Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Here’s a quiz to get your brain cogs whirring this morning. Aside from being (or having been) semi-state bodies, what do Aer Lingus, Eircom, Dublin Bus, RTE and the National Car Test all have in common? The answer is that all improved their services after encountering direct competition and the idea that their performance might actually affect their existence.
This occurred to me whilst watching last week’s formal opening of the Annual Shall We Sack The Garda Commissioner festival. We’re all familiar with the format. Something involving the guards explodes into the public consciousness, and we do the traditional Irish thing of either blaming The System as if we have no control over it, or we point to the current incumbent and make them Baddie of the Week.
It’ll rumble on a bit, and then we might get the old “personal health/family reasons” letter, she heads off with her pension, the next one steps up, and we all agree to meet around this cauldron same time next year to kick it off again. We should probably make Garda scandal day a bank holiday. At least that way we’d all get a weekend out of it.
At its heart is an issue about the Garda Siochana. Now, before I kick off, let me say that for various professional and personal reasons I’ve had a not unreasonable amount of dealings with the Gardai. I’ve got to be honest: I found them professional, courteous and diligent. But one thing that struck me in all my dealings with them is that really good Gardai, and there are really good Gardai, are good despite their organisation, not because of it.
I’ve had encounters with young guards who are incredibly frustrated by the fact that their own technology, their personal phones and laptops, are vastly superior to the equipment they are supposed to use. I’ve seen them handwriting reams of statements which then have to be typed up. I’ve participated in a line-up where the victim was expected to enter the room, walk up to the alleged person who’d beat seven bells out of them earlier that day, and place his hand on the suspects’ shoulder.
I wasn’t the suspect, just in case you’re wondering.
We have a force that is physically courageous and clean by international standards. When I say that, people snort, but it’s true. We don’t have a culture of street cops shaking us down for cash, which is common enough in some countries: I know of one person who was robbed on the street by police offers in St Petersburg. But it is also a force that is not fit for 21st century purpose, and we have to ask ourselves why.
In the old Tom & Jerry cartoons of the 1940s, and in the old “Batman” TV show in the 1960s, it was taken as read that large numbers of police in Boston, Chicago and New York were actual Irish immigrants or of Irish descent. Why was that? Was it because as a people we were drawn to law and order? If you knew us as a people, you’d think that highly unlikely. No, the Irish joined the police because it was a good pensionable job. It offered security, and that is a culture which permeates most Irish public bodies. The terms and conditions of the body’s employees are often, unofficially, the primary concern of the organisation.
As I mentioned earlier, this culture has been forced to change when public bodies actually start to lose business to competition, and questions about their actual necessity start to get asked. That forced Dublin Bus to start providing a dedicated service to Dublin airport, or Eircom and Aer Lingus to lower their prices.
Almost uniquely, the Garda Siochana have, by the nature of its mission, being exempt from those same pressures, and it shows. It’s not that the force hasn’t changed or improved, but not at the same noticeable pace as the rest of the semi-state sector. Look at the forces record on dealing with white collar crime and especially political corruption. Or try and report a case of internet fraud to a Garda station (which Paypal require you to do in such cases) and watch the blank face on an older Garda. Again, I have a relative who was lectured by a desk sergeant about staying away from “that internet thing”. Is that official Garda policy in a country with notions about being the digital hub of Europe?
The Garda need competition, and here’s how we do it. We outsource those areas where the Gardai are failing, like political corruption, white collar and internet crime. Let’s put it out to tender, for a fixed contract period, and see if we can get some large US or UK private security or law firm interested. The successful applicant will have the same Garda powers and legal restraints in those areas, and be paid a bonus on conviction in an Irish court. They’ll be answerable to GSOC.
What do we have to lose? The Gardai are not doing much in those areas anyway, so any increase in activity is to the good, and might force the Gardai to modernise out of sheer fear of that greatest of all Irish motivators, the fear of being shown up.
And here’s the beauty: if it doesn’t work, we can sack all of them.