Pat Leahy: Change of Garda culture more important than leadership

Alarming that political leaders no longer trust what they are told by law enforcement

 Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald  told colleagues the Garda had been telling her as little as possible.  Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald told colleagues the Garda had been telling her as little as possible. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

 

People who wear stab vests to work so the rest of us don’t have to deserve a fair degree of latitude in most things. But the evidence that a wholesale reform and reorganisation of the way the gardaí work, the way they are led, the way they are monitored and the way they deal with problems within the ranks, is now overwhelming and undeniable.

It’s not just the invented breath tests, the non-existent checkpoints, the realisation that disregard for telling the truth seems to be, in some respects at least, endemic; it’s the depressing procession of reports, commissions, investigations, tribunals and inquiries into aspects of Garda conduct over the last 20 years.

It’s also, by the way, the stick-up that the Garda unions carried out on the public purse before Christmas, in violation of oath and statute.

Quite profound changes are now required. That process will not, and should not, be a comfortable one.

Nóirín O’Sullivan: ‘If there are people who have found to have erred, or deliberate wrongdoing, yes there will be sanctions.’
Nóirín O’Sullivan on Garda controversies: ‘If there are people who have found to have erred, or deliberate wrongdoing, yes there will be sanctions.’

Such a process is necessary not to punish the Garda Síochána for its infractions, but to preserve all the good things about it before the apparently deep and enduring cultural problems in the force congeal into something even uglier and damaging – a destruction of the confidence and trust that most citizens usually have and want to have in the gardaí.

Damaged trust

The fact is that this relationship has been damaged and is badly in need of repair. If it is not fixed, our society will be a much poorer place. The Garda needs to be fixed. But the rest of us need the Garda to be fixed as well.

Anecdotally – for what it’s worth – there appears to be a realisation of this among many gardaí. An important question is whether there is the political will and capacity to conceive and implement such a process in the current administration. And there’s little sign that there is.

Getting to the end of the day and the end the week with a plausible game face is increasingly the modus operandi of the administration

The two separate reviews announced during the week – sure why not have three? Or seven? – were not the product of any real analysis or consideration, and have yet to earn the right to be taken seriously. They were the result of the Cabinet’s requirement to have something to say at the end of its meeting once it had resolved that it wasn’t going to sack the Garda Commissioner.

Getting to the end of the day and the end the week with a plausible game face is increasingly the modus operandi of the administration.

Ministers will be telling us that it’s more important to get it right than to have it quickly. Don’t hold your breath, in other words

If the Government produces a detailed plan and programme to first investigate the breath test mendacity in the coming days, and follows it shortly afterwards with a comprehensive mandate for a Patten-style review which would properly reform the gardaí – and if it quickly engages credible people to do both – then it will be a signal that Ministers are serious about deep and lasting reform of the Garda. But I get little sense that this is afoot.

Extensive consultation is now anticipated, I am told, with the Opposition, and maybe with other groups before terms of reference for the Patten-style review are finalised. A working group is not out of the question. Before long, Ministers will be telling us that it’s more important to get it right than to have it quickly. Don’t hold your breath, in other words.

No great reformer

In the meantime, we and she should understand that the reluctance to sack the Garda Commissioner is not born out of any great confidence that she is the reformer she claims to be or that she is – as Leo Varadkar said yesterday – part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

It is certainly not, as their necessary public statements aver, because the Cabinet has confidence in the Garda Commissioner. As several of its members are happy to make clear privately, they do not. The rather alarming state of affairs is that the political leadership of the country no longer trusts what it is being told by the security and law enforcement agency.

The long and drawn-out audit paints a picture of an organisation that does not appear on its way to reform. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
"A key part of the Garda failures in the past, to which several reports have grimly averred, is that when problems were brought to light, they were denied, hidden and where possible buried from public or political attention. That is exactly what happened with the breath tests data." File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Rather the continuation in office of Ms O’Sullivan is the result of political necessities that can be summarised as follows: politicians in power (I include Fianna Fáil in this) don’t see much would be gained by sacking her. “What good would it do?” asked several senior sources in private conversations last week.

I know, I know: Martin Callinan wasn’t sacked, per se

After all, they sacked the last guy, and that didn’t do much good, did it?

(I know, I know: Martin Callinan wasn’t sacked, per se. He just decided to retire immediately after the Taoiseach’s representative told him he would not be able to express confidence in him at cabinet. As the Fennelly report accepted, the Taoiseach didn’t intend to sack him. But as the Fennelly report also found, it was reasonable for the then commissioner to conclude that something rather like that was afoot. What a misunderstanding, eh?)

Hiding problems

Commissioner O’Sullivan makes frequent reference to the transformation she says is under way within the Garda. But a key part of the Garda failures in the past, to which several reports have grimly averred, is that when problems were brought to light, they were denied, hidden and where possible buried from public or political attention. That is exactly what happened with the breath tests data.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has told her colleagues that the Garda have been telling her as little as possible. Even when the story of the breath tests first appeared in The Irish Times, she told the Dáil that the Garda authorities assured her everything was hunky dory (“The Garda authorities have also assured me that no issues stem from this audit”). That was four weeks ago.

But the future of the Garda Commissioner is much less important than the future of the Garda. Changing the culture of the force is a much bigger task than changing its leadership.

The completion of the task will certainly outlast this Government, and probably the next one. But it is hard to think of a domestic policy issue which is of greater importance.

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