Why is An Garda Síochána so impervious to reform?
Conor Brady, former Editor of the Irish Times, former Commissioner of GSOC, author of major works on the history of An Garda Síochána, columnist, The Sunday Times
This is, I believe, the fourth successive year in which the Patrick MacGill Summer School has focussed on issues of policing and on the Garda Síochána. It indicates the difficulties that underlie the processes of restructuring and reshaping the Garda Síochána that we should be back year after year on the topic. And it is to the credit of those who organise this summer school – notably Dr Joe Mulholland – that its importance is thus recognised and that it is kept firmly on the public agenda. Accountable, principled and effective policing is core to the welfare of the community. It has been held by certain political scientists that one of the most telling measures of the democratic health of a society is the conduct of its police service.
So why is it that we have this recurring and seemingly intractable problem of how to operate a national police force that is modern, effective and efficient? It should be a fairly straightforward business in a small, fairly homogenous state with a crime rate that remains relatively low by international standards.
Many reports into An Garda Síochána
Yet, year after year, one issue or another seems to build up around the management and the operation of the Garda Síochána. We have one report or inquiry after another; more than 20 in a decade by my reckoning, perhaps starting with the Morris Report that focused on policing issues here in Donegal. It was to change everything. But many of its key recommendations were strangled at birth and most of the reforms that were promised in its wake came to nothing.
Since we were here last year we have had the report of former High Court Judge Kevin O’Higgins that in turn gave rise to another round of recrimination and accusation among various interest parties. Yet again, Judge O’Higgins identified the phenomenon of corporate cover-up, circling of the wagons. Since last we discussed policing here we have also had the advent of the Policing Authority, chaired by Josephine Feehily, who is with us here this afternoon.
We have assurances from one commissioner after another and from one minister after another that there is to be “root and branch” reform. New initiatives are promised that aim to reconnect the police with the community, that will protect “whistle blowers,” that will ensure fairness and even-handedness and that will enhance the force’s effectiveness in protecting the community and confronting serious and organised crime.
So why is it that the Garda Síochána appears to be so impervious to reform? Why is it that one policing controversy after another breaks into the public domain? Why is it that time and again we seem to be confronted by issues of cover-up, of failure in duty, of excessive self-protectiveness and defensiveness? Why is it that when the gardai are required to examine some alleged shortcoming or malpractice, they will invariably find that all is well….. but when an outside examination takes place, perhaps by a judge or a senior counsel, the result is so frequently different?
The excellent work of the Gardaí
Sometimes the drip-drip effect of unfavourable revelations has the effect of obscuring much of the excellent work that is done every day by the Garda Síochána. Every week the news media brings reports of guards placing themselves in the way of danger, confronting violent people, often armed. Each day and night, hundreds of guards are deployed on the streets and in the towns and villages to keep the peace, frequently being obliged to face provocation, taunting and abuse. Gardaí in specialised units do extraordinary work investigating serious crimes up to and including murder. Other gardaí in security departments work constantly to contain the activities of would-be terrorists; people who would happily return this island to the conditions of strife and division that it endured for 40 years before the signing of the Belfast Agreement.
I think it is important to say that, notwithstanding the recurrence of controversies around the Garda Síochána, there has been progress and there continues to be progress towards the attainment of a police force that is effective and efficient, even-handed in its operation and accountable to community needs and priorities. That progress is gradual and incremental but it is undeniable, even if it has taken place against a background of resistance, sulking and lack of co-operation among many gardaí.
It has taken more than a decade and a half to get this distance. A process of reform was initiated after the reports of the Morris inquiry into garda conduct here in Donegal. But we do have GSOC, an independent oversight body with full policing powers, responsible for processing and investigating complaints against gardaí. We have the Inspectorate with the power to examine garda practices and procedures and to advise the Minister on how best the force should be developed and managed. We have whistle-blower legislation that for all its shortcomings has shown that it can be worked by courageous gardaí like Sergeant Maurice McCabe. We have an independent police authority to which the commissioner is now required to report in regard to policing functions – as distinct from security functions.
