An Garda Síochána: Culture, challenges and change – Courtney Marsh

This project is an exploration and understanding of the organisational culture of An Garda Síochána – Ireland’s National Policing organisation, based on a PhD project completed in the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin in 2020. There has been very little academic research on who and what this organisation is. The Garda has set itself apart from other policing organisations with its policing style that emphasises its relationship with the community through a unified and routinely unarmed policing approach. This model in and of itself is not completely unique as there are other countries who follow this model, but there are only two other countries who follow this model and are routinely unarmed: New Zealand and Norway. However, one factor that further sets Ireland apart is its additional responsibility for the security of the State. When considering this combination of factors, Ireland’s policing organisation is quite unique.

On an abstract level, organisational culture provides the framework of the basic rules necessary to function, or survive, in an organisation. However, this understanding has been gathered from countries with very different policing organisations to Ireland. This considered, there is relatively little to fill this area in Ireland, particularly when you exclude historical accounts of Irish policing and Northern Ireland. Naturally if there if the research in this area is underdeveloped in Ireland, then there is also a missing piece of where Ireland situates itself in the international policing literature. This research provides an understanding of where Ireland positions itself in the wider world of police organisational culture literature.

While the area of police organisational culture can be quite abstract, some of the more specific aspects of the culture this research included were organisational relationships, accountability, and managing change. These findings were connected to a theoretical basis (i.e. social learning, social identity, and rotten apple theories) to further understand how the culture of the Garda is transmitted throughout the organisation and over time as well as contribute to the wider theorisation of police organisational culture.

The documents used in this research, which constituted over 2,000 pages of data and spanned 30 years (1989 -2019), were selected because they contain the data necessary to understand the Garda’s culture.

The main advantages of document analysis are:

  • Longitudinal data (30-year observation period): Understanding of behaviour and/or change over time
  • Limited external control/biases influencing presentation of findings
  • Added contextual data from documents
  • Immediate access to data
  • Controlled external ethical interferences

One of the findings from this research related to the relationship between the organisation and its members. The findings in this area included what type of policing organisation the Garda is and what resources the organisation provides to its members. Beyond this, the resources were examined in relation to making do with what little they are given despite increased demand for their services as well as how Gardaí are then left to cope with the added burdens. In particular reference to mental health provisions, how the organisation facilitated, or rather did not, practical and beneficial mental health services was looked at. There was a general lack and mismanagement of resources within the Garda that has impacted Garda morale and policing ability.

Community Policing was of particular interest considering the organisation’s public commitment to being a community policing organisation, policing with the people rather than policing of them being a guiding philosophy. However, in practice, this is not the case in actuality for community policing in Ireland and this is seen both in observations from the data in how the Gardaí interact with the community as well as more practical origins in how they are trained. Further, it was found that the Gardaí are separated from the community from the outset of their training. This strengthens the proposed idea that the Garda do not truly fit into a community-oriented policing style. From a theoretical perspective, socialisation and Social Learning Theory was employed to understand how embedding these characteristics into the organisation’s culture and its members has happened as well as been sustained over time.

The internal relationships discussed include how the Gardaí interact with each other on an individual level, encompassed within this is the idea that silence is necessary for survival in the organisation. Internally, the relationships among Gardaí were examined both in relation to how they reacted to external and internal threats and it was concluded that the Gardaí overwhelmingly value self-preservation over loyalty.

A final facet of the research looked closer at accountability and blame within the organisation and how the lack of accountability on a wide scale coupled with the ever-present blame culture impacts on Gardaí behaviour and actions. Many of the findings hinge on an understanding of the blame culture and need for self-preservation in the organisation. The components of the blame culture as manifested in the Garda are three fold. While it in essence relies on blaming, the three aspects are responsibility, accountability, and avoiding.

Though some of the examples given were seemingly indicative of individual level actions, it is argued that, stemming from Rotten Apple Theory, these behaviours are manifestations of organisational level behaviours that have been observed and learned by individual members and acted out based on this observation. In essence, even when behaviour was observed at an individual level, it was still reflective of organisational culture as rotten apples do not form in isolation but rather stem from rotten orchards.

The presence of a blame culture within the organisation was one of the most pervasive traits found in the culture, and through this lens, many of the findings found throughout the research became clearer. In summary, what was found was a culture characterised by a resistance to, or hindering of, large scale change; one that focuses on self-preservation above all else with little tolerance for those who choose to speak out; and above all, a culture characterised by consistent issues with accountability and a heavy reliance on a blame culture that dictates most interactions in Garda life.

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