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Garda too strong, yet too weak

To regain confidence, strengthen policing and change leadership

The Garda appears to be stumbling from crisis to crisis. As Village was going to print Fianna Fáil was considering a vote of no confidence in its management and the Government had agreed a ‘root and branch’ review. It is now difficult to keep account of all of the controversies that the force has been embroiled in – or the associated inquiries. The current difficulties with a million phantom breath tests, and 14,700 wrongful convictions for motoring offences, the ongoing tribulations of Garda management in the mishandled controversy surrounding the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe, apparent misaccounting in Templemore and rumours of false crime, including murder and domestic-violence, statistics, are just the latest in the downward spiral of scandals – but are nothing new. 

For most of the history of the new Irish state the success of the Garda force in presenting a neutral, unarmed and publicly acceptable form of policing after a bitter civil war has been the subject of wide-ranging favourable commentary. However, in the modern era, certainly from the 1980s onwards, the force has not coped well.

Vincent Browne recently recalled how, following the murder of the British Ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs in 1976, two gardaí who argued a fingerprint allegedly found on a helmet near the scene of the explosion was not the suspect’s were moved out of the fingerprint unit and were effectively demoted. A subsequent inquiry into the affair led by the head of the fingerprint unit in Scotland Yard concluded that what was done in the Ewart-Biggs case “endangered the science of fingerprinting worldwide”.

In 1977 Nicky Kelly, Osgur Breathnach and Brian McNally, members of the then newly formed Irish Socialist Republican Party (IRSP) were convicted of committing a £200,000 train robbery in Sallins, Co Kildare. The only evidence against them was confessions they made while in Garda custody and while in that custody there was clear evidence that they had suffered significant injuries. More that 20 gardaí gave evidence in almost identical phraseology that the accused were not assaulted in custody and that the confessions were voluntary. Kelly was ultimately pardoned and the other two acquitted.

In many ways I am the last person to be critical of An Garda Síochána. My own grandfather joined the force in 1922, rising to the rank of Chief Superintendent, was shot at during the civil war and was compelled to carry a revolver for most of his service career. The fact that my father was a Minister from before I was born meant that much of my parenting and early lessons in life were actually provided by my fathers two Garda drivers. They were really part of our family and in many ways an inspiration to us growing up. My grandfather’s old dress uniform hung in his bedroom wardrobe well into retirement and we would gaze at it, as children, with great awe – its gold-braid peaked hat and the Sam Browne belt with blue whistle and tie. 

Over the years in politics, business and in journalism I have interacted with senior gardaí and never found them wanting. In particular I found Garda Commissioners Pat Byrne and Fachtna Murphy to be exemplars of professionalism and would go as far as to count them as friends. Most of the gardaí I have spoken to, not the previously mentioned I hasten to add, have been shocked by revelations in the whistleblower affair.

Few understand how the current Commissioner can retain her position, given that she must have known about so many of the controversies that are undermining the force including the incendiary rumours that were circulated about Maurice McCabe, including by senior members of the force. Though out of politics I was also on the receiving end of these stories. When the Garda want to put something out there they are not shy about it. 

One reason why the Garda has not made an easy transition into the modern era of more sophisticated crime is because much of its work from 1969 onwards was taken up by the demonstrable threat to the state posed by the IRA. It gave a culture of secrecy and stealth the upper hand within the force. In a recent Irish Times’ article Vincent Browne claims: “Lawyers, acting for accused persons associated with illegal organisations, stated repeatedly during that time – ie in the 1970s and 1980s – that Garda perjury was a regular feature of such cases and, later, became almost a constant feature of many criminal trials, whether subversive related or not. At no time was there any inquiry into this or was any Garda disciplined within the force in that connection”. The same over-zealousness accounts for the fact that it is now suspected that at least 2,800 non-999 calls were monitored, in 23 Garda stations, from 1980 to 2013. The Ian Bailey case currently advancing to the French courts has aired serious allegations that gardaí considered paying someone in order to frame Bailey for murder. The instincts of many gardaí have been called into question.

