Diarmaid Ferriter: Wanted – independent civilian Garda chief

Irish policing is firmly wedded to politics but it has not been a successful marriage

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. “Interrogating the commissioner before the Public Accounts Committee has become a political blood sport.” Photograph: Eric Luke

If all goes to plan, 2018 will witness the report of the independent “root-and-branch” review of An Garda Síochána, the product of the commission announced last month and promised by its chair, Kathleen O’Toole, to be the most ambitious review of Irish policing since the foundation of the State. This means the 50th anniversary of a root-and-branch review of policing will be marked with the same thing.

In 1968, judge Charlie Conroy chaired a commission that examined the administration and internal workings of policing. His report urged the government to carry out what was described as a “root-and-branch” reorganisation of the force. Conroy recommended reform of every aspect of police life, including training, work environment, industrial relations, promotion and pay. The report was regarded as groundbreaking, especially in relation to pay and overtime and many of its recommendations were implemented, but in relation to one of its spikier proposals – the need to examine the relationship between the force and the Department of Justice – there was no political will to follow through.

For a police force born in time of Civil War, this issue of the politicisation of policing was there from the start and is still with us. Michael Staines, the first Garda commissioner, faced a mutiny in 1922 due to divisions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and resentment at senior police roles being occupied by ex-RIC men. A government commission of inquiry into the mutiny carried out by two civil servants recommended the force be largely unarmed and that politicians should not serve in it, which meant Staines, a TD, could resign as commissioner.

Political football

But this did not solve a wider political problem to do with the relationship between the force and the government of the day. There have been 20 Garda commissioners to date and half of them have been associated with political controversy. Policing is still a political football; Fianna Fáil promised to remove commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan “within six months” if elected to government, and interrogating the commissioner before the Public Accounts Committee has become a political blood sport, as was clear again this week.

Back in 1933, the Fianna Fáil government removed Eoin O’Duffy, lacking “full confidence” in him. That was hardly unreasonable given Duffy’s predilections for extremism, but Duffy’s replacement, Ned Broy, formed an auxiliary unit, largely made up of former IRA and Fianna Fáil supporters; such were its excesses the unit was described as “an excrescence” on the force by a judge in 1935.

After the heated political decades of the 1920s and 1930s in the shadow of civil war, there should have been a determination to depoliticise policing. This was not done.

In 1977, in the wake of controversy over the operation of a “heavy gang” in the force and his contemptuous treatment of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), such was commissioner Edmund Garvey’s unpopularity that he was dealing with both a defiant force and a hostile government, but he resisted pressures to resign. Many Gardaí made representations to the Fianna Fáil party during the general election campaign of 1977, urging it to replace Garvey if the party was elected, which was precisely what happened. In January 1978 he was dismissed after refusing to resign, with the government giving no reason for the decision, except that it had no confidence in him. A successful legal challenge by Garvey to that dismissal ensued. Garvey was replaced by Patrick McLaughlin, to the satisfaction of the Gardaí. Ironically, McLaughlin subsequently had to resign because he authorised the phone tapping of journalists at the behest of his political masters.


Irish policing being wedded to politics has done considerable damage over the decades, notwithstanding the many achievements of the force. If the new commission does not robustly address that problem and if politicians do not entirely let go of policing, this new exercise will be a waste of time. The GRA has understandably complained that there are no current or retired Gardaí serving on the commission, but is it the case that serving Gardaí are best placed to influence how the force is run?

In 1965, minister for justice Brian Lenihan pointedly remarked: “Every recruit Garda should feel at the outset of his career that he carried a commissioner’s baton in his holdall.” This was the day after civil servant Garda commissioner Daniel Costigan had, under pressure from the government, which in turn was under pressure from the Gardaí, resigned, and the message was clear: a career Garda should be heading the force. This was despite the fact that two civil servants to hold the post – Costigan and, from 1938 to 1952, Michael Kinnane – had been regarded by many as enlightened managers and reformers.

The new commission needs to look closely at history to see if there are merits to the idea of a civilian head of a Garda force who is answerable, not to government, but to an independent policing authority with teeth.