Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘Irish policing is still not up to the job, but what’s new?’

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Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘Irish policing is still not up to the job, but what’s new?’

Another report confirms the need for reform of the Garda – but that doesn’t mean it will happen, writes Eilis O’Hanlon


Stock photo
Stock photo

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School in 2015, then Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald began with a riddle: how do you eat an elephant? The answer: in very small slices. She suggested this was also the right way forward for garda reform.

“Reform,” she said, “needs to be in manageable chunks.”

The Policing Authority’s latest full-year assessment of garda performance suggests many of those chunks have barely been nibbled, let alone eaten, with more than half the reforms promised in the 2018 Policing Plan failing to be met. Damningly, levels of detection have now fallen every year since 2010.

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Solving crime is the most basic function of a police force. That the gardai are failing at it is why many people no longer bother reporting less serious crimes.

What’s the point? Just clean up the mess and put it down to experience. Dealing with everyday crime requires manpower and success is not guaranteed, but it does reassure ordinary people they’re not on their own. Unfortunately, that’s not seen as the best use of resources.

What’s amazing is that 91pc of the public still apparently trust the gardai, though the figures also say no more than 39pc have trust in how the force is managed. In other words, it’s not that people believe the wild rhetoric of populist opposition deputies that An Garda Siochana is a cesspit of corruption and skulduggery. They just don’t think it’s very good at what it does.

This Policing Authority report suggests they’re right to be unimpressed.

Is anyone surprised by this? There’s a tendency in Ireland to deal with problems through crisis management rather than root and branch reorganisation.

It’s the same in the health service. What it probably means, if we’re honest, is that there isn’t going to be major garda reform in the same way there isn’t going to be an overhaul of the health service. Ministers will make micro-changes, serve out their time and pass the job on to the next minister to tinker at the edges in turn.

Decades can go by like this. Decades have gone by.

Some ministers are more committed to it than others. Michael McDowell seemed genuinely determined but even his five years in the post left the job unfinished, despite successes such as the Garda Siochana Act 2005, described later as “the most far-reaching and radical reform of policing in the history of the State”.

With McDowell gone, the impetus for reform slowed again. It’s not that the changes successive ministers have made weren’t necessary or useful – Nora Owen set up the Criminal Assets Bureau; Fitzgerald expanded the powers of the Garda Ombudsman and set up the Policing Authority – but who are we kidding when hoping that real change will happen?

The tendency to put off big decisions is summed up in the Yes, Minister episode where Sir Humphrey assures his minister a certain action would be “brave”. In other words, everyone would say he was principled and courageous to have done it, but it wouldn’t help his career.

It’s important to be seen to say the right things but no one wants to take on huge reform only to fall short, so they make gestures in the direction of reform instead.

Some say the so-called New Politics in Ireland has embedded that short-termism deeper than ever.

Irish politics is not kind to original thinkers. Instead of articulating a vision, most tend to focus on finding consensus instead.

Frances Fitzgerald said in Donegal in 2015 she was all about “listening”. That’s textbook. Far better to engage in consultation exercises, or to commission reports, or set up tribunals of inquiry. It can easily become not a spur, but an alternative, to action.

Fitzgerald herself acknowledged that “a new set of structures, a new timeline for meetings, a new set of appointments can be made, but if the rigidity… of the past continues then what you have is improvement (which is welcome) but not reform (which is essential)”.

That, surely, is what’s still happening, even after it seemed the crisis in public confidence had reached such a parlous state in recent years that only radical garda reform would suffice.

In the same year Frances Fitzgerald was at McGill, another speaker was Dr Vicky Conway, lecturer in Law at Dublin City University.

She wondered if the Policing Authority legislation as drafted at the time might not turn out to be “another layer of bureaucracy, another body to discuss policing” while the cycle of “scandal, reform, scandal” continued.

Dr Conway is now a member of the Policing Authority, so must feel it performs a useful function all the same; but those suspicions still linger.

The appointment of an outsider as Garda Commisioner could be seen as another way of fobbing off discontent. It looked radical at the time but were we all too dazzled by the novelty of it to ask whether anything would really change?

Looking back, it’s almost depressing to think how many millions of words and thousands of hours of air time have been wasted on discussing things that, ultimately, never come to pass.

The country is lucky that An Garda Siochana is essentially benign and does the best it can on inadequate resources.

It’s not the big bad wolf its critics claim but we are fooling ourselves to imagine it will suddenly become a shining exemplar either.

Sunday Independent

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