerable truth in the central thrust of her own assessment of the challenge she faced in the role Photograph: Alan Betson
It might be tempting to conclude that the decision of Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan to step down from her role has resolved a problem for the Government. But it is not that simple. The controversies that continue to engulf the force run much deeper than any individual – no matter how senior – and the Coalition must now begin the task of finding a successor to O’Sullivan even though it has no clear plan how to bring about the transformation and modernisation that the Garda so desperately needs.
There was considerable truth in the central thrust of O’Sullivan’s own assessment of the challenge she faced as Garda commissioner. In a statement announcing her decision to retire, she said it had become clear, over the last year, that the core of her job was now about responding to an unending cycle of requests, questions, instructions and public hearings involving various agencies including the Public Accounts Committee, the Justice and Equality Committee, the Policing Authority, and various other inquiries.
The reality, however, is that this was largely predictable from the very beginning, in November 2014, when she was appointed commissioner. She spoke then of the “unprecedented time” that the Garda had been through following a string of controversies and critical reports into malpractice and abuse of process. Although she sought to portray herself as a reformer who would modernise the force, her years at senior management level tied her to the past and rendered her part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Increasingly so, as the scandal of false breath testing and questions over financial propriety at the Garda training college added to those raised by Garda whistleblowers. It was the perfect storm and would have engulfed any internal appointee linked to prior events, decisions and structure.
In seeking to resolve the Garda’s problems, the Government is relying heavily on the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, chaired by former Boston and Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole. But, it is in the early stages of its work and is not due to produce a final report for more than another year. The commission is empowered, however, to make interim recommendations on urgent matters and might usefully provide its views on appointing a commissioner. That person must come from outside the Garda and existing public service pay limits should be lifted, if necessary, to secure the appropriate candidate. He or she should have the flexibility too to recruit senior support personnel to assist in bringing about the necessary cultural change.
Though it has lost a second commissioner in controversial circumstances in three years, the Garda continues to command strong public support – a 71 per cent satisfaction rating in the latest survey. That is remarkably positive in current circumstances. But without reform, it is not sustainable.