The Garda Commissioner - A Profile of Lawrence Wren

  • 30 November 1984
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YOU HAVE IT NOW. I'M NOT going to make it difficult for you," Joe Ainsworth was overrheard to say to Larry Wren during the crisis-filled weeks in which Wren saw out the Mc Laughlin/Ainssworth regime. And indeed Wren had it all, as his old rival conceded; the commissionership, a reputation unsullied by the wave of political scandal, and a clean sweep at the top of the force which left him head and shoulders above any possible internal challlenge. by Olivia O'Leary

There can have been few more dramatic changes of the palace guard. A fortnight after the December 1982 accession of the coalition government, two of the most senior officers in the force became the subjects of an investigation by a third, Larry Wren. They sat in their offices, watched men; deferring to juniors in terms of acccess to files or even certain telephone calls; knowing that the new Minister for Justice had asked immediately for files on telephone surveillance, on Dowra, on the Kerry car crash, the Pat O'Connor case, on a series of incidents ranging from the Stardust fire to the Macarthur case.

Deputy Commissioner Larry Wren had been the cloud on their, and their former minister's horizon. Now the storm was breaking and Wren's enquiry would sweep them out and his own regime in.

Wren, after all, hadn't stood idly by in the previous two years.

Whatever his superiors thought, he showed he could act indepenndently.

In April 1982 when McLaughlin was on holiday and Wren was Acting Commissioner, he had initiated an inquiry into the handling by Superintendent Billy Byrne of the Pat O'Connor case (the allegation of voting irregularities by C.J. Haughey's election agent), as a result of DPP queries.

But he trod on even more sensitive ground in September 1982, when he represented the Commissioner at a review hearing where he voted to uphold the appeal against transfer by Sergeant Tom Tully of Boyle, former Justice Minister Doherty's home townland. Doherty was furious, it as the evidence gathered by Tully to back his case whi h was in time to lift the lid off the Doherty regime in Justice.

In Wren's file at that hearing were two recommendations that Sergeant Tully's appeal be rejected, one from Assistant Commissioner Frank Davis in charge of the Personnel Branch, and one from Chief Superintendent Burke who had carried out a disciplinary investigation into Tully as a result of allegations by a Garda Cafferty. According to documents which have come into the hands of Magill, the allegations were not proven but Burke recommended that the transfer go ahead because of the unsatisfactory way the Boyle station records were kept and because he felt if Tully "were removed from his farming interests, he would again revert to giving of his best."

The farming factor and "disharmony" at the station were given by Assistant Commissioner Davis as reasons for a transfer.

Even though Wren, as one of the three adjudicators on the .review body, had no role to play in the revealing of information to the body he was called in the next mornning by the Minister for Justice, Sean Doherty. In an angry confrontation Doherty demanded of Wren if it was standdard practice for the review body to arrive at its decisions without all the facts being made known to it, implying that Wren should have argued a case for the transfer on the basis of the recommendations made by senior officcers. Wren reacted angrily. As far as Wren was concerned, for quite some time, the gloves were off.

THERE ARE THOSE WITHIN THE FORCE who will say that Wren spent his first eighteen months as head of the force settling scores, that the restoration of local control over the regional task forces, and the ending of the ground-to -air patrols were deliberate attempts to undo the work of Joe Ainsworth. Ainsworth's close relationship with Commissioner McLaughhlin in the period from 1979 had edged the then Deputy Commissioner Wren out of the real centre of power in the force.

But there were good reasons to clip the wings of the regional task forces, whose increasing independence of action had been causing local concern. And there were good disciplinary reasons to pursue the Dowra and Kerry car crash incidents, not that either reached a very decisive connclusion. (Wren's tangle with RUC Chief Constable Jack Hermon on the Dowra matter got him nowhere. In the Kerry case, Garda Donie Dunne was charged, but the case was dismissed in court.)

And there were good reasons to impose discipline on a force which had begun to accept political interference as a matter of course under successive governments, and to have less confidence in its own regulatory procedures as a result.

One of Wren's first moves was to see that the law on drunken driving be applied vigorously, no matter what special representation was made in individual cases. He innsisted that all cases where breathalyser tests were given be reported to his office and appointed an officer to monitor them and investigate cases that weren't brought to court. A number of men were disciplined in the Dundrum area as a result of breathalyser cases which didn't reach the courts.

More recently, Wren set about smartening up his senior officers throughout the country. At a meeting in August of Superintendents and Chief Superintendents he told them bluntly to spend less time on the golf course, less time on the second jobs, and more productive time in their offices.

The boys were stunned. Senior Garda Officers are petty kings in their own areas. Nobody had spoken to them like that for years.

Various senior officers stood up to make their case but the Commissioner wasn't in the mood to listen. After the first four speakers, the officers decided to sit on their opinions. The meeting ended early, leaving quite a few mutinous souls behind. One Chief Superintendent from the West has since been considering early retirement. There are certain things up with which a man will not put.

That won't worry Larry Wren. Abrasive, spartan, a born martinet, he aims to run a tight ship, even at the risk of a few men overboard. He has a puritan's distrust for the perks and privileges of his office. For instance he leaves his offiicial car in the depot, driving his family car to and from home - and insists that his fellow commissioners do the same, somewhat to their chagrin.

He is determined that no one will ever level against him any charge of favouritism and is rigid about transfer and appointment decisions within the force. Indeed, appeals can often backfire, as in the case of one Chief Superintenndent in the Dublin area who, with a year to go to retireement, was to be transferred to headquarters but asked to be allowed stay where he was.

Not only did the Commissioner refuse his request, he transferred him a week earlier than scheduled and called his replacement back off holiday.

