Noirín O’Sullivan, Acting Commissioner of An Garda Síochána


I am honoured to have the opportunity to address you on reform of the justice system, and, in particular reform of An Garda Síochána.  Yesterday, this Summer School heard a definition of An Garda Síochána as – “A national body with a proven and proud track record, which is widely trusted to do a complex and constantly evolving task.”

The fact that it was the Minister for Justice who articulated that definition is important.  Because the Minister, from the moment she came into role, demanded a sea change in the way policing is delivered in this country.

However, Minister Fitzgerald has never described An Garda Síochána as broken.  Because it isn’t.  Damaged? Yes. Hurting? Yes. In need of change? Yes. Hungry for change? You bet.

A Proud Record

That hunger for change from within An Garda Síochána comes from the knowledge and experience of our staff that while we are far from perfect, we have throughout our history and to this present day made a positive contribution to society and can do even more.   Recent controversies have focused the public mind on instances where we have not lived up to our own standards; in some cases, where we’ve badly failed those standards.  But when we’re good, we’re very, very good.  An Garda Síochána are very good at a lot of things that make all our lives better.

We have more than 15,000 men and women, who go out each day to serve and protect the public often in dangerous and stressful circumstances.  We have members of the service who, even when off-duty, are prepared to put their lives on the line to stop criminality.  We have a police service that is not simply based in communities around the country, but is of them. This close connection with communities is the envy of police services around the world.  We are the true definition of a decentralised organisation, with employees interacting with citizens from every corner and county throughout the land.  We have a proud record of protecting this country from sophisticated subversive organisations that were, and some still are, determined to inflict anarchy, mayhem and murder on our people with the aim of destroying the democratic foundations of this State. We have dismantled vicious organised crime gangs who don’t care about the trail of destruction and despair they leave behind in the communities that they push their drugs in.

We have made our roads safer, so we now have over 200 fewer deaths on roads than this time ten years ago. These things don’t happen by accident. They happen through well thought-out design, professional delivery, management, supervision and review. They happen because – for the overwhelming majority of Gardai – that sense of pride, of collegiality, of being ready to contribute that we got when we tossed our caps in the air in Templemore the day we graduated, never goes away.  The sense of belonging to something special, something that matters never goes away.

The First Step is Listening

That doesn’t mean we’re blissfully happy, right throughout our careers. I wasn’t happy, never mind blissfully so, early on, when I was one of a tiny bunch of “banners” – females entering an overwhelmingly male organisation. It wasn’t that the organisation didn’t want us – although sometimes you could’ve fooled me!  The organisation certainly gave the impression, now and then, that it wasn’t egging to have us doing anything serious. It was that it had a way of doing things that didn’t include women in what could be perceived to be “operationally dangerous” jobs.  These days, we’d call it a culture. Back then, they called it right and proper.  I wasn’t having any of that.  I was advised not to be impatient.   Advising a police officer in their early twenties not to be impatient makes no sense.  It’s like saying “postpone your potential, your hopes and dreams and wait until the system adjusts in a few decades.”   I was impatient and I showed it. But the great thing was that a few individuals within the system listened.

A few individuals ‘up the ranks’ were open enough to say “Maybe there’s something in that idea.”  Instead of shutting us down and ignoring the idea, they said, in effect, “OK, you think women can handle more operational stuff and this is going to work?  Right.  Prove it.”  And they put us in roles that were new to me and my generation of fellow recruits.  Different than what had gone before.  They listened. They listened to some dissenting voices.  That’s why I firmly believe that the first step to progress in any situation is listening.

Senior management in An Garda Síochána has been spending a lot of time doing just that recently – listening to our staff, listening to our “critical friends” such as GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate, and listening to the public.   Initiatives such as the Justice Committee’s hearings on the Garda Síochána Act and the Minister for Justice’s recent Policing Forum have proven invaluable in this regard.

Rebuilding Trust

The next step is engagement.  The simple fact of the matter is that every citizen of this country, anyone who holidays here, anyone who chooses to do business here, or anyone who seeks refuge here has a valid vested interest in An Garda Síochána.  Very few organisations can lay claim to the wide and varying level of engagement to which we can lay claim.

