Garda corruption and neglect is dangerously resilient

Despite intense scrutiny, discipline and skewed loyalty remain fatal flaws in the force

In the latest report from the Disclosures Tribunal, Justice Peter Charleton has found that garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe is a genuine person who has done the State a considerable service. Video: Bryan O’Brien


The report from the Disclosures Tribunal conveys the strong message that no matter how much the formal structures and management of policing in this country change, the more the substance remains the same. The tribunal chairman, Mr Justice Charleton, bluntly acknowledged that several of the core problems he encountered had been identified and addressed by the Morris tribunal in the early 2000s.

It is a shameful indictment of Government and senior Garda management that the Disclosures Tribunal has had to address them again, despite the intervening enactment of a plethora of “unprecedented” legislative reforms to the Garda governance and accountability infrastructure.

Discipline remains at the heart of the problem. A police force fit for purpose is first and foremost a disciplined organisation. Without discipline, it lacks the internal morale and external authority essential to deliver its vital public service. More than 14 years ago, the Morris tribunal warned that the Garda was losing its character as a disciplined force, and it predicted that this was a developing situation that, sooner or later, would lead to disaster.

Not only did Mr Justice Charleton find it necessary to repeat that bleak prediction but, with characteristic clarity and frankness, he also signalled its importance by warning that “a country with an undisciplined police force is at risk from that police force”.

The key elements of indiscipline are also wearingly familiar. The Disclosures Tribunal singled out: a lack of competence and leadership among senior management; a tolerance of internal breaches of the law and regulations; a senior management in denial of obvious failings and systemic problems; a promotions system that was not rewarding the excellence available in abundance among the lower and middle ranks; and an internal culture of loyalty to the group over loyalty to the truth.

Given the Morris tribunal’s revelations of a brazen Garda willingness to lie under oath to protect themselves and their own, it is particularly dispiriting that the Disclosures Tribunal also encountered untruthful evidence from some senior officers. With evident frustration, it observed that a “cultural shift requiring respect for the truth is needed”.

Governance and accountability

Mr Justice Charleton noted that major structural reforms in Garda governance and accountability have been effected over the years pursuant to the Morris recommendations. Since these patently have not succeeded in stopping the relentless succession of police corruption and neglect scandals, it is understandable that he should conclude that more structural change is not the solution.

Respect for human rights has not been integrated into every aspect of policing and the Garda discipline procedure is still not fit for purpose

The reality, of course, is that the structural changes advocated by Morris were never fully implemented. Government and senior Garda management sheltered behind a pretence of radical reform as cover for their failure to deliver the substance. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, for example, has been starved of the status, powers and resources that could make a difference in the efficient and effective investigation of complaints against gardaí.

The belatedly established Policing Authority is not a conventional police authority at all. It lacks the status and powers to deliver meaningful accountability and transparency in respect of controversial police policies, decisions and practices in matters such as the handling of the recent eviction of housing activists from a private property in North Frederick Street.

Respect for human rights has still not been integrated into every aspect of policing in any substantive sense, and the Garda discipline procedure is still not fit for purpose.

The Morris tribunal had identified the Garda discipline procedure as a cumbersome restraint on the capacity of senior management to dispense with the services of those unsuited for police work. Based on the model of a criminal trial, its technical rules and procedure afford immense scope for the handling of disciplinary allegations to be drawn out over several years. Morris had recommended its replacement with a simpler, swift but fair, standard employment model. Not surprisingly, Mr Justice Charleton expressed deep frustration at the failure to implement of that recommendation.

Public service

Overall, however, Mr Justice Charleton stressed the importance of a change of Garda culture in charting a way forward. Underlying his recommendations is a refreshing emphasis on recapturing the timeless values of policing as a vocation and policing by consent. These are reminiscent of the guidelines issued to gardaí in 1922 by Michael Staines, the first Garda commissioner.

At the core of these values is a commitment to integrity, honesty and public service. In particular, gardaí should be guided by the spirit and purpose of laws and regulations, rather than using them as self-serving technical devices to avoid accountability for corruption and neglect of duty.

Equally, the organisation needs to commit to identifying and rectifying its own faults diligently and honestly, rather than seeking to bury them under a cloak of false and sanctimonious reassurance. Critically, it needs to place its duty to the people of Ireland over negative and self-serving group loyalty.

Very helpfully, Mr Justice Charleton captures the essence of what all of this means for the Garda in the form of seven, admirably clear, obligations, namely: honesty; service visibility; politeness; service to the people of Ireland; duty to the public taking precedence over loyalty to colleagues; and self-analysis.

By any standards, the recommendations of the Disclosure Tribunal are a major and valuable contribution to Garda reform. Equally, however, they are a stark reminder of the resilience of corruption, neglect and systemic weaknesses in the Garda organisation; a resilience that has persisted despite the findings, analyses and recommendations of no fewer than four tribunals of inquiry, nine commissions of investigation and the contributions of many other individuals and entities, since the comprehensive reports of the Morris tribunal of inquiry.

This history suggests that there has been an ongoing lack of government resolve to overcome institutional resistance within and beyond the Garda in implementing the real reforms that are sorely needed. Is it likely that in 10 or 20 years’ time, we will be back to the future with the report of another tribunal of inquiry lamenting that the Charleton recommendations had not been implemented? Only a foolish gambler would bet against it.

Dermot Walsh is professor of law and co-director of research at Kent Law School

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