Brendan Hoban: Gardaí cannot be allowed to remove the boss                            

Western People  26.9.23.

I suspect I’m not the only one who finds the Garda plebiscite on Commissioner Drew Harris as more than a bit weird. It’s not just the extraordinary thumbs-down vote of minus 98% in a confidence motion but that, like the famous dog that James Joyce encountered in Ulysses who could walk on his hind legs, it was remarkable not that it was done well but that it happened at all.

After all, what was it for? To make another public show of Garda strength in the absence of a fully legitimate trade union? Or just to launch a personal attack on the Commissioner – ‘a kick in the teeth’, as he himself described it? Or to undo the re-implementation of previous Garda rosters?

It could hardly be the latter as the obvious intention to undermine the position of the commissioner and/or to force his premature retirement makes no sense in terms of undoing a work schedule. After all, it should be fairly obvious that, as an industrial relations strategy, getting rid of the boss makes no sense. But there it is.

Sarah Carey, writing in the Independent explained how the roster became a problem:

In March 2020, when Covid kicked off, gardaí were put on 12-hour shifts for four days, followed by four days off. The new shifts were popular. Four on/four off is very family-friendly and they earned more overtime and allowances, worth up to €2,000 a year. No wonder they don’t want to give it up. Except Covid rostering doesn’t work when there’s no Covid and it’s costing a fortune.

Could the Garda focus be a case of false pretensions? Could the roster be just the presenting problem and that behind it there may be a more naked but camouflaged intention – when, in expanding on the Garda strategy and explaining its purpose, it becomes obvious that other issues are present in the Garda case. Like low morale in the force.

In probably every institution in Irish life, a case can be made to identify that most difficult of conditions in the workforce – the bane of low morale – but it is still regarded almost universally as an effective argument, in that while it is difficult to substantiate it is almost impossible to counter.

To put it another way, in what institution in Irish society is there at present an easily identifiable high level of morale? Among soldiers, in planning departments, among teachers, bankers, priests, Mayo football supporters, parents? Take your pick! 

But let’s go back a bit.

When Drew Harris was unexpectantly appointed Commissioner of An Garda Síochána, there was almost universal support for what was regarded as an ideal alternative to an automatic appointment from the ranks: an experienced policeman from another jurisdiction; an outsider who would take a fresh look at the force and tackle the evidence of low standards emerging in a number of high profile particular instances; and, in my mind, the advantage of being a Protestant who would bring a definitive moral robustness to his role.

As well as that there’s the now almost universal truth that, from time to time, every institution where an embedded culture of from-time-immemorial-we-always-did-things-this-way needs to be ‘refreshed’ by the introduction of a new, different voice to stir the pot. It’s why outsiders with a fresh approach and new ideas can bring creativity, energy and new impetus to moribund institutions. It’s why priests don’t appoint bishops, teachers don’t appoint principals, workers don’t appoint bosses.

The other truth is that the human condition is a universal affliction and in every institution and in every situation, supervision is a necessary, indeed an essential requirement.

Recent Irish history is littered with an unholy litany of ‘scandals’ that emerged as a result of ineffective (and sometimes no) supervision: RTÉ, banks, industrial schools, An Garda Síochána and not least the Catholic Church. We had enough of accepting ‘Irish solutions to Irish problems’, and we  needed to appoint someone of the experience and calibre of Drew Harris to lift the declining reputation of An Garda Síochána by establishing more stringent standards in a force that hitherto had retained the respect and support of the Irish people. He was given a job of work to do and it was no disgrace if part of it would involve becoming unpopular in the ranks.

I suspect the extraordinary closing of the ranks that produced a minus confidence vote of 98% in Drew Harris may one day come back to haunt the Gardaí. Just as the occasional military display of force in reminding the public of the strength of Garda numbers can bring unhappy associations with other less credible military posturings that fall just short of intimidation.

I suspect too that relying on standard industrial relations procedures and on the quiet confidence of the public in An Garda Síochána will produce a more effective dividend for its membership. Any hint of hectoring or browbeating or threatening is below what the public expect, least of all the hounding of individuals who are guilty of no more than doing their duty.

So far the concerted effort to make Drew Harris’ position as commissioner untenable has been resisted by the government, though the media, in covering all bases, were quick to create just that impression and, for the hurlers on the ditch, it was an instinctive first response. As time passes, removing Harris at the behest of the Gardaí would seem a disservice to the country and ultimately to An Garda Síochána.

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