ON PUBLIC OCCASIONS COMMISSIONER Wren rarely takes more than one drink and pulls out early from traditional Garda knees-ups like the Templemore passing out parades, so that his fellow officers feel obliged to do the same. His way with people he must have learned in the Archbishop Dermot Ryan Academy for corn-treading and truculence. He detests red carpets and welcoming parties and is likely to ask the officers involved if they've nothing better to do. He livens up social occasions by enquiring of fellow gardai how they managed to get time away from their desks. He probably means to make a diffident joke. Grace, as I say, is not his middle name.

He didn't particularly endear himself to members of the Oireachtas when he created difficulties about cooperating with the All-Party Committee on Crime and Vandalism. In a curt exchange of letters he informed them that he could not be questioned by them on policy since that was the government's responsibility. Eventually he agreed to speak only about the operational matters for which he was ressponsible. As a result the committee could not explore the wider implications of crime-beating and crime-prevention with the chieflaw officer in the land.

A criticism levelled against him even by those who are his allies and who welcome his puritanical approach, is that he fails to accept his full responsibilities as head of the force, that he has no input into the development of policing policy, that he is an old-fashioned cop with no imagination. It was noticeable that the two representative bodies within the force, The Garda Representative Association and the Association of Sergeants and Inspectors, set the pace on the Criminal Justice Bill, working out detailed submissions, arguing The case in public. It was they, rather than the head of the force, who rigorously fought the garda case.

Indeed there are complaints that Wren is too much under the thumb of the Department of Justice and fails almost totally to act as the public voice of the force and there was an amount of anger within the gardai that it was Michael Noonan, and not Wren who announced the suspennsion of the three gardai in the Shercock case. Noonan then went on to warn that if the garda investigation into the Kerry Babies case didn't come to a satisfactory conclusion a public enquiry would be held. Noonan, the gardai know, is a politician first and last. When the gardai are on the ropes, they'd prefer their own Commissioner to do the talking.

And right now, with public confidence in the force at a low ebb and growing unease about the treatment of people brought in for questioning, the gardai need a spokessman. What they have is a Commissioner who refuses to do interviews or appear on television - he gave one reluctant interview to RTE's security correspondent defending the gardai against allegations of involvement in the Moyna bugging affair, and one interview to the Sunday Press about the Claremorris fiasco during the Tidey kidnap case - an interview he later regretted.

The force's representative bodies often end up doing his job for him on television. Mr Wren hasn't yet joined the television age.

He is fiercely secretive about garda affairs and monitors jealously the handing out of the most mundane information by the press office. Indeed, when I asked the press office for some basic biographical material - where he was from, where he lived - they began to read me details from an Irish Times cutting - a curious compliment to the excellent corresponderit of the Irish Times, but hardly an impressive reflection on the information-gathering powers of the garda press officers.

It's said the senior press officer is brought in for a 10.30 session every day to clear any nuggets of information which may be released on the hungry public, and that a reply to almost all press queries has to be cleared by the Commisssioner's own office. No comment at all is given on discipplinary matters. In addition, the press still don't know whether the internal inquiry into the Kerry Babies case has been completed or not.

Members of the force worry that as a result of this inforrmation-blocking process the gardai are getting an unsympaathetic press. "We need a proper public relations job done, because we need the public on our side," said one garda. "Policing is no longer a simple matter of containment, we need the cooperation of the public."

But then Larry Wren is 62, he doesn't belong to a geneeration which values good public relations. Born in Abbeyyfeale, County Limerick in 1922, he joined the gardai in 1943, was promoted to sergeant in 1954 and inspector in 1960, superintendent in 1963 (when based in Munster, he was shot at by a garda with a grudge) and chief superinntendent in 1969. Through the seventies he worked in C3, now the Intelligence and Security Branch, and was a central figure in the garda handling of the Herrema kidnap and Monasterevan siege in 1975 when he maintained constant contact with kidnappers Eddie Gallagher and Marion Coyle.

He was a trusted protege of Commissioner Ned Garvey, who made a deal with the kidnappers to recommend reduced sentences if they surrendered and handed over Herrema unharmed. The deal was reneged upon. It's not clear if Wren had a role in drawing up the deal, but he cerrtainly knew of it and indeed was handed a copy of it by Herrema, who had in turn been handed it by Eddie Gallaagher.

Wren was made an Assistant Commissioner in 1976 and Deputy Commissioner in 1978 when he was pushed sideways as swashbuckling Joe Aisnworth took over and expanded the Intelligence and Security Branch.

He was appointed Commissioner on February 1 1983.

If Wren is a man who arrives on the job promptly, he doesn't hang around when the working day is over, leaving his office at 5.30pm to head for his Castleknock home, his Galway-born wife, Maureen, and their two daughters. Apart from his home and family, his only known interest outside the job is his work for the St Vincent de Paul in the North Dublin area.

In his remaining three years, it's unlikely that he'll be able to tackle the formidable problems facing the police. His traditional views may prove a stumbling block to the modernisation of police methods and more important, to the provision of thorough and effective basic training. He could tackle the ill-treatment of people brought in for quesstioning and prove that he's as puritanical about police interfering with members of the public as he is about poliiticians interfering with members of his own force. There are corrupting influences inside the force as well as outside of it.

But for the moment, whatever his limitations, this' one major achievement will stand to him. Politicians pleading for special favours no longer get a ready ear from the police, and policemen who say "no" don't live in fear of revenge. "You can now," said one of the boys in blue earnestly, "tell a politician to go and get stuffed."

And that's what Larry Wren did.