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#Garda Commissioner goes… but the problem remains

26 Sep

This column first appeared on Sept 11th 2017 on Broadsheet.ie 

Screen-Shot-2017-05-09-at-17.28.52It hasn’t been a good week for former Garda Commissioners.

It started with Fine Gael airbrushing a former Garda Commissioner, Blueshirt founder and first leader of Fine Gael, Gen Eoin O’Duffy out of its 84th anniversary video (BTW, since when was 84 a landmark occasion?) and it ended with the most recent Garda Commissioner, Noirin O’Sullivan, retiring after months, if not years, of calls for her to go.

While the Commissioner has doubtless made the right decision and her going, as Fianna Fail’s Jim O’Callaghan put it, “…paves the way for a new chapter for An Garda Síochána”, it does not solve the problem of; “…confidence within the force itself and in the wider public arena” (again to quote Jim O’Callaghan). The hapless Commissioner may be gone, but the problem remains.

The departure of former Commissioner O’Sullivan does, hopefully, allow us to move the focus from an individual responsibility to a broader one. As many others have argued and explained, far better than I can here, there is a major issue with both the management structures and the management culture at Phoenix Park level. There has been an emerging “them” and “us” culture that has reflected itself in a slowness to modernise and a resentment of civilian oversight and control.

Tackling these issues will be a huge task for the Garda Authority and its first test will come in its selection of the next Garda Commissioner, a task which is should and must undertake in as completely independent a manner as it possible.

That is not to say that politicians, as a body, should be excluded from the process. If anything, we should be looking to do the exact opposite. Policing, as we have learned the hard way over the past few years, it one of the most political of the State’s activities. It is therefore important that politicians from all sides (not just the government side as it has traditionally been) should have a recognised and defined role in policing oversight, especially if we are to achieve the broadest possible public support and buy-in to policing.

At the MacGill summer school a few months back, the former Vice Chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Denis Bradley offered a some very valuable insights (start at 55m mark) into how we start to tackle the problems in An Garda Síochána. what was needed down here.

He spoke in practical terms of how appointing politicians, from across the political spectrum, to the Policing Board in the North (10 out of the 19 members are elected public representatives) worked and advocated that the Policing Authority here do likewise.

He made the point, forcefully, that the transformation of policing in the North was a cornerstone of the peace process and that having politicians on the board meant that its achievement was in the hands of the elected representatives of the people.

He also makes the point that the genius of the Patten Report on policing in Northern Ireland was that it simplified who was responsible for what and it made it clear that the NI Policing Board was responsible for bringing about change, but that this clarity does not exist in the Republic.

That reform, unfortunately, is not likely to happen in the short-term. Our current Justice Minister has not demonstrated that level of vision in any of his previous ministries and is unlikely to undergo a Pauline conversion in this one. So, pending such a major reform, it is vital for the Garda Authority to exert its control. The Gardaí needs to grasp that ultimate civilian control is vital.

This brings me to the issue of defining what we want from our next Commissioner. Over the past 24 hours there has been an avalanche of calls for the appointment of an outsider.

The point is continually made that Commissioner O’Sullivan was appointed after an open contest – and that is unquestionably and undoubtedly true. But what is also true is that the world, its mother and its dog knew that she was the most likely choice. Not many serious contenders outside the jurisdiction were ready to invest a great deal of time or energy in applying for a job where they saw that there was a clear, suitably qualified front runner in situ.

So, will outside candidates think it is worth applying this time?

Possibly. They will be reassured that the process is being overseen by a body (the Garda Authority) whose structure and operation they will understand from their own jurisdictions, but that does not mean we should be expecting a rush of applications.

The pay is not especially high however, the scale of the challenge is. There are only a few similar jurisdictions from which we can reasonably recruit candidates of a suitable calibre and experience: such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – English speaking, common law systems.

But, if we are serious about bringing in an outsider we should we not be looking to recruit not just an individual as Commissioner, but rather a new Commissioner with their own core management team: a full Commissioner’s office, not a single person?

But recruiting a new Commissioner from outside does raise another issue, though it is not one that is insurmountable.

The Garda Commissioner is not just responsible for policing in this state they are also, almost uniquely, also responsible for state security. Are we yet ready to have someone from outside this jurisdiction responsible for national and state security?

I suppose it depends on the person involved, but the more sensible position is that we need to now start preparing to take the national security role from An Garda and set up a stand-alone and dedicated national security and intelligence agency, staffed with the many existing experts within both the Defence Forces and Garda. This will leave the Gardaí to focus solely on policing, which is its core activity.

