The appointment of Drew Harris as the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána in September 2018 was presented by some sympathetic commentators as an opportunity for Ireland’s police service to redeem itself after a years of high-profile scandals and accusations of corruption and patronage in the ranks. As a former Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the United Kingdom’s paramilitary police force in the Six Counties, the Belfast man was seen by the conservative establishment in Dublin as a safe pair of hands to usher in a new era of reforms for the Garda (while also illustrating the new dispensation between north and south). In contrast, Harris’ critics voiced concerns about his early career in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the disbanded forerunner to the PSNI, during the worse years of the so-called Troubles, which included the loss of his father in 1989, a senior RUC officer killed in an under-car bomb attack by the Irish Republican Army. By and large, these criticisms were dismissed by the right-wing press which blamed disgruntled republicans and trouble-making leftists for stirring up needless controversy over the appointment.
However, so far there has been little evidence of Drew Harris implementing any dramatic changes to the core institutional culture of An Garda Síochána. Or even any particularly moderate ones. Arguably it has been quite the contrary. Take the latest incident involving the service, with the news that following a meeting with his former northern colleagues, the Garda Commissioner had travelled from the Six Counties to Dublin in a discretely armoured and unmarked PSNI jeep, accompanied by a number of armed officers from that force’s elite Close Protection Unit to the Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park. There the car was intercepted by an alert garda at the gates who deployed an emergency retractable security bollard when the vehicle with its northern plates tried to enter the secure site, causing the specially adapted Range Rover to crash (the vehicle allegedly tipped over onto its side or roof, but since the gardaí are refusing to give the full details of the incident we are left in the dark about what exactly happened).
This is extraordinary stuff. The head of Ireland’s unarmed civilian police service being given a lift in a blast-proof jeep with armed paramilitary police from the UK’s legacy colony in the north-east of the island. The whole thing reeks of illegality, since “foreign” law enforcement agencies have no right to carry weapons in the Twenty-Six Counties without the written permission of the Minister for Justice and Equality. And though he has expressed some support for the Garda and the PSNI, the current holder of the government office, Charles Flanagan, has also made some effort to distant himself from the brewing controversy. Given that the recent tarnishing of the Garda’s reputation began with the perception that its members act as if they are above the law, this potential scandal is likely to become yet another stain on the force’s modern record.
And here’s a question. What if the vehicle carrying Drew Harris and his armed escort had got into a car crash or similar incident on the public highway somewhere south of the border, and the PSNI officers had pulled their weapons, believing themselves to be under threat or attack? Or worse, had fired those guns? What then? If the press reports are true, the gross negligence in the thinking of those involved in this stunt and the lack of forethought is simply shocking.