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Rising number of gardaí convicted shows force’s culture changing, Policing Authority chair says

Technology and not ‘boots on the streets’ crucial for policing rural Ireland, says Elaine Byrne

The increased number of Garda members being convicted of crimes and recent trends in suspensions appear to be evidence that Commissioner Drew Harris is changing the force’s “culture”, the new head of the Policing Authority has said.

Elaine Byrne said when some people see a rise in the number of gardaí being suspended or convicted “there can be a sense that the guards are corrupt or that there’s something deeply wrong within the organisation”.

However, she said she takes a different view of this trend. “I have a view that these are examples of the guards tackling certain types of behaviours directly and head-on, perhaps in a manner that hadn’t been done in the past.”

While it was always “a concern” that crimes were being committed by members of the force, the fact more gardaí were being convicted was welcome as it showed the “Garda isn’t afraid, the anti-corruption unit isn’t afraid” to tackle internal criminality.


Before Harris was appointed commissioner in late 2018, the number of Garda members suspended from duty, pending allegations against them being investigated, was 30-40.

After his appointment suspensions exceeded 120 at one stage, but have recently declined to fewer than 100.

A recent meeting of the authority heard there was a 40 per cent reduction in new suspensions last year, a 70 per cent increase in suspensions coming to an end, and a 36 per cent decrease in disciplinary cases being commenced within the Garda. There were no suspensions in the first two months of this year.

Byrne believed the increased level of suspensions, and resulting convictions of gardaí in the courts, in the years after Harris was appointed sent a clear message across the force.

With the number of suspensions and other disciplinary inquiries starting to decline, she said this was perhaps evidence of the commissioner’s message being understood by gardaí.

“The positive side of that [the increase in convictions of gardaí] is, you could say, there’s a cultural change in the organisation in the sense that the signal has gone out there’s no tolerance for this type of behavior,” she said. “And when this behavior is detected it will result in consequences. Perhaps that’s a welcome cultural change within the organisation.”

Byrne is a practising barrister, specialising in regulatory and employment law, and has worked as a consultant on governance matters for the European Commission, the United Nations and the World Bank. She has been a columnist for a number of publications, including The Irish Times. She has had an interest in corruption throughout her career, and intends to keep a focus on this area as chair of the authority.

In her first interview since succeeding former RTÉ director general Bob Collins as head of the independent policing watchdog in January, Byrne said she was concerned at the number of civilian staff seeking to transfer out of An Garda Síochána.

Last week it emerged some 900 Garda civilian staff, or 27 per cent of the force’s civilian workforce, had applied to leave the Garda and move to another part of the Civil Service.

A Policing Authority report – What We Heard 2023 – found that many civilian workers were requesting a transfer because of “uncertainty” about their “terms and conditions” in the months ahead as their status is to shift from being civil to public servants when the Policing, Security and Community Safety Act 2024 comes into operation.

“It’s very shocking ... because it has a direct impact on the operational side of policing,” Byrne said of the number of staff transfer requests, adding that the loss of experienced people with specialist skills would certainly be a concern.

“I think this is a bigger issue than just the guards, in the sense that there are wider issues about terms and conditions for civil servants and public servants.

“And it appears the guards are, with this new Bill, a testing ground for some of these terms and conditions. And the civilian side of the house has reacted in a manner which suggests they are not very happy with the uncertainty of their positions and that’s impacting on policing.”

However, she said the number of sworn gardaí resigning from the force, while said to be at a crisis level, was not out of line with international trends. “Much of the focus has been on the resignation or early retirement of Garda members. But 1.2 per cent, which is 169 members [resigning last year] ... in any comparison with other jurisdictions, it compares very favourably.”

While the number of gardaí based in rural Ireland, coupled with the number of regional stations and their opening hours, often dominates debate about Irish policing, Byrne sees a need for a change of outlook as the current view is not one “that marries with the needs of a modern society”.

Since her appointment to the authority in 2021, before becoming its chair two months ago, much of the conversation has been around the need for better IT resources and expertise in the Garda.

The focus of policing has been forced to change in recent years, with gardaí facing a significant increase in cyber-enabled fraud cases, which accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Gardaí are also dealing with a significant volume of cases involving the accessing and sharing of images of child sexual abuse.

Byrne said many crimes that had serious consequences for children and other victims, specifically around child sexual abuse and exploitation, did not exist “in my parents’ generation”.

“These are matters that need to be given the resources that are required and there perhaps needs to be a shift away from that traditional image of placing boots on the streets, [Garda] numbers in rural Garda stations,” she said. “And I’m from a rural area myself, I grew up in a rural area, grew up at a crossroads. I know all about what it’s like to live in a rural area.

“But while you live in a rural area, your bedrooms upstairs are where your son or daughters are potentially being exploited [online] by an individual, and that can ruin that child’s life for the rest of their days. And that crime is not going to be solved by the local police officers in my local station. That crime is going to be solved by specialist IT staff, wherever they might be in Ireland.”

Byrne also said she had been “ struck” at the sheer level of policing demand in the West Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Region, which covers areas such as Clondalkin, Blanchardstown, Finglas, Lucan and Ballyfermot.

She said that “on particular nights” this division “has more calls and more activity than all of the other districts in the country combined, and that certainly is very challenging for all of the people in that particular district”.

As authority chair, Byrne intends to ensure there is a human rights basis not only for how the gardaí carry out their duties and treat members of the public, but in also how members are supported.

While it was “incredibly hard work that guards do”, she said there was an “extraordinary sense of satisfaction” from working as a garda because “you’re impacting on people’s lives every day in a meaningful way that most people never get the opportunity to do”.