Plugging Away at Police Reform

Reform of the Garda Síochána has proven to be frustratingly elusive

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It was a sign of progress when Nóirín O’Sullivan became Garda Commissioner in 2014, the first female commissioner in the force’s ninety-five year history.  Her predecessor, Martin Callinan, had resigned in the wake of a duet of scandals. One involved the widespread phenomenon of drivers’ penalty points being expunged for dubious reasons, the other was a Watergate-like bugging of the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, the independent police watchdog.  Alan Shatter, the then Justice Minister, also fell on his sword when the revelations came to light. 

The change of management at the top, the menagerie of investigations going on at the time, and the creation of an independent Policing Authority were all supposed to herald a “new era of policing.”  Yet here we are again, two years later, with another Justice Minister and Garda Commissioner under pressure, with independent and opposition TDs rubbing their hands gleefully, armed with a fresh supply of ammunition with which to attack the government.

This time the scandal is the over-reporting of breath tests. Each drink-driving breath test requires the use of a disposable mouthpiece that clips onto the breathalyzer device. The Garda Pulse tracking system was found to have recorded twice as many breath tests as there are mouthpieces in the possession of the police. The discrepancy was not confined to any one part of the country, the over-reporting ranged from 60 percent to 120 percent in some areas. This was clearly a systemic problem with fraud being committed throughout the force.

Successive governments have tried to implement reforms to improve police accountability and competence. At such a high level, it is not government’s place to micromanage how the police improve their working practices, but the government can improve the structures of management.

The efforts made in 2014 to introduce accountability into policing did not make much of an impact, making it seem like the culture in the Garda Síochána has defied all attempts at reform. This is frustrating to anyone who wants to see Ireland become a country of better governance. Democracy and the rule of law is what keeps people free and keeps a country prosperous. Corruption is the enemy of progress, and the rule of law is vital in keeping it in check. The police have a duty to uphold the law, and when this is undermined by the self interest of individual officers, all of society suffers.

Resistance to change is not unique to the police. Even the private sector is replete with people digging in their heels against changes that are seen as threatening. In the public sector this can be an even bigger problem since it can be more difficult to weed out incompetent employees. Lack of trust, lack of skills, self interest, and poor communication all contribute to a sense of people feeling the need to present a united front against any new fangled ideas, particularly those imposed by new leadership. These are serious challenges faced by anyone trying to bring about improvements in performance.

The big question now is whether or not Ms O’Sullivan can hold on to her job, and party lines determine where people stand. Opposition TDs are loudly demanding the resignation of the commissioner, independent TDs are doing the usual posturing, while the government has decided to defend her. The battle lines in the Dáil have been drawn.

There are those who say that O’Sullivan has had two years to make a difference, has failed to do so, and must be let go. There are those who say that she has not had enough time to make the necessary reforms and must be given a chance to be part of the solution rather than be axed as part of the problem.

There is some merit to both arguments. Large organizations do not turn around quickly, and reforms must be given time to take effect. On the other hand, when reforms are shown to have been ineffective after a reasonable amount of time has passed, the “buck stops here” principle has to apply and the sound of rolling heads must be heard. Nóirín O’Sullivan is about to find out if that reasonable amount of time has passed.

That said, on balance there is a strong argument for giving her more time. The last Garda scandal was brought to a head when the previous commissioner was let go and the Justice Minister followed. If the same were to happen again so soon, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be any different, and we could well be back here again in two years time discussing yet another Garda corruption or incompetence scandal and having the same discussion about whether or not the commissioner and Justice Minister should go.

As with all reform, the work is bureaucratic, time-consuming, and would not make very good television. Yet the government must keep plugging away and persevere with the slow, inexorable process of making Ireland a better country in which to live and to do business, no matter how many investigations it takes.