More generally in the JC case streetwise Supreme  Court Justice Adrian Hardiman rehearsed the critical findings of tribunals of inquiry into Garda conduct and cited recent “deeply disturbing developments” in relation to the force and its oversight. “If the ordinary citizen were provided with a defence of ‘I didn’t mean it’ or ‘I didn’t know it was against the law’, then many parts of the law would become completely unenforceable, he noted.

The conflict in the North occasioned a corollary and opposite problem: the resources that had to be devoted to the conflict in Northern Ireland skewed the force’s operations. While on the one hand the conflict engendered some heavy-handed tactics, on the other it reduced the force’s efficacy, weakening it. So, the Garda was late to counter the threat posed by armed and well-organised crime gangs. The fact that for example the Kinahans have become one of the biggest drug gangs in Europe tells its own story.

Symptomatic of the weakness of the Garda was the incident during the general election last year where the entire Kinahan gang were allowed to openly move through Dublin airport and around Dublin on their return from Spain for a family funeral. The Kinahans appeared to get VIP treatment as they arrived, with the media lovingly telling us that they were given Garda protection en route to the church and on their way around Dublin. This and the incident at the Regency Hotel, in north Dublin, called for a dramatic and robust response by the State. The surprise is that there was no such visible response. Even though there was an election under way the Minister Frances Fitzgerald did not seem to grasp the unsettling message the incident was sending to the voting public. In years gone by ‘the General’ (Martin Cahill) was the subject of around-the-clock surveillance that bordered on intimidation and harassment but was needed to keep him under pressure. The impetus for such attentions has, for some reason, been lost latterly, even as foreign assassins arrive in our ganglands.

The murder of journalist Veronica Guerin spurred an immediate and far-reaching response. Neither the Garda nor this government seem to have realised that the incidents involving the Kinahans was a similar opportunity to assert themselves for the forces of law and order. Fine Gael has always prided itself as one of these, but under Enda Kenny it has, in effect, undermined the Garda in a very public way. The manner in which Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was removed showed a government that was more interested in shielding itself than in serving the public interest in policing. While both the Minister and the Secretary General or the Department of Justice were also moved on eventually it seemed likely this was being done for all of the wrong reasons – in short to protect the Taoiseach.

What has never been addressed has been the whole structure of Garda management which is clearly no longer fit for practice. Some years ago a tough, no nonsense, Inspector of the Garda was appointed – Kathleen O’Toole had reformed the way the Boston Police force operated and introduced zero tolerance. She was an impressive person and many in government felt she should have been elevated to the role of Commissioner. Recent years have seen instigation of Ombudsman Commission, the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority but the culture at the top is awry and new oversight and new strategies can never change that.

The arguments for having an outside appointment as Garda Commissioner is now doubly relevant. In the wake of the financial crisis an outsider, Matthew Elderfield, was brought in to improve the regulation and new systems of regulation for the financial services sector. Across the water in the UK the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, braved the obvious criticism, by appointing the former governor of the Canadian Central Bank, Mark Carney, to the exclusive position of Governor of the Bank of England. It took Chris Patten, an Englishman, to drive the instigation of a new police in Northern Ireland after the RUC failed to attract cross-community support and was awarded its P45, and the George Cross.

Thankfully the job of now restructuring the Garda is not as great as putting the Northern Ireland Police Force together. Society in the Republic of Ireland is till relatively sympathetic to the Garda force and strong leadership at the top of the organisation should be able to repair the damage done by recent controversies. 

Having lived and worked abroad in recent years, I feel Ireland should have a more robust form of policing than it currently has. In 1997 the Fianna Fáil party went into the election promising zero-tolerance-style policing. For political reasons and in fear of the potential subversion of civil liberties, the governments led by Bertie Ahern backed away from zero tolerance. This was a historic mistake which inured the Garda against more thoroughgoing policing reform in the public interest allowing it to languish unreformed.

Largely because of the troubles our once-exemplary Garda became  both under- and over-zealous. I await a root-and-branch review but in any event it needs to regain its scruples to satisfy the imperatives of civil liberties, probity and decency. Moreover, many commentators forget, it also must improve the effectiveness with which it deals with crime, if it is to regain popular trust. 

Conor Lenihan is a former Dáil Deputy of 14 years and a former Minister in the Department of Justice.