If you were, like me, a natural contrarian, it would be relatively easy to make a case that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris should ignore the results of the vote of no confidence in him yesterday, and remain in his position.
He is, after all, the boss. The boss in any organisation is relatively rarely the most popular figure, and is often actively resented. When you’re in charge, you are not on the front lines. You’re the one, by and large, who drives through unpopular reforms even if those reforms are not really of your own making. You’re also the chief disciplinarian. And in the case of Harris, he’s not even the real boss: He takes his orders from the Government and has relatively little say over bread and butter things like pay and conditions. If you’re a rank-and-file garda, he’s the natural target of your angst, since a vote of no confidence in the justice minister is likely to be meaningless.
No doubt, this is what Commissioner Harris and his defenders will be telling themselves, and others, today. That 98% vote of no confidence in him, they might argue, is not really about the commissioner at all but about a general unhappiness in the force about things that are largely outside the commissioner’s control, like recruitment, pay, and working hours.
But all of that is to miss the point.
The Gardai, unlike other branches of the Government, bears more resemblance to a military organisation than it does anything else. It has a quasi-military structure, with ranks and uniforms and insignia. It’s day to day job of maintaining public order and suppressing crime depends on good internal cohesion, confidence in the orders being passed down the line, and crucially a sense that those on the front lines have confidence that the people sending them out onto the streets have their interests at heart.
Morale matters in every organisation, but it especially matters in organisations where the people on the front lines are expected to place themselves in harms way on a regular basis, as Gardai are. We do not have an armed police force, and we live in an era where (excluding the welcome reduction in gangland killings) violent crime is on the rise. In the coming years, we can expect more Gardai to be sent into troubled areas, such as Dublin’s inner city, and asked to deal with some objectively unpleasant and dangerous people.
At present, a member of the Gardai is facing criminal charges on foot of a car chase where known criminals absconded down a motorway in the wrong direction, and died. We cannot comment on that case, as it is before the courts, but we can say that the existence of that case has been exceedingly damaging to frontline garda morale, and that there is a feeling in the force that the commissioner and the garda hierarchy have not been sufficiently vocal in aiding the accused’s defence. Many in the force believe that one consequence of this case is an increased reluctance on behalf of Gardai to take the initiative in risky situations, for fear that they will not be supported by their own command structure.
While the GRA are clear that no single incident resulted in yesterday’s outcome, it is understood that this case is one of many factors that may have influenced the vote.
This is not, then, simply a case of an unpopular boss. It is a case where fundamentally, Gardai do not believe that Garda management has the interests of rank and file gardai at heart. This is toxic because it makes every subsequent change, or reform, be viewed through a lens of suspicion and hostility, and makes the force harder to manage and change.
The purpose of leadership is to inspire confidence, not to sap it. The country is not well served by a Garda Commissioner who has lost the trust of his own men and women, for the simple reason that this situation objectively makes the Gardai less willing to subject themselves to democratic oversight implemented through a management team trusted by Government and rank-and-file gardai equally.
In other words, the Garda Commissioner’s continued presence atop the force makes it much harder for the Government to bring forward whatever changes to the force they might want to enact. So who does the Commissioner’s continued tenure benefit?
Drew Harris was brought in, it is worth recalling, because there was a sense that Garda management was entirely too close to the rank and file. In that sense, he was probably always bound to be less popular than some of his predecessors. He may well be a victim, in some sense, of the perception that he is an outsider.
It doesn’t matter: With a result like this, he can clearly no longer be an effective leader. His inevitable departure should not be delayed, because his position is untenable.