Twelve years ago, this newspaper complained about a culture of delay, denial and cover-up within the Garda Síochána and called for change. Mr Justice Kevin O'Higgins reported last week of "a corporate closing of ranks"; deliberate alterations to Pulse records and delays in providing documentation concerning allegations made by whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. It would appear that little has changed at ground level in spite of reforming legislation, the establishment of a Garda Inspectorate, a Garda Ombudsman Commission and a Policing Authority. What is to be done?
Rather than confront this "us and them" cultural wasteland, where all gardaí are expected as a matter of institutional loyalty to owe primary allegiance to colleagues rather than to the rule of law, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald focused on the fact that victims of crime in the Cavan/Monaghan district had "not been well served" by the Garda and looked to the future. Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan followed suit. Both expected a Garda modernisation programme to deliver improved outcomes.
We have heard claim and counter-claim over whether, in the course of private hearings, a legal representative for Ms O'Sullivan attacked Sgt McCabe's motivation and character while, in public, she had adopted a different stance. In response, Ms O'Sullivan said her legal advice was that she could not comment on the allegation, but she had never regarded Sgt McCabe as being malicious and dissent was not the same as disloyalty. Fianna Fáil spokesman on justice Niall Collins accepted this statement, noting that the lawyer involved had represented the Garda Síochána. Sinn Féin and the Labour Party demanded greater clarity.
The questioning of Sgt McCabe’s integrity by a barrister employed by the Garda Síochána could represent what Mr Justice O’Higgins referred to as a corporate closing of ranks. Some people, he said in the report, had “wrongly and unfairly” cast aspersions on the motives of Sgt McCabe who had acted out of genuine and legitimate concerns and was a man of integrity. Establishing whether the commissioner – or others – had briefed the legal team might clarify the matter. The Policing Authority could undertake such an exercise in transparency. Its importance at this time, however, other than as a mechanism to reduce political bickering and point scoring, is uncertain.
Given the increasing militancy within the Garda over pay and conditions, there is a need for additional resources and for strong, consistent leadership. Ms O’Sullivan is under pressure, as is Ms Fitzgerald, because of recent murders and gangland crime. Their responses to these complex issues and their determination to change a culture that accepts indiscipline, arbitrary decisions and incompetence will be closely scrutinised. They must demonstrate they are up to the task.