Ambiguous relationship between gardaí and department set for a shake-up
Morris tribunal said department took information from gardaí ’on trust’
The Government has recently agreed to establish an independent Garda authority, which would take on oversight of the force. photograph: eric luke
The Department of Justice is “utterly isolated” from Garda Headquarters. It rarely seeks specific information from senior gardaí, but when it does ask a question, it tends to take the answer “on trust”.
These are not the observations of Liveline callers, nor even of senior counsel Seán Guerin, whose damning report on the official response to a whistleblower’s claims on Garda malpractice was published last week. They are the conclusions of Mr Justice Frederick Morris, in a 2004 tribunal report into claims about the behaviour of gardaí in Donegal.
The Morris tribunal wasn’t specifically asked to look at the relationship between An Garda Síochána and its parent department, although it could hardly ignore it. The issue was dealt with more directly by the Guerin report, which – 10 years after Morris – found that the department accepted without question the many assurances it received from Garda HQ about the serious claims of wrongdoing in Bailieboro district by Sgt Maurice McCabe. “What is frustrating, reading it, is how familiar it is [to] Morris,” says Dr Vicky Conway, author of Policing Twentieth Century Ireland: A History of An Garda Síochána.
In the Civil Service, it’s occasionally said that the small number of departments that have existed in much the same form since Independence have their own culture. Justice is one of those departments, and its personality – the theory goes – is defined by its secrecy and opacity. The past few months haven’t done anything to challenge the perception. This is the department, after all, to which the Garda commissioner could send a memo to say he believed his force may have been systematically recording phone calls for decades, yet even the minister could remain in the dark about it for a couple of weeks. At the weekend, Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar went as far as to say the department was not fit for purpose.
The irony is that the minister for justice has a powerful role in overseeing the Garda. The 2005 Garda Síochána Act – supