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Tom Clonan: Noirín O'Sullivan's performance in recent days is simply not credible

The only response to this appalling breach of trust is for those in charge to consider their positions, writes Dr Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

PUBLIC TRUST IN the administration of justice and policing is crucial to a functioning democracy. In the developed world, there is an inviolable, almost sacred social contract that underpins the trust of the public in their police forces. In healthy parliamentary democracies, police forces are assigned a special status and role in society that accords them respect, authority and trust. Public trust however, must be earned and must never be taken for granted.

An Garda Siochána came into being during Ireland’s violent and brutal Civil War. Its founding members – including my grandfather – gained the trust of the Irish people as unarmed, impartial and non-political servants of the people. This trust was gained incrementally, over time, during the febrile and tumultuous years that saw the foundation of the Irish state.

Over time, the organisation of An Garda Siochána has developed in parallel with the evolution of the Irish Republic. During recent decades, the corporate culture and corporate evolution of An Garda Siochána has taken place in the pressure cooker of the Troubles and the threat posed to the security of the State by terrorist organisations such as the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army.

Unlike EU counterparts, An Garda Siochána also became – and remains – the primary and most powerful intelligence agency within the state. During this period, An Garda Siochána also became, of necessity perhaps, a highly political instrument and extension of government. It also became a highly politicised entity with promotion to the most senior ranks a matter of political discretion and affirmation.

The lack of trust

I served as an army officer in Oglaigh na hEireann – a sister organisation to our police force. I served alongside members of An Garda Siochána in Aid to the Civil Power Operations (ATCP Ops) or counter-terrorism operations during my service in the Defence Forces. In many respects, both organisations shared a common genesis in the War of Independence and Civil War. Both organisations shared a common culture of loyalty and uniformed service to the state.

In recent years, in common with the patterns of a post-modern polity to be found throughout Europe, the Irish people have found serious flaws in the Catholic Church in Ireland, in her political systems, financial services and media. After the intellectual and ethical failures of the Celtic Tiger and austerity’ years, international measurements of public trust show that most Irish people simply no longer trust politicians, bankers or journalists.

Despite these developments, our Defence Forces are probably one of the few organisations that still enjoy the trust of the Irish public. Irish citizens are aware of and recognise the contribution that, for example, the Irish Naval Service plays in the Mediterranean, rescuing thousands of refugees from drowning. Or the Army, serving in Syria on the Golan Heights. The public also recognise the vital air-ambulance work carried out by our Air Corps.

The same cannot be said about An Garda Siochana however. Ordinary front line gardaí – the men and women who are the backbone of our policing and justice system – have in recent years come under increasingly hostile scrutiny over issues of ethical concern which flow from its most senior ranks. It is a corporate culture that is inherently secretive, unethical and inimical to meritocracy or organisational justice. This has been most recently underlined by the treatment of successive Garda whistleblowers.

A cultural problem within the force

There have been a plethora of Tribunals of Inquiry and Commissions of Investigation into An Garda Siochána of late that articulate and re-iterate these unpalatable truths over and over again. The Barr Tribunal, the Morris and Smithwick Tribunals, the Justice McEntee Report, the Justice Birmingham Report, the Guerin Report, the O’Higgins Report and the most recent Justice Charleton Disclosures Tribunal – all point to a force that is suffering a crisis of leadership and direction.

There is only one positive aspect to most of these reports – and in most of the Garda Ombudsman and Garda Inspectorate Reports – in that it is generally acknowledged that most gardai are well intentioned and dedicated members of the force. However, they all point to a senior leadership team and a culture of political interference that is toxic to the public interest and corrosive to public trust in our policing structures.

Take for example the recent breathalyser scandal. In the Defence Forces, any calibrated piece of equipment such as a breathalyser is routinely given a serial number and identified as an item of ‘ordnance’. The same goes for weapons, ammunition and other vital equipment such as radios or vehicles. Each item of ordnance is assigned to an account holder – an officer – who is responsible for everything that happens, or fails to happen, to that equipment. Each piece of equipment, each bullet, each weapon, each radio is accounted for digitally and in hard copy on paper – and in detail, irrespective of how busy the operational environment becomes. These accounting trails are audited regularly – both internally and externally by the Department of Defence and other government departments.

Human error or malpractice?

An Garda Siochana has exactly the same structures of accountability and responsibility for operational matters and equipment. There is no difference. Therefore, the recent wrongful conviction of 14,500 citizens under the Road Traffic Acts along with the false reporting of 937,000 breathalyser tests points to catastrophic systemic and systematic failures in management and leadership within the force. If these failures were simply a matter of human error on such a large scale and so consistently widespread, it speaks of levels of sheer incompetence that defy credibility and which in any other jurisdiction would be a resignation matter.

If these issues arose as a consequence of malpractice – massaging and inflating figures in order to enhance promotion prospects in an era of ‘doing more for less’ within the public service – then they ought to be a matter for swift investigation and disciplinary action. That’s what would happen in a mature parliamentary democracy or in anther European jurisdiction perhaps. It is not clear, what will happen, if anything, in the current Irish context.

In this context, Commissioner O’Sullivan’s performance in recent days is simply not credible. The Minister for Justice’s performance in successive Garda scandals is simply no longer credible. They appear to have lost the confidence of the opposition in government. They have most certainly lost the trust and confidence of the Irish people.

As a consequence, ordinary gardai on the front line will have to bear the brunt of the failings of their most senior garda officers. These senior gardai along with the Minister for Justice and Taoiseach have taken the public’s trust in our police force and the administration of justice for granted. This is a grave political and ethical error on their part.

The only remedy for this appalling breach of public trust is for those with overall command and political responsibility to consider their positions in the coming days.

There should also be a fundamental root and branch review of an Garda Siochana along the lines of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland – also known as the Patton Commission. Established in 1998, the Patton Commission transformed the sectarian and corrupt Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Service of Northern Ireland in a review process that took just three years to conclude with the Police Acts (Northern Ireland) 2001 and 2003. By 2007, even Sinn Fein had expressed confidence in the new police service.

Ireland needs without delay a similar radical transformation of an Garda Siochana. Irish citizens deserve a police force that they can trust. Frontline gardai deserve the trust and respect of the Irish public. This cannot be achieved with the current minister and commissioner in place.

Read more from Tom:

‘In all our years attending Temple Street, I have never before seen so many sick children and parents’ > 

Ireland never rewards whistleblowers like Maurice McCabe and me – it punishes us

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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