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Monday 23 October 2017

Fitzgerald's not afraid to play 'bad cop' as she sets out to reform the gardai

Frances Fitzgerald is laying down the law. In recent weeks, some Fine Gael TDs have started tipping her as a dark horse in the race to succeed Enda Kenny.

To achieve that dream, she needs to be a top-class Minister for Justice - which explains why she has just told the Garda Siochana that their performance is just not good enough.

Fitzgerald's scathing criticism of our police force, made in an article for the Irish Independent yesterday, is totally unprecedented. She is ordering gardai to change both their "structure and culture", since all the controversies of recent months have "tainted" their public image.

While the minister will do her bit by creating a new Garda Authority and strengthening the Ombudsman Commission, she is warning that they may be useless without a different attitude from the top brass.

If this is what Fitzgerald is prepared to say in public, we can only imagine what she has already told Acting Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan behind closed doors.

teeth

Her 'bad cop, bad cop' approach can only mean one thing. The new garda oversight body will be a watchdog with serious teeth.

Fitzgerald is not going to "take the politics out of policing" as some naive TDs have demanded - she wants the right to put manners on them if and when she sees fit.

Fitzgerald's broadside shows that she has learned some vital lessons from the downfall of her predecessor.

Alan Shatter's biggest weakness was his refusal to hear a word of criticism against the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

Fitzgerald's comments are all the more surprising given that they come from a Fine Gael minister.

Ever since the early days of the State, the Blueshirts have seen themselves as a party of law and order with the utmost respect for men and women in uniform.

If even Fine Gael are conceding that the Garda Siochana needs a major facelift, then their arguments have to carry a lot of weight.

Fitzgerald can hardly be blamed for wanting to go on the attack. Since the Dublin Mid-West TD got her big promotion last March, she seems to have spent most of her time apologising.

She started off by saying sorry to the garda whistleblowers who forced Alan Shatter to clear his desk.

After that it was time to beg forgiveness from the Roma families whose children were wrongly taken away by gardai last year.

Earlier this month, she appeared before the United Nations' Human Rights Committee in Geneva, where a group of angry officials gave her a public lecture about Ireland's record on abortion and people with disabilities.

Now it is Fitzgerald's turn to seize the high moral ground. Alan Shatter was a famously hard-working justice minister who got to his office at 5am some mornings, but the new broom is turning out to be no slouch either.

As well as the Garda Authority and GSOC legislation, she has unveiled three new laws that will crack down on dissident republicans.

If Fitzgerald is about to embark on a crusade to radically reform our police force, however, she had better watch her step.

forbidden

The garda unions are both extremely powerful and highly sensitive to criticism.

While the gardai may be legally forbidden to go on strike, the threat of another 'blue flu' is never far from the surface.

Fitzgerald would do well to remember one other crucial factor. After the recent frenzy of scandals and resignations, garda morale is on the floor.

Many rank-and-file gardai feel that 
they have been unfairly tarred by the actions of a small minority - and a little consideration for their feelings would go a long way.

Still, Fitzgerald is clearly up for the challenge. She has not entered the Department of Justice just to smooth things over.

She intends to make waves - which means that leadership hopefuls Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney may need to start watching their backs.

Frances Fitzgerald has already shown herself to be no pushover.

If the Minister for Justice carries on in this aggressive vein, she might just end up as Ireland's answer to the Iron Lady.

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