NEXT week marks the first anniversary of Garda Commissioner Drew Harris taking up office and this milestone is being marked with mixed views on his restructuring plans for An Garda Síochána, which sees him – as the first appointee to the top job recruited from outside the force – putting his own stamp on it. In the past 12 months, the former Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has had a chance to do a root and branch review of An Garda Síochána’s operations and the new plan is his response.
That such a plan was needed was a given in light of the chaotic scenario when he took over leadership of our police force this time last year, as his two predecessors, Commissioners Martin Callinan and Noirin O’Sullivan, had suddenly taken early retirement in controversial circumstances and there was chaos in the Department of Justice, all stemming from revelations about who knew what, and when, in the wake of allegations made by the Garda whistle-blower Sgt Maurice McCabe, which led to the resignations of successive Justice Ministers Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald, both of whom – somewhat unfairly – had to fall on their swords, purely for political expediency.
A year ago, An Garda Síochána was also under fire from the Policing Authority of Ireland who reported to Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan that, two years into the implementation of the force’s own Modernisation and Renewal Programme, it needed an urgent and fundamental review, citing the fact that plan was not costed and that the necessary resources had not been earmarked to implement the reforms. There were a number of other reports outstanding at the time, including the damning Charlton Report on the Disclosures Tribunal and of course there had been the penalty points controversy, as well as question marks over the veracity of Garda statistics on breathalyser testing and accounting practices at the Training College in Templemore.
Coming into the job of Commissioner in these circumstances was a baptism of fire for Drew Harris and, as an outsider, his biggest challenge was – and still is – to confront the stubborn culture of resistance to change, as exemplified by some of the criticisms of his new Operating Model for An Garda Síochána. Maybe he did not consult enough about it, as representative associations of all ranks expressed serious concerns about the changes he proposed, leading to a meeting with local commanders in Templemore earlier this week.
They pointed out that the force had 14,500 members in 2009, but this has fallen to 14,000 even though the country has a bigger population now. Commissioner Harris is talking about putting 1,800 gardaí on the beat within the next two years – taking 1,000 from within the existing ranks away from desk duties and adding 800 new recruits. Ironically, this year’s planned recruitment has been cut from 800 to 600 for budgetary reasons.
Putting more gardaí on the beat is to be welcomed especially in rural areas, as their lack of visibility on the ground has been a problem for people and a boon for criminals. However, this must apply to villages as well as towns, especially those in the more outlying areas.
A big area of concern, literally, for people living in peripheral parts is the size of some of the new autonomous divisions – the overall number being reduced from 28 to 19 – with, for example, the Cork West and North divisions being amalgamated. Dividing areas up by population should not be the only consideration; the geographical size of divisions is also a major factor, given that distance between the south-western and north-western ends of the new local area is over 200km, or half the distance from the former to Dublin!
The commander of this bigger division will be hard-pushed to provide visible policing across this vast area, even with extra numbers to deploy. This aspect of the plan has been welcomed by the Irish Farmers’ Association, but the jury will be out on it until we see feet on the street, and the voluntary work of Community Alert groups will still be necessary and vital in trying to combat rural crime.
The Road Safety Authority has expressed fears that traffic policing is not being given the priority it should have in the new Operating Model and that the progress that has been made in recent years in reducing road fatalities could be undermined by this. It is one of many concerns raised by stakeholders that need to be addressed by Commissioner Harris before his new plan is set in stone.
As with all aspects of life, you can satisfy some of the people some of the time, but you can never satisfy all of the people all of the time. The Operating Model for An Garda Síochána needs to be tweaked, but it is a most welcome start to streamlining and modernising our policing service.