There are very many real and practical reforms yet to be made, so let me make a prediction – the next Commissioner will be probably end up being more of an interim appointment, whose role will be to hold the organisation together while this government – and the next one – grapples with making the changes needed to bring Garda management systems and structures into the first half of the 21st century.

ENDS.

Some understanding, but no grá for the GRA #Gardastrike.

12 Oct

This is my Broadsheet article from Monday, October 3rd. 

gardai-in-uniform-1878112If the Luas and Dublin Bus pay disputes are anything to go by then the choreography of future pay rows, particularly public sector ones, is likely to run as follows:

Step 1. Both sides negotiate for months without success.
Step 2. Employees go on a limited strike, inconveniencing the public
Step 3. The strike action continues for 3 – 4 weeks while both sides posture on TV and radio news shows
Step 4. Both sides then ‘suddenly’ return, without preconditions, to the negotiating table
Step 5. Employers find extra cash for pay increases they previously said was not there

Would it not be better for everyone, most particularly the public who these public services are meant to… well… serve…, if the unions and management could just skip steps 2 and 3 and jump straight to step 4?

Or, could it be that steps 2 & 3 are an essential part of the process and are needed to bring everyone to their senses or, at least, to a better frame of mind?

Has our industrial relations process developed (or, should I say ‘descended’?) to a point where, on one side, the workers need a couple of days on the picket line to let off steam and, on the other side, management need to suffer a few days of lost business, in order to create a more conducive negotiating atmosphere?

If this is the case, and it increasingly appears that it is, then we will have a bit of a winter of discontent ahead as other public sector groups get themselves geared up to dust off the picket signs and placards.

The situation is not helped by the news that the body established by the last FG/Lab government to oversee industrial relations mediation and the improvement of workplace relations and hailed at the time – by both Fine Gael and Labour Ministers – as marking a new era for employment rights and industrial relations: The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) is just not working.

According to a recent survey conducted for the Employment Law Association of Ireland, half of the legal and industrial relations practitioners surveyed are dissatisfied with the new Workplace Relations Commission and think that the new WRC system is even worse than the much-criticised version it replaced only one year ago.

The survey’s key findings here and the Irish Examiner op-ed by the association’s chair, Colleen Cleary, both make for grim reading, though the association does identify the main problems and helpfully proposes a series of changes and reforms to make the new system work efficiently and effectively.

One group who will not likely benefit from these changes, if they are made, is An Garda Síochána as they fall outside the State’s normal industrial relations processes – and understandably so.

I fully subscribe to the principle that the Gardaí and the Army should not have a right to strike, given the significance of their roles and their importance to our safety and security.

However, if we are to ask them to surrender a very important and powerful industrial relations tool, we must also ensure that this does not weaken their ability to negotiate fair rates of pay and good working conditions.

I think the GRA are fundamentally wrong to threaten industrial action, not to mention their being possibly in breach of both the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and the Garda Síochána (Discipline) Regulations 2007, but their deep frustration and absolute exasperation is understandable.

As Gardaí see it, the State is telling them to follow a set of rules which it refuses to honour itself. In the view of the GRA the State has not lived up to its commitments in the Haddington Road agreement as the review of Garda pay levels and industrial relations promised under that deal was never completed.

The GRA now find themselves in a negotiating no-man’s land with the Department for Public Expenditure now having responsibility for addressing many of their grievances, but the conciliation and arbitration system devised to deal with such issues is based on the Department of Justice, a department which gone without a permanent Secretary General for two years.

Added to this are disputes and commotions which have seen a Justice Minister, a Departmental Secretary General and a Garda Commissioner resign, retire or relocate and a series of statements from senior Garda officers which suggest that all is well and everything and everyone inside the force is hunky-dory.

Is it any wonder their morale is low? And all that is before you even get to the subject of pay rates.

Kind words and high praise from Ministers and Deputies during Leaders Questions and Dáil debates is no substitute for good pay. A starting pay of €23,750 is not generous. Yes, there is range of allowances (over 50 as far as I know) and, according to one calculation, a new Garda can probably expect to get allowances for unsocial hours etc. equal to about 25% of their salary – but that is still a low basic rate of pay.

By announcing four days of industrial action in November, the GRA has put itself on a hook which the Minister and the government must assist the GRA to prize itself off. Mainly because we cannot have a situation where Garda go on strike, but also because this Minister has played some role, via inertia and listlessness, in creating the conditions that allowed it to happen.