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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Garda Commissioner talking a good talk but key issues not addressed

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald reviews a guard of honour made up of garda students. Picture:

On at least four occasions at the Policing Authority meeting on Monday, Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan used the word “journey”.
“I want to make it clear that this is a journey,” she said at one point. “Certainly, we have a journey to go but we have a good news story,” she said at another point. And on it went, this talk about journeys and process and learning and what have you.
Journeys are all the rage in management speak these days, up there with the phrase “grow and evolve”.

It’s all about fashioning a corporate entity as a human being that it might evoke the kind of emotions one reserves for living, breathing creatures. Once upon a time, this tosh was confined to Californian geeks, but today it has contaminated all areas of life, including, it would appear, the upper echelons of An Garda Síochána.

To be fair to the commissioner, she did project a force which is on the corporate ball. There are processes aplenty in place. New offices have been established to enhance the police service.
Management is reaching out to “our critical friends”, a term coined by the commissioner to describe anybody who finds fault with the prevailing Garda culture or practices.

The members of the authority were primarily focused on what has changed in the force in recent years. A succession of reports, culminating with the recent O’Higgins commission of investigation report, point to the same old problems resurfacing.
The three areas explored by chair Josephine Feehily and her board were how the force had improved services to victims, attitudes to internal critics and whether there was any attempt to address the negative aspects of Garda culture.

The commissioner and her team set out improvements for victims of crime over the last15 months. In particular, the force has established 28 offices around the State to assist victims. A survey to be published on Thursday will suggest that many victims are still dissatisfied at how they are treated, but Ms O’Sullivan acknowledged that all is not yet perfect.
“We need to keep asking victims what we can do better,” she said. “We listen, we learn, we improve and we measure.”

A notable feature of the meeting was the commissioner’s repeated acknowledgment that the force hadn’t got everything right so far, but was trying to do better. This position was a refreshing departure for any leader in Irish public life.
There have been changes in process for whistleblowers as well. The commissioner mentioned the recently established office of protected disclosure manager, who will deal with officers wishing to report wrongdoing. This is in wake of the experience of Sergeant Maurice McCabe, whose claims of malpractice led to the setting up of the O’Higgins commission after years of encountering brick walls within the force.

Now things are different. There is a “robust” process in place to accommodate whistleblowers.
This is opening up, according to the commissioner “a culture of listening and hearing and openness to our critical friends and our constructive friends”, she said.

In dealing with those matters the commissioner and those of her team who also contributed came across as professional and committed to a change agenda. On the subject of processes, they couldn’t be faulted. On a corporate level, the gardaí have process coming out their ears.
What was not explored was whether or not things have really changed on the ground. For instance, four officers who would be categorised as whistleblowers within the force are all out on sick leave. How come? How, in a force where the input of these critical friends is being embraced, are they apparently in a situation where they can’t continue to work as normal?
Neither was there anything about the difference in the approach that the commissioner is leading towards critical friends and the treatment of Maurice McCabe behind the closed doors of the commission by the commissioner’s legal people. Has Ms O’Sullivan embarked on a journey since then — a mere 13 months ago — which has changed her approach? If so, it would be reassuring to hear about it.

Authority member Bob Collins raised two salient points about culture. He wondered what it said about Garda culture that one officer felt compelled to secretly tape his conversations. Ms O’Sullivan failed to address that.
Collins also questioned the culture of internal investigations within the force. Again, there was no coherent response. The culture of internal investigations is central to some of the problems.

For instance, the internal investigation into abuse of penalty points didn’t even interview McCabe or former garda John Wilson, who had highlighted the abuse. Could it be that the investigation didn’t want to find out the full extent of what it was investigating?
Similarly, the internal investigation into McCabe’s complaints of malpractice was less than robust in places. In one case, involving alleged assault, the probe didn’t even locate the victim’s statement. This again raises the question as to how robust such inquiries are.

What emerges when one looks beneath the bonnet is that process is not the real issue. Whether it be the treatment of victims or whistleblowers the problem is that the approach has long been to ensure that nothing negative that might impinge of the force corporately, or on the career prospects of individual senior officers. That element of Garda culture is at the heart of many of the controversies that have dogged the force in recent years.
The men and women who serve under often trying circumstances deserve more, as does the general public. Unfortunately, despite the journeys and the processes, we are no more enlightened as to whether real change is under way in that area.
Michael Clifford