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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Article: The Gardai Must Be A Force For Change

Ireland is different. Multicultural with a small ‘m’, it is also a modern country where citizens are aware of their rights, and where proper standards are demanded. In this, it would seem, ‘the force’ is somewhat out of time.


Garda Aidan Doherty thought he was going to die. His attacker produced a Stanley knife, lashed out, and cut an artery in Doherty’s right arm. The sergeant had been called to the Voodoo nightclub, in Letterkenny, on an August night in 2011. He was arresting a troublemaker, when the man stabbed him.

There was no first-aid equipment to put pressure on the wound and stop the bleeding. For a few minutes, as blood pumped from his body, Doherty thought he would die — for nothing more than doing his job.

Doherty made it through the ordeal and, eventually, got on with his life. Details of the assault were heard in a High Court action recently, but the incident demonstrates the dangers faced routinely by members of An Garda Síochána. There are major incidents from time to time, in which members are injured, sometimes seriously. On some — thankfully very few — occasions, a garda dies in the course of their duty.

But it’s the routine stuff that highlights the nature of working as a policeman. It can be hellishly dangerous, with the prospect of life-altering assault, or worse, right around every corner, in every town in a State in which a drink culture often leads to random violence.

That’s the dirty reality of the job. Over the last few weeks, another aspect of the culture in ‘the force’ has been splashed across the media landscape.

nWere members of the gardaí involved in bugging the garda ombudsman’s office?

n What’s the story with the corruption of the penalty points system?

n Were members of ‘the force’ responsible for the horrendous treatment of assault victim Mary Lynch?

n Is ‘the force’ dysfunctional?

The scandals of recent weeks would be easier to understand if the gardaí did not enjoy a high level of respect among the general population. Unlike in other democracies, the police force in this country is not separate from the mainstream population. Its members are drawn from right across society.

One of the reasons for the high regard for ‘the force’ stems from the homogenous society that existed here until the last 15 years.

In other countries, with large minority populations, the domestic police is often regarded with suspicion, for perfectly valid reasons.

One just has to look North, to the old RUC, to see how the police can become a stick with which to beat one section of society.

Today, Ireland is different. Multicultural with a small ‘m’, it is also a modern country where citizens are aware of their rights, and where proper standards are demanded. In this, it would seem, ‘the force’ is somewhat out of time.

The penalty points debacle is an obvious example. What has emerged is that, until recent days, a culture existed of some senior officers abusing the system to take care of family and friends.

Sometimes this involved deleting attached points for repeat offenders, whose driving was obviously habitually dangerous. Taking care of your people was standard fare in the old days.

Today, the carnage on the roads is addressed seriously. The penalty points system is regarded as a key tool in ensuring that safe practice is observed.

Yet that imperative was swallowed up by the old culture of ‘looking after friends and family’ — creating a two-track approach to road safety, by which those in the know could do as they pleased, while the wider population had to behave responsibly or suffer the consequences.

Then, there’s the matter of standards.

There are officers, and indeed units, within ‘the force’ that perform to the highest standards, right across the policing brief, from tackling organised crime to traffic management.

These officers do their jobs in the best traditions of public service, often with scant reward for efforts beyond the call of duty.

But in an organisation of 13,000 personnel, there are inevitably going to be slackers.

How these slackers are dealt with also harks back to an earlier age.

By and large, they are simply tolerated by others who want to get on with the job. The real problem arises when mistakes are made, either through slacking, or simply in the normal run of affairs.

The dossier of cases that Micheál Martin passed onto the Taoiseach, having received it from whistleblower garda, Maurice McCabe, is stuffed full of incompetence: cases not investigated; files gone missing; basic policing procedures ignored.

In some instances, a simple mistake was made at the outset of the investigation of a crime.

This is entirely human, but within the culture of the gardaí mistakes are not addressed in a manner designed to eliminate repetition.

Instead, the imperative is to ensure that nothing emerges that might impinge on the reputation of the force, or, more particularly, the careers of senior officers.

The result is a culture in which cock-ups are covered up, destined to be repeated, and inevitably impacting on the victims of crime, not to mention the professionalism of ‘the force’.

Is it possible that the dossier compiled by Sergeant McCabe gathers examples confined to one area of the country? Or is the problem endemic?



The police force is also out of time is in its attitude towards the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). It is obvious, now, that senior management within the gardaí have never accepted GSOC’s role as an overseer of ‘the force’.

The negative attitude to GSOC may well run through all elements of ‘the force’, but leadership comes from the management.

Again, this harks back to a different age, when ‘the force’ policed itself in a manner in which accountability was a moveable feast.

It took the scandal of corruption in Donegal for a government to install an oversight body, but while successive governments are big on legislation in this area, they have shown themselves to have precious little interest in the spirit of laws enacted.

And that goes to the nub of the issues that have surfaced recently about the gardaí. No large body, and particularly one as powerful as a police force, is going to take easily to change.

Any change is going to involve a devolution of powers, a requirement for accountability, opening a window to transparency.

That level of change, for an erstwhile insular organisation, demands a major push from the democratic leaders in the country. Laws are all very well, but political will is the key component in modernising the gardaí to ensure that it functions with proper accountability and professionalism.


That will is simply not there. And until such time as the main political parties take responsibility for pushing change, history is destined to repeat itself, with all its scandals and all its victims.

By Michael Clifford