Stephen Collins: Reaction to Drew Harris exposes SF hollow rhetoric

Many who aspire to united Ireland raced to undermine new Garda Commissioner

New Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: Maybe what Sinn Féin fears is that he knows too much about the IRA and its crimes. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

New Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: Maybe what Sinn Féin fears is that he knows too much about the IRA and its crimes. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The reaction to the appointment of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner exposed the hollow rhetoric of those who most loudly proclaim their allegiance to the goal of a united Ireland.

By any yardstick, the appointment of the deputy chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to lead the Garda Síochána through a crucial process of reform is a step on the road to mutual understanding between the two traditions on this island.

The attempt by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald to undermine confidence in Harris immediately after the announcement of his appointment says a lot about her proclaimed adherence to the concept of inclusiveness and the kind of united Ireland her party wants to bring about.

It is decades since John Hume coined the maxim that the united Ireland he wanted was about people and not about territory, but it seems that Sinn Féin is still stuck in an obsession with borders and territory.

The Harris appointment is certainly a challenge to the old-fashioned republican view of this island’s future. His father, also a highly respected policeman, was murdered by the IRA while Harris himself ordered the arrest of former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams during the investigation into the disappearance of Jean McConville.

The Harris appointment is certainly a challenge to the old-fashioned republican view of this island’s future

What was striking in the Dáil last week was that McDonald was so out of step with the other parties. Fianna Fáil backed the appointment with party leader Micheál Martin supporting it without reservation as a positive step on the road to a comprehensive reform of the Garda.

Harris was chosen as the best candidate for the job by an independent assessment board and that choice was ratified by the Government and endorsed by the bulk of the Dáil.

Maybe what Sinn Féin fears is that Harris knows too much about the IRA and its crimes. It was ironic that McDonald tried to use events of the past to try and undermine Harris when the party she leads is still proud to be the political arm of the IRA as it was throughout its murderous campaign.

Transformation experience

Harris was appointed Garda Commissioner because of his experience as a senior officer in a police service that underwent a massive transformation from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the wake of the Patten report.

He is intimately acquainted with the scale of the challenge required to modernise a police service and bring it into line with changed expectations about how it should operate in a modern society.

He has the great advantage that unlike some of the other applicants from outside the State he has intimate knowledge of An Garda Síochána having worked closely with members of the force in the fight against terrorism right down to the current threat posed by the Real IRA.

One of the advantages of knowing the gardaí, warts and all, is that Harris should be aware of the strengths of the organisation as well as its much advertised weaknesses and should be able to resist the temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Knowing the gardaí, warts and all, Drew Harris should be aware of the strengths of the organisation as well as its much advertised weaknesses

One of the problems arising from all the controversies that have dogged the gardaí in recent years is that an overly negative image of the force has gained wide currency in the political world and the media.

The bottom line, as successive opinion polls have demonstrated, is that the public still has a much higher level of trust in the gardaí than it does in our politicians and there are good reasons for that.

Garda and community

Whatever their faults, the gardaí still have a good relationship with the bulk of the community. That is not true of many police forces around the world where corruption is endemic and people are routinely fitted up for crimes they did not commit.

If anything it is the closeness of the gardaí to the community and their discretion in upholding the law that has been part of the problem in relation to issues like the penalty points where clearly inappropriate practices were allowed to develop.

In this they are actually very much like our politicians. One of the frustrating aspects of Irish politics is the localism and clientilism that prevails so widely and often stands in the way of decisions required in the national interest.

Yet one of the strengths of Irish democracy is that people have such open access to their TDs. Politicians, whatever their faults, are not the narrow out-of-touch elite that dominates some other democratic political systems where an unbridgeable rift has opened up between the rules and the ruled.

The bond between the gardaí and the community is just as important and it is something that should be retained as the force modernises and updates the way it does its business.

Harris has experience of dealing with politicians in the North and should be well able to cope with the task of greater political scrutiny of the gardaí. With a major report on the future of policing and the Charleton commission report into alleged smear campaigns due in the coming months, he will have plenty of food for thought.

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