A half-way house on Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission?
An unfortunate pattern exists whereby, following administrative and political controversies, governments produce half-way-house legislation that falls short of what is required. There is a danger the new Garda Síochána Bill, which grants additional investigative powers to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), may fall into that category. Further clarification or amendments will be required if the Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald is to convince a sceptical public that the Bill is sufficiently robust.
The most significant change in the proposed legislation will allow GSOC, in the public interest, to investigate matters involving the Garda Commissioner if a criminal offence or serious misconduct is suspected. But the permission of the Minister for Justice will be required before such an investigation can be undertaken. That restriction appears excessive and, in obvious recognition, the Bill requires a Minister to provide GSOC with her or his reasons for any refusal. The legislation is, however, silent on whether such details can then be published by GSOC. This is such a fundamental matter that it should be clarified when legislation is debated before the Dáil.
There are positive aspects to the legislation. It extends the powers of GSOC to investigate criminal acts and misconduct along with its ability to report on the policies, practices and procedures of the Garda Síochána. It also requires the Garda Commissioner to ensure that information requested by GSOC should be provided “as soon as practicable”. That latter provision will require regular review to ensure there is no slippage.
Relations between GSOC and the Garda have been poor, with many members of the force resenting external disciplinary oversight. Delays in providing necessary information in relation to public complaints and an unwillingness to deal quickly and informally with minor issues have hampered the work of GSOC. For the past number of years, successive governments have been asked to arrange for minor complaints to be dealt with informally, but without effect. The result is a time-wasting, expensive exercise with 99 per cent of all these complaints being adjudicated on formally by GSOC. This issue may be addressed under legislation providing for the establishment of a Policing Authority early next year. Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald indicated that additional disciplinary changes will be considered in that context.
A lack of clarity regarding what is envisaged, however, represents a cause for concern. Political control; excessive influence by the Department of Justice and reluctance by some gardaí to accept effective oversight require urgent attention. Public confidence in the independence and accountability of the force is at stake.