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Garda grassroots’ relations with Drew Harris have completely broken down

Commissioner’s absence from 11,500-strong Garda Representative Association conference a turn for the worse

The annual conference of the Garda Representative Association (GRA) always feels a bit like Groundhog Day.

Every year, according to rank-and-file gardaí, morale is at an all-time low, relations with upper management are worse than ever and a large chunk of the organisation is supposedly heading for the door.

However, this year seemed different. Although senior delegates were reluctant to say it outright, ordinary members of the 11,500-strong organisation were almost uniformly of the view that relations with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris have completely broken down. And this time, they meant it.

This view is backed up by hard facts. Last year, in an unprecedented move, a motion was passed by GRA membership expressing no confidence in the commissioner. Ninety-nine per cent of members approved the motion which the commissioner called a “kick in the teeth”.


This year, the GRA opted not to invite the commissioner to address their conference in Westport, Co Mayo, something that had not happened before in the association’s 100 years.

The commissioner’s attendance at the annual event provides rank-and-file members a rare opportunity to share their grievances directly with the Garda’s most senior officer. Forgoing this opportunity illustrates the widening chasm between members and management.

The commissioner is a former senior Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer and was appointed to his present post in 2018, becoming the first non-Garda appointed to the role in almost 100 years. The appointment of an outsider was intended to draw a line under the various scandals which had plagued the force over the previous decade.

To a degree, this was successful. But Harris’s outsider status and austere management style led to clashes with the lower ranks that have become more pronounced.

The association’s incoming vice-president Det Garda Niall Hodgins suggested part of the issue is Harris, having come up through the PSNI, was never a GRA member.

“Each and every one of his predecessors were fortunate enough to be members of the great association that I represent,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the present Garda Commissioner was probably less fortunate than his predecessors not to be a member.”

The present crisis has many causes. Rank-and-file gardaí are upset about a new roster system which they say will mean less time off. Pensions are also a problem, as is the increasing number of officers leaving the force early and the introduction of computer systems which members say serve little purpose except to create work.

A new flashpoint is the commissioner’s response to last November’s Dublin riots and his contention that no one could have seen them coming.

This riled some members, who said gardaí present on the streets earlier that day knew trouble was on the way. Hodgins noted Harris’s decision to grant armed garda protection to all Government Ministers earlier in the year as possible proof he knew things were approaching a boiling point.

“Clearly, there was some sort of intelligence available to him that there may have been a threat to these people who represent us at the highest office in the land. So I’m afraid I find his comments somewhat disingenuous.”

The accusation drew a forceful response from Garda headquarters on behalf of the commissioner. A spokesman noted numerous times Harris had warned of the threat from the far right and measures he took to reinforce gardaí in the city centre when violence erupted.

Another point of contention is the commissioner’s directive mandating that, in response to the dramatic increase in road deaths, every garda should devote 30 minutes of their shift to roads policing. GRA members called this a “PR stunt”.

Harris is something of a closed book. He keeps a close circle of confidants around him and his focus on discipline and doing things strictly by the book has caused even senior members of the force to feel alienated at times.

The recent saga involving the suspension of a garda who loaned a bicycle to an elderly man during the pandemic is seen as a symptom of his uncompromising approach to discipline.

However, newly elected GRA president Garda Mark O’Meara insists the problems are not the result of a personality clash. “It’s the issues, it’s always been the issues.”

The election of O’Meara and other new GRA leaders this week may open a door to reconciliation. The new president struck an optimistic tone on Wednesday, calling a recent meeting with the commissioner “very productive” and saying there has been some meeting of the minds on the issue of rosters.

“Our members are still very much of the view that they have no confidence in the commissioner’s office but we will continue to engage and try to improve relations,” said O’Meara.