These are not perfect in the sense that the ownership of the police is still not wholly back with the community they serve. At key places in the legislation that supports these institutions, final authority still reverts to the Minister and the Department of Justice. The Policing Authority, for example, may recommend someone for appointment as garda commissioner – or indeed for dismissal from the post. But the final authority rests with the politicians.
And it is regrettable but true that the Garda Síochána, from many among the senior establishment in the Depot to the representative staff associations have dragged their feet and utilised every loophole to resist these changes and to mitigate their effects. Change which is notionally and verbally accepted is too often subverted and obstructed. The letter of reform may be accepted because the legislators say it has to be. But that does not mean the spirit is accepted.
Why is this? Why is it that a body of men and women who are by and large good people, imbued with decent values, generally committed to their professional calling, are so resistant to change and so fearful of scrutiny?
It is a truism that the Garda Síochána is imbued with a singularly powerful culture. And it is a truism of management theory that culture will eat strategy for breakfast any morning. So what is this “culture”? Where does it derive from? Why is it so powerful that it can resist the considerable pressure of political will and public opinion? How can the guards remain so resistant to these forces for change? And can that culture be changed for the better?
The continuity between An Garda Síochána and the RIC
I think it is necessary, in order to answer these questions, to look to the history behind the Garda Síochána.
We are currently in what has been described as the decade of commemoration – the events that shaped Ireland between 1913 when the great lock out occurred in Dublin and 1923 when the civil war ended.
The Garda Síochána celebrates its centenary in 2022 – just six years away. It will, no doubt, be marked and celebrated. The establishment of a new, unarmed police service, “Irish in thought and culture” (in the words of its first commissioner) stands as one of the proud achievements of an independent Ireland.
But 2022 will also be the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Irish Constabulary (later the Royal Irish Constabulary) the centralised, monolithic police force that held Ireland for the crown for almost a full century until it was replaced in the south by the Garda Síochána and in Northern Ireland by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
It is crucially important to understand the extent of the continuity between the old police – the RIC – and the Garda Síochána. That continuity has rarely been recognised, for political reasons. Yet Michael Collins’s brief to the organising committee that established the Garda Síochána was to replicate the RIC in its organisation, its discipline, its command structures and even in its system of divisions, districts and sub-districts. Collins had targeted the RIC as the primary obstacle to the attainment of his political objectives but he absolutely admired their courage, their discipline, their loyalty and their resolution. So when the Garda Síochána – or the Civic Guard as it was first known – was established, it was to be a mirror-image of the old police with a few liturgical changes – blue uniforms rather than bottle green; the same rank structure but with different titles; an identical disciplinary regime – they simply rewrote the RIC code in Irish. And Collins wanted an armed Garda Síochána. Every member was to have a Webley .45 revolver and a sabre. Every station was to be equipped with Lee-Metford rifles. The concept of the unarmed Garda Síochána was only invented after Collin’s death and after the infant force had mutinied and been disarmed at its training camp in Kildare town.
Most significantly of all, the new state established its police system on exactly the same lines of accountability as the previous police. British constabularies were controlled by county police authorities who appointed local chief constables. But the RIC was a profoundly different model, with a chief officer (the Inspector General), appointed by and reporting directly to government in Dublin Castle. The new state’s police was to be similarly centralised, under direct government control, led by a commissioner, appointed by and answerable to central government through the Minister for Justice.
What Ireland got in the RIC – and what we replicated in the new Irish state – was a police system that is much closer to the European model of a gendarmerie rather than a constabulary as operated in Britain.
The RIC was a hugely successful institution, insofar as its 13,000 men held Ireland, all of Ireland for the Crown – a task that 100,000 military could not do. And so successful was it that the model was replicated right across the Empire, in India, Africa, Hong Kong and any number of distant colonies. The RIC depot at the Phoenix Park was the training academy for the officers of these forces. And many senior RIC officers found successful and distinguished – and lucrative – careers heading these forces.
The RIC was to all intents and purposes a paramilitary institution. It was armed, of course. Its members lived in barracks. The disciplinary code was draconian. Its rank and file were usually the sons of Roman Catholic small farmers, poorer tradesmen and small shopkeepers, while its officers, for the most part, were Protestant, the sons of lesser gentry or from senior military families, many of them independently wealthy.
