How can any one person hope to fulfil the role of reforming An Garda Síochána?
WHILE some will say that the ‘writing was on the wall’ a long time ago for Nóirín O’Sullivan, I believe it only became inevitable once Government spokespersons began to drop the word ‘total’ when expressing confidence in the nowformer commissioner.
It was obvious over the last number of months that the Government wished Ms O’Sullivan would depart the scene, but given that they had already arranged the exiting of her predecessor, they could not be seen to push.
Someone who clearly did not have the best interests of O’Sullivan at heart leaked a story that she had applied for a top job with Europol. No doubt members of the Government spent the summer hoping that she had applied and would be successful. This would have solved a big problem for them. In her resignation statement, O’Sullivan made it clear that, while she did consider the move, she did not, in the end, apply for it.
Another straw in the wind regarding her possible departure was the fact that she took annual leave of five weeks, something pretty unprecedented for someone in such a high-profile position. No doubt she used those weeks to mull over her options, along with her family.
When she returned from vacation, she learned that the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, was demanding the immediate publication of two reports into the exaggeration of breath test figures. She and colleagues in the force’s senior management would have wished to wait until another report into the issue, commissioned by the Police Authority, was completed before publishing all three together.
IHAVE no doubt that she saw this move by the Justice Minister as yet another shot across her bows, and that the Government’s patience with her was running out.
While the Government must have let out a collective sigh of relief on learning of her resignation, clearly she did not intend to make it easy for them. By announcing that she was leaving the very next day, she was laying down a marker.
Normally, someone in her position, if they were on good terms with the Government, would not leave them in the lurch.
Given the new procedure for appointing a replacement commissioner, I have no doubt that it will take many months for a new person to take the reins. It will not be an easy task. It is no surprise to me that Acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin has said that he is not interested in the top job. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a senior civil servant a number of years ago. I assumed that this person was going to apply for the vacancy for the top job in their particular department. I wished the person well in their application only to be told that they had not applied. They said it would not be worth the hassle involved. Indeed, in a number of subsequent conversations I had with this person we talked about how lucky they were not to have applied, given the litany of high-profile revelations that have arisen in the meantime.
It seems to be the collective wisdom that the new person must come from outside the force, and even the country. There are pros and cons for such a move.
A person from outside would have a fresh outlook as to how to manage reform. On the other hand, whether or not an outsider would gain the respect of the members of the force remains to be seen. For me, it would take someone of immense courage and standing to bring the overall force with them. I doubt if one person alone would be capable of doing this, particularly in the timescale that the politicians and the Government demand.
It would be in the interests of any potential candidate to insist that they could bring in a team of people with them in order to drive change. However, how the existing senior management would react to this would determine how successful, or otherwise, this new commissioner would be.
Of course, given all the recent history and focus on the Garda Síochána, it might be extremely difficult to get the best people to apply. The treatment of the last two commissioners, and former justice minister Alan Shatter, may very well put off many suitable candidates. Equally so, the obvious frustration of O’Sullivan in having to appear before so many public forums while having to run a police force may weigh heavily on the mind of someone thinking of applying. It will be interesting to see the terms of reference for the proposed job from the Policing Authority. Will they insist that any successful applicant must make themselves available to the number of different committees Nóirín O’Sullivan was required to attend?
Previously, given my experience as minister for justice, I have been of the view that having one commissioner with overall responsibility for State security, counterterrorism and ordinary day-to-day policing, is a distinct advantage. In many other European countries, there are a plethora of different police forces.
THIS can lead to a silo mentality as different forces engage in empire building to the detriment of overall public safety. For instance, the response of the police to some of the first jihadist atrocities on the continent was mired in confusion as to which force had responsibility as first responders.
In Ireland, because of the decades of paramilitary threat, it made sense to have one overall force dealing with issues ranging from counterterrorism to ordinary day-to-day policing. Nowadays, some are suggesting that this is no longer relevant. But, in my view, you cannot beat the cop on the street with local knowledge, especially in a society as small as ours.
I fear that if we begin separating responsibilities, we will lose a lot of the ‘on the ground’ intelligence which might not be shared with another branch of the policing fraternity.
But, given the intense scrutiny, nowadays, surrounding issues such as motoring offences and penalty points, it may be time to consider separating ‘ordinary day-to-day policing’ from other forms of policing such as international cooperation and counterterrorism.
As I said earlier, given my experience, I would not be in favour of this, but it is undoubtedly the case that a sizeable proportion of Garda Síochána time must be taken up with responding to historical malpractice, to the detriment of dealing with other serious aspects of policing in this State.
Stepping down: Former Garda chief Nóirín O’Sullivan