WHEN I was a young garda walking the streets of Blackrock in Dublin, I had no interest in promotion and I knew very little about how that system even worked.
I was more interested in trying to survive my daily routine without making a complete idiot of myself — and there were plenty of opportunities for that.
There was one story doing the rounds at the time, which also featured on the national media, about a man who had been arrested for drink driving. The young garda making a name for himself was, at the time, carrying out a check-point in my neck of the woods.
The car approached the check- point and the garda got a strong smell of alcohol from the guy. It soon became obvious that this man was in no condition to drive so he duly removed him from the car and arrested him. Only then did it become apparent to the garda that the car was in fact a left-hand drive and he had arrested the passenger.
No young garda wanted to end up with a mistake like that hanging over him. It tended to draw a huge amount of slagging and also followed the member concerned, no matter what part of the country he or she happened to end up. So, the plan was generally to keep the head down and your eyes and ears open.
The competition for promotion came about once a year and for those in contention it became a hot topic of conversation. It was hard to avoid the subject around that time and even those who were not in the competition had an opinion on who the deserving candidates were.
It was also regularly suggested that ability had little to do with the selection process.
In those days I often heard predictions from colleagues about who was going to be promoted and who was going to lose out. They very often turned out to be spot on and many based their assessments on what political party was in power at the time, or who had the most influential connections.
It wasn’t unusual to hear that while a particular candidate was thought to be deserving of promotion, he would have to wait for a change of government. There always seemed to be a less competent guy who was being touted as a banker for a promotion because of who he was connected to.
I wasn’t cynical enough at the time to believe that this was how the system worked but these prophets were right too many times. That was nearly 40 years ago.
More recently, we have just had the launch of an audit of An Garda Siochana carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The independent cultural audit survey of 6,560 staff and focus groups is the first of its kind.
It identified an apparent “significant disconnect” between senior gardaí and lower ranks and that senior leadership was “not visible” to members. I would suggest that this was particularly obvious during the difficult times when we were in the middle of the recession and struggling to cope, senior management was conspicuous by its absence at the very time leadership was needed most.
The report said one of the biggest reasons for a disconnect between senior leadership and frontline ranks was the belief that promotions, access to training, and transfers were down to “who you know”.
It said this belief came through “particularly vociferously” and “has caused disillusionment and resentment across the organisation”.
The report also said that it was the “overwhelming view” of members that there are “large swathes of promotions” where the ‘names are known’ beforehand.
The fact that senior managers have disputed this doesn’t surprise me. It’s what they’ve always done and that’s why nothing has changed.
Even the introduction of the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority hasn’t managed to put a dent in the culture of cronyism. The audit said the promotion system was “one of the very important symbols of change within the organisation that needs to be addressed”.
It also found that gardaí are unwilling to speak out about issues because of a “fear of repercussions or due to a sense of futility”. In other words, they felt it would be a waste of time because nobody would listen.
Members wanted the leadership to “speak up and stand up” for the organisation. It was always a particular gripe of mine that senior management automatically just followed the party line. For example, the last two commissioners, Martin Callinan and Noirin O’Sullivan, regularly insisted that An Garda Siochana had all the resources it required when it was obvious that the opposite was true.
The report suggested there were “high levels of scepticism and even cynicism across the organisation as to whether there is a genuine and meaningful commitment” to change. That is very understandable because it’s the way the organisation has behaved for decades and there has never been an appetite for change. And the future looks bleak.
Acting Commissioner Dónall O’Cualáin said the audit reinforced the belief that culture needed to be reformed. He said there needed to be “greater engagement” with staff. “For example, as managers, there needs to be greater engagement with the people working for us, so they can have a clear understanding of what is expected from them in delivering a professional policing service.”
This kind of thinking demonstrates why changing the culture in An Garda Siochana will be difficult. The ordinary, everyday rank and file member knows only too well what is required of them to provide a professional service to the public. They do it every day Mr O’Cualain, without much support.
The real problem lies further up the line.
What’s needed is strong, professional and independent leadership and that has been lacking for far too long.