The Irish Times view on the new Garda Commissioner: Harris takes on a daunting task

As an outsider, Harris has the opportunity to set a different course and to exercise greater autonomy

Described as “a coppers’ copper”, new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris will have to smash the psychological barriers that exist between management and lower ranks if he is to deliver the changes that are necessary. Photograph: Garda/PA Wire

Described as “a coppers’ copper”, new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris will have to smash the psychological barriers that exist between management and lower ranks if he is to deliver the changes that are necessary. Photograph: Garda/PA Wire

 

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris made a good start by taking his oath of office in a busy Dublin police station and by promising greater accountability from an organisation that has been beset by ethical misbehaviour and scandals for the past decade.

Described as “a coppers’ copper”, he will have to break the psychological barriers that exist between management and lower ranks if he is to deliver the changes that are necessary. It will not be a quick or easy process.

By emphasising the bonds between the Garda and the people it serves and prioritising meeting with frontline gardaí, Harris emphasised a commitment to community policing and his understanding of the hard and sometimes dangerous work involved. The exercise was designed to address complaints from the Garda Representative Association about a disconnect between management and members. In response to a less public but consistent complaint – that promotion within the force is frequently based on political and other considerations – the commissioner promised equality of opportunity.

The Garda has the opportunity to become a more vibrant organisation in tune – in Harris’s own words – with the needs of a changing society

A specially appointed commission will report on the future of policing by the end of this month. That sequence means that Harris has taken up the role before the commission’s proposals on its shape and functions are clear. Still unknown, for example, is whether intelligence functions will remain under the control of the commisioner. If the commission makes radical recommendations – and, crucially, if the Government acts on them – Harris’s biggest task will be to lead an even greater transformation programme. It seems reasonable to presume he has been given some insight into what’s ahead.

Drew Harris at Government Buildings on Tuesday. PSNI chief constable George Hamilton told MPs that Mr Harris’s appointment will strengthen relationships and strategic co-operation between North and South. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Drew Harris at Government Buildings recently. PSNI chief constable George Hamilton told British MPs that Mr Harris’s appointment will strengthen relationships and strategic co-operation between North and South. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The Patten commission proposed the replacement of the RUC by the PSNI, along with significant oversight reforms, in 1999. Successive governments ducked the opportunity to carry out a similarly thorough overhaul here. Instead, piecemeal and partial measures were brought in over many years. Garda discipline was poor. Resistance to oversight and accountability was allowed to fester within the force, along with an attitude that prized loyalty to colleagues above ethical standards.

Relations between successive governments and the Garda Síochána have been excessively close. As an outsider, Harris has the opportunity to set a different course and to exercise greater autonomy. The Garda too has the opportunity to become a more vibrant organisation in tune – in Harris’s own words – with the needs of a changing society. But Government energy and commitment to reform is required, backed up by additional investment in police training, technology and management skills. Only then will the new commissioner be in a position to lead the Garda Síochána to a better place.

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