Once the politics of being made taoiseach are out of the way – Dáil vote held, ministers appointed and the trip to the Áras chalked off – the new head of Government gets down to the serious work.
One of the first meetings in the taoiseach’s office in Government Buildings is with the Garda Commissioner – a top secret affair, deadly serious, involving the taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and the country’s top police officer, where dissidents and other threats to the State are on the agenda.
There is a reasonable chance that after the next general election – which must be held by March 2025 – that meeting will be between Mary Lou McDonald and Drew Harris, whose term runs until June of that year.
There are, of course, multiple variables, but Harris bolstered his chances of sitting down with the next taoiseach at a justice committee meeting on Wednesday which saw him hold the line amid ongoing controversy over last week’s riots in Dublin. In the words of one senior government source, the commissioner “defended the realm”.
If it is McDonald who sits opposite him, he will be briefing a taoiseach who had called for his resignation. During this Dáil, Sinn Féin’s interactions with Harris have been largely as would be expected, characterised by a conventional stance of criticising the Government rather than the police force or its boss.
When the Garda Representative Association voted no confidence in Harris earlier this year, Sinn Féin said it was an indictment of Fine Gael’s justice strategies, but didn’t call for him to go. Privately, sources say the relationship is not tense and has been cordial and businesslike. Last year, Sinn Féin’s then-justice spokesman Martin Kenny described Harris as “very business-like and engaged and open to work with politicians and with people who are coming with the concerns of the community to him”.
But in the early days after the last election, Harris drew the party’s ire when he confirmed that the Garda shares the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s view, articulated in a 2015 report with MI5, that members of the Provisional IRA believed the Army Council still oversaw both the IRA and Sinn Féin.
At the time, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said “the war is over and the IRA is off the stage”, noting that Harris also said he would work with any party with a democratic mandate. Meanwhile, Rose Conway Walsh, now the party’s Public Expenditure spokeswoman and then a newly elected Mayo TD, accused Harris of “politicising the gardaí”.
After his appointment, much was made of Harris’ standing as an outsider. He came from the PSNI, where he was deputy commissioner.
Writing in this newspaper, the author Ed Moloney outlined that a “state of undeclared hostility” between Harris and Sinn Féin has been one of the salient features of post-Belfast Agreement policing in the North. In 2014, it was reported that Harris had signed off on the arrest of former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams for questioning about the “disappearance” of Jean McConville, who was abducted, killed and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972. A senior Sinn Féin source told the Belfast Telegraph the party blamed Harris for the decision to arrest Adams – something the then PSNI chief constable Matt Baggot rejected.
Later that year, Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland Policing Board member Caitríona Ruane withdrew from the panel that would go on to appoint Harris as deputy chief constable, saying she believed the process “may have been compromised”.
Meanwhile, Mike Nesbitt, the Ulster Unionist Party MLA and a member of Policing Board, says that Harris, whose father was killed by an IRA car bomb, is viewed as someone who follows the evidence strictly. “He wouldn’t take in political assessments of the consequences of policing, he would just police,” Nesbitt said.
At the justice committee on Wednesday, Sinn Féin’s justice spokesman Pa Daly was methodical, rather than going full throated for Harris – although the commissioner did bridle at times, such as when Daly asked him when did he “realise” he had a serious problem. “I’m not sure I really understand the question against the context of a stabbing attack on children and when I have a serious incident,” Harris shot back. “Right from the first minute I knew this was a serious incident.”
The party spent a lot of time trying to draw out the exact sequence of contacts between Harris and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, with Daly and the party’s Enterprise spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly also trying to edge Harris towards admitting that control was lost in Dublin city – but extracted no telling line.
In a statement, Sinn Féin said it had “worked well” with Harris since his appointment “and for many years prior when he was a senior PSNI officer”. It said that Sinn Féin had “reluctantly” come to the conclusion that he is not the person to deal with the crises facing the Garda. “It is for that reason alone that we believe his position is now untenable”.
As far as calls to resign go, it’s not blistering – whereas for McEntee, the statement said she has “failed to lead from the front to deal with the fact that people feel unsafe in their communities”.
Sinn Féin has to strike a delicate balance on policing and security matters. The party was still grappling with a decision on whether to move ahead with a no-confidence motion in McEntee on Thursday, with alternative motions under consideration. Cultivating a relationship with the Garda Commissioner in opposition is part of that balance and the party has now set itself in direct opposition to the incumbent. Time will tell whether that was a wise strategy.
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