New Garda chief needs to become a fast learner in public relations

Drew Harris is not forthcoming to politicians or the media, which does not endear him to those quarters

Nnew Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: he faces a formidable task of modernising and reforming the Garda Síochána while fending off political criticism and vested interests

Nnew Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: he faces a formidable task of modernising and reforming the Garda Síochána while fending off political criticism and vested interests

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The initial response in the North to Drew Harris’s appointment as Garda Commissioner was predictable. Republicans and many relatives of people killed by loyalists and police in the Troubles were outraged. Harris is their bête noire. From Unionist politicians there was bewilderment or shocked silence that a man who had given his life to policing in the North starting with 17 years in the RUC could move south, apply for an Irish passport and swear an oath to uphold Bunreacht na hÉireann.

Not for the first time in Harris’s career politics and policing clashed. In 2014 Sinn Féin’s Catriona Ruane withdrew from the selection panel for PSNI deputy chief constable rather than countenance Harris’s appointment.The party blamed Harris for the arrest of Gerry Adams that year for questioning about the abduction and killing of widowed mother of 10 Jean McConville in 1972.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Drew Harris at Government Buildings on Tuesday. Mr Harris is currently the Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and incoming Garda commissioner Drew Harris at Government Buildings in Dublin after news of the latter's appointment. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

They also repudiate Harris’s evidence in closed session to the Smithwick tribunal in which he named a member of the IRA army council for ordering the death of Tom Oliver in the Cooley peninsula in 1991. Republicans prefer the opinion of the lawyer for then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, that Harris’s evidence was “nonsense on stilts”. However, Harris was communicating MI5 intelligence to the tribunal, not his own opinion.

Legacy investigations

The powerful victims’ support group Relatives for Justice called for Harris’s resignation on foot of a High Court judgment handed down by Mr Justice Seamus Treacy on July 28th, 2017. The court found that the refusal to consider in a thematic fashion a large number of killings, perhaps 120, by the so-called Glenanne gang of RUC/UVF/UDR men in the 1970s was an “abuse of power” and “evidence that the state is not genuinely committed” to investigating collusion. Harris was in charge of legacy investigations.

Another grievance republicans hold against Harris is his links to MI5 for eight years, 2006-14

However, as Oscar Wilde knew, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. In the matter of legacy investigations Harris was carrying out the policy of chief constables Baggott and Hamilton since 2010. The matter is still before the courts, with Hamilton appealing the High Court decision. The then assistant chief constable Harris could do no other than implement the chief constable’s policy to the best of his ability. The case was against the chief constable, not Harris.

Another grievance republicans hold against Harris is his links to MI5 for eight years, 2006-14, as PSNI assistant chief constable in charge of the Criminal Operations Department, Major Investigation Teams and Special Operations Branch. He was in receipt of MI5 intelligence relevant to all those areas.

Accountability

After the 2006 St Andrews Agreement the lead in national security passed to MI5 in annexe E of the agreement, to which Bertie Ahern’s government was party. This clouded the accountability of the PSNI. There was a set of memoranda of understandings (MoUs) covering accountability and the transfer of information between MI5 and the PSNI which were supposed to be published but most of which have not been.

The extent of MI5 involvement in the North remains unknown. Suspicious republicans say unknown, that is, except to Harris. This is a daft suggestion. The evidence suggests that MI5 is as unco-operative as it can be about passing information to the PSNI – as it is to other UK police forces – and may even conduct its own operations in the North through units like the Special Reconnaissance Regiment. It is probable advice from MI5 in 2012 that led the British to refuse to answer a parliamentary question from the SDLP’s Mark Durkan MP about the publication of MoUs.

Harris is not comfortable at the interface of politics and policing, which he seems to believe are, and ought to be, totally separate

It’s true that the new Garda Commissioner is an expert in modern electronic covert policing techniques involving miniature microphones and tracking devices in clothes and vehicles, but is anyone seriously suggesting he is the only person in the PSNI with this knowledge or that he has kept it from colleagues or secretly conspired to use this knowledge against the public in the North? The evidence is it has been used most successfully against dissident republicans to save lives.

The move by Drew Harris from the PSNI to become Garda Commissioner is groundbreaking and one that will be greeted with surprise in Garda circles. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The move by Drew Harris from the PSNI to become Garda Commissioner is groundbreaking. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Nevertheless, the accusations already levelled against Harris will continue, and suspicion and resentment among republicans about his role as Garda Commissioner will be difficult to dispel. However, dispelling the doubts of Northerners is not his job.

Unrivalled qualifications

On the other hand, while Harris has unrivalled qualifications, knowledge and experience appropriate for modern policing and a reputation for integrity and commitment to the rules, he is a man of few words and those are weighed carefully.

He is not forthcoming to politicians or media, which does not endear him to those quarters. He is not comfortable at the interface of politics and policing, which he seems to believe are, and ought to be, totally separate.

Given the history of the Garda in recent years, Harris, who is used to responding to intense scrutiny from the North’s Policing Board, powerful police Ombudsman and courts, will find the politicking between factions in the Oireachtas and its committees and the various Garda oversight bodies a new challenge.

He faces a formidable task of modernising and reforming the Garda Síochána while fending off political criticism and vested interests. For that role he needs to be a quick learner especially in the art of public relations, an arena in which he has not excelled.

Brian Feeney is a columnist with the Irish News, and a political commentator on Northern Ireland affairs

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