What does Drew Harris’s appointment as Garda Commissioner tell us about Fine Gael’s attitude to Sinn Fein?

In the Irish Times Ed Moloney has a fascinating backgrounder on the ground breaking appointment of   PSNI Deputy Chief Constable  Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner. Might we now  expect that senior Garda officers will at last become eligible  to head the PSNI?  Or does  history suggest that a single force to serve the entire state creates too introverted a culture to adapt to elsewhere, even to the North?   Drew Harris brings heavy baggage with him and his  appointment will have been approved by the Irish Government in full knowledge of it.

Drew Harris gave evidence to the tribunal in a closed session which the presiding judge, Peter Smithwick, later decided, after consultation with the northern authorities, to publish in a redacted form. The PSNI officer’s testimony was, he told Judge Smithwick, based on intelligence files compiled by the PSNI/RUC and the British security service, MI5.

 

  1. Well, [file] Number 9 states: ‘Intelligence indicates that a senior PIRA Army Council member was directly involved in ordering the murder of Tom Oliver. The senior PIRA Army Council member had been approached by several PIRA members and others requesting that Tom Oliver not be killed. Despite these requests, the senior [PIRA Army Council] member directed that Oliver be executed.’ And do you know who that person was, and if so, have you passed on the information to the gardaí?
  2. I have, and that has been passed on in respect obviously of – the murder of Tom Oliver happened in this jurisdiction so it’s to aid to whatever inquiry An Garda Síochána is conducting into this matter.”

Asked if he would like to give the name of the Army Council member who sent Tom Oliver to his death, Harris opted to write it down and give it to Judge Peter Smithwick who promised that “. . . it would be retained securely”.

Harris’ contribution to the Smithwick tribunal was largely missed by the media. But one journalist picked up on it.

On her Prime Time RTÉ television show in March 2015, Miriam O’Callaghan said to then Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams: “There is a strong belief,” she said, “ . . . that you were [in] the court of appeal that said Tom Oliver should go to his death.”

Gerry Adams angrily protested his innocence: “How can you come on this programme and say that?” he asked. “I clearly deny it, it’s a very reprehensible accusation to make.”

That there is and has been a state of undeclared hostility between Drew Harris and Sinn Féin has been one of the salient features of post Belfast Agreement policing in the North.

 

Adams’s hostility on the other hand has its roots in the PSNI decision to arrest and hold him for four days in April 2014 for questioning about the “disappearance” of Jean McConville, who was abducted, killed and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972. Drew Harris reportedly signed off on Adams’s arrest.

He was also head of crime in the PSNI when authorisation was given to pursue interviews stored at Boston College’s oral history archive which led to Adams’s arrest. (In the interests of full disclosure: I was director of the archive.)

Later in 2014, Drew Harris sought promotion to PSNI deputy chief constable and Sinn Féin withdrew from the police authority selection panel. The northern media was briefed by Sinn Féin that anger at Adams’s arrest explained the protest.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London