The brutal and indiscriminate nature of the disciplinary code and the sense of alienation among the rank and file passed over into the Garda Síochána. Rank-and-file Catholics rarely got beyond the non-commissioned ranks, although that began to change in the early 20th century. What we are dealing with now is the residue of that. Extraordinarily strong bonds of loyalty and self-protection developed among the rank and file membership. They watched out for each other, protected each other, lied and perjured for each other, against the common enemy – the authorities and the politicians who held absolute sway over their lot.
Of the committee of 14 men who shaped the new Civic Guard or Garda Síochána, 12 were former members of the RIC. Fewer than a score of former RIC men actually joined the new state’s police but those who did generally held senior rank and greatly shaped the new force in the image of the old. The strong linkages are shown in other ways. No fewer than six Garda commissioners, including the very first, Michael Staines, were the sons of RIC members.
Historical circumstances, with the Garda Síochána cast as in the role of the state’s primary security force, ensured that the values held by RIC rank and file were preserved down the decades. It is only a few short years since the Garda Síochána was in the front line against paramilitary subversion. Twelve gardaí died as a result of paramilitary violence or paramilitary-related violence. Government very consciously kept the force tightly under its wing. Ambitious gardaí realised that the primary qualities required for a successful career were loyalty, solidarity, an unquestioning acceptance of authority and rank.
These qualities, of course, were among the positives that enabled the gardaí to hold the line and do their duty by the state and by the community over those troubled and violent years. They also allowed many of those in the political establishment to exploit the Garda Síochána as a source of favouritism and patronage.
Appointment to the force, promotion and preferment and even allocation to choice stations or functions, was considered to be the prerogative of whoever held political power. So too was the “fixing” of proceedings, ranging from simple traffic offences right out to more serious offences, such as we saw in Roscommon, for example, during the tenure of a particular Minister for Justice, now deceased. And this attitude prevailed across all political parties in Dáil Éireann.
Changing the culture
So when we talk about the Garda “culture” this is where it has emerged from. It has many virtues. But the key to the future development of the force is to hold the good parts of the culture while shedding the secretiveness, the siege mentality, the sense of us-against-the-rest. We are talking here about a set of values that has been built up over 200 years. Disestablishing that culture will take time. Some progress has been made but the process has still got quite a way to go.
One measure which I believe would be greatly to the benefit of the Garda Síochána and the society it serves would be to seed the force’s middle to senior ranks with men and women with experience in careers other than policing. Police management and leadership could be mastered relatively easily by men and women with executive experience in many other areas. It is common in other countries for senior public servants in non-police functions to spend a number of years within the policing system. The Garda Síochána needs the openness, the willingness to embrace change, the confidence of purpose that is more readily found in the innovative private sector.
Such an initiative would, of course, be resisted tooth and nail by the gardaí themselves. But the new policing authority has the powers, if it wishes, to make appointments at middle and senior grade, from outside the force.
I believe this could help but I do not believe it will happen. The dual role of the Garda Síochána as the state’s civil police and its primary security service means that it will always remain under the control of centralised government. And the gardaí themselves will always play the security card when they come under pressure. In virtually every controversy within the force down the decades, the gardaí have sought to invoke State security as a cover to conceal shortcomings or malpractices. It was at the root of the scandals here in Donegal. I think the only instance in which state security was not invoked was in relation to the fixing of penalty points – that defied even the ingenuity of some of those who had brought ducking and weaving to a fine art.
So will we be back here again next year, still talking about garda reform? The current commissioner, Noirin O’Sullivan and her team, have produced a fine strategic plan with the noblest objectives for the future development of the force. But as far as I know it has not been costed and most of it is aspirational.
I think the politicians are weary of trying to change things around the guards. And increasingly they accept, I think, that they have to live with a situation that is less than satisfactory.
By and large the guards do a good job. They are mostly honest, committed, even-handed and humane. Sure, they are inward looking and self-protective. Sure, they try to cover their mistakes and pretend they haven’t happened. Sure, they try to crush dissenters and whistleblowers. And sure, they look after their own.
But in all of these things, in these values, in these vices and in these virtues, are they not simply a reflection of our wider society?