That level of engagement with each and every community throughout the land allows us to rebuild trust.  Without that trust, our job’s impossible. That’s why, since the day I became Interim Commissioner, I’ve welcomed the opportunity to discuss the future of An Garda Síochána with anyone – group or individual – who wants to inform our thinking.

That hasn’t always been the way.   But before anybody gets the idea that I’m criticising previous administrations, I’m not.  They met the needs of their time. The needs of our time are different, and we’ve learned this the hard way; hard for us and for those who wanted to alert us to problems.  We now know that if you concentrate too much on the messenger, you may miss the message.

So we’ve surveyed our own members – and – just one example – I brought six officers to the session the Minister set up at Farmleigh. Those officers were briefed to question, listen and learn. That’s my personal mantra, too: question, listen, learn.  What I’ve heard, as a result, has been painful, illuminating, exciting, and exhilarating.   One of the criticisms coming from inside and outside the service was that we’d stopped listening and become an echo chamber. Because we’d always done something a certain way, the assumption was that it should always be done that way.  Wrong. Wrong, even in terms of our own history.

Development and Change

I recently attended the launch of an exhibition in Castlebar which covers the history of policing in the country for the last 200 years. Two things struck me as I looked at the various photographs and documents that make up the exhibition.

Firstly, I felt a great sadness and pride, reading about the Gardai who lost their lives in the course of duty. Secondly, I was fascinated by how flexible our history showed us to be.  How we police Ireland now, as opposed to 200 years ago – utterly in contrast with each other.   But the same kind of quantum shift has happened in how we police Ireland now, as opposed to when I joined An Garda Síochána.  As an organisation, we’ve been pretty good at development and change.  But here’s the thing.

Sometimes, that development and change comes gradually, and sometimes – as in, right now – it happens explosively.  When it happens explosively, then the task is to be out in front of reform, to drive change from within, not just accept it under duress. This means taking control of our future, while welcoming stronger oversight from the proposed Independent Authority, as well as GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate.   Equally important, it means remaining accountable to the communities we serve.

It means building on what is good in our culture – and there’s much that’s good about our culture – our esprit de corps, our community-ethos, our dedication to duty and public service that are essential to our ability to delivering policing – while recognising and exorcising the negative elements of that culture – our insularity, our deafness to external criticism, and our instinctive rejection of internal dissent.

All of which might be dismissed as motherhood and apple-pie.  It isn’t.

It’s a statement of intent. A statement of pride and intent: we, An Garda Síochána, are proud of what we do and where we have come from. We are ready to step up to becoming a human rights centred world-class police service.

An Independent Policing Authority

The Garda Síochána Act 2005 was a significant legislative initiative which brought clarity to the management and oversight of policing in this country. But it is legislation that’s approaching its 10th anniversary. Ireland has changed, changed utterly in those ten years, economically, demographically; in terms of diversity, expectation – everything.

Bottom line: the Act needs revising and a key element of that revision is the establishment of an Independent Policing Authority.

The way I envisage it working is that the Garda Commissioner would be accountable to the Policing Authority in respect of all policing matters.   And on national security, the Commissioner would report to the Minister, the Oireachtas and the Government. Clearly, Minister Fitzgerald is powering ahead on a number of reforms right across her portfolio, and we’re right in the middle of that portfolio. We will respond to the new requirements she lays down.  But we have to do a whole lot more than that – and we’re doing it.  An Garda Síochána is not standing still.  We are making our own changes for the better.

A Civilian Head of Human Resources

For instance, we recently advertised for a civilian head of HR. From a Garda perspective, this is a massive shift.  For the first time in the history of the organisation a civilian with relevant professional expertise will play a key role in ensuring our people management practices support the development of our people.

We will also shortly start quarterly tracking of the public’s sentiment towards An Garda Síochána, what they want us to prioritise, and how victims of crime feel they have been treated. This will enable us to be much more reactive to the needs of the public.

The “Culture” of An Garda Siochana

One of the history buffs in Garda Headquarters pointed out to me, over the past few days, that the Peelian Principles – the basic tenets underpinning the British police service – were not actually developed by Sir Robert Peel, but by the police commissioners of the day. The division was clear and productive, back then:

  • It was Robert Peel’s job to lay down policy, to establish the mission and controls for the new service
  • It was the job of the Commissioners to take that policy and drive it into understood standards and lived behaviours within the police service.

In the same way, Garda management must drive government policy into understood standards and lived behaviours within the police service; into what is called the “culture” of An Garda Síochána.  Culture is how any organisation does its business. Simple as that.

Some of what constitutes “culture” can be governed or at least informed by stated standards or mechanisms like the Confidential Recipient or regulations protecting people from being bullied, harassed or victimised in the workplace.   I will certainly not tolerate bullying, harassment or intimidation of any type of any of our members. But culture is much more than minimum standards and protection of people in the workplace. It’s about pride and place. It’s about trusting colleagues and being trusted by the people we serve. It’s about wanting to be, not best in class, but better than best in class, from the reserve to the topmost ranks.

That’s it, as far as I’m concerned. For as long as I serve in this role, I’ll drive ahead on all of those objectives. We can not afford to stand still.

A Transformational Plan

Right now, I’m working with the team within An Garda Síochána to produce a transformational plan. That will see significant changes in how the organisation is managed and how we deliver our service. I believe that plan will meet the needs articulated by the Minister and the aspirations articulated by rank-and-file Gardai right around this country.  It will take account of the review being conducted by the Garda Inspectorate under the auspices of Haddington Road and incorporate the learning and findings of recent reports. It will ensure that we are in tune with a changed Irish society.  It will move An Garda Síochána beyond apology to full confident delivery on a refreshed agenda.

Our mission is to stand between the citizen and chaos, guarding the peace that is essential to civilised living.  We’re out on the streets, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year. We’re stopped by tourists, we’re stopped for a chat, and we’re stopped by those in distress.  We’re in constant and varied interaction with the public, all day, every day.

As a bare minimum, the public we exist to serve is entitled to a police service that treats it with respect and courtesy, not to mention dignity. As a bare minimum, our police service must respond to an increasingly diverse Ireland with enthusiasm and openness.

A good example of this in action was the policing of the recent One Direction concerts in Croke Park.  I met the members involved beforehand and you never saw a team of Gardaí so enthusiastic about ensuring all the little VIPs who were due to attend were treated to a night they’ll never forget.  I told the team that day that public confidence in An Garda Síochána will be restored by them and by the people in our support offices, one encounter at a time.

One of the oldest principles in police investigation applies here.  I remember being fascinated the first time I read about Dr Edmond Locard, the “Sherlock Holmes of France.”

Because – long before electron microscopes or DNA testing – Locard worked out that, as he put it, “Every contact leaves a trace.”

Here’s what Locard said about the criminal:

“Wherever he touches, whatever he leaves, even without consciousness, will serve as a silent witness against him – his fingerprints or footprints, his hair.  The fibres from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint, the scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him.”

Locard was talking about physical evidence – back at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the 21st century, we’ve begun to realise that, in addition to shedding fibres and cells, we shed impressions.  “Every contact leaves a trace” applies to more than the inanimate.   Every contact between every member of An Garda Síochána and a member of the public leaves a trace on both sides.   It’s up to us to make sure it’s a good impression.

The Right Balance between Continuity and Change

We’re at a point in the organisation’s history where we are being given the chance to remould it. We have the personnel: over 15,000 dedicated highly professional men and women. We have a great history.

And – above all – we have the positive impetus provided by negative events. None of us would want recent controversies to have happened, but the fact that they happened means that we have been forced to stand back from what the Minister called the “accretion of habits” and re-examine ourselves and our organisation in a brutally honest way.  As a result, this is an incredibly exciting time to be leading An Garda Síochána.  It’s an opportunity wrapped up in a challenge with URGENT written all over it.  Decisions made over the next few weeks and months will have repercussions for society for decades – and for the dedicated men and women of An Garda Síochána in their service of that society.

It is critical that we strike the right balance between continuity and change so that what is good about An Garda Síochána is retained, and what is not is rectified.  And that we never lose sight of the wider goal, which is to build a police service for Ireland which is quite simply the best of its kind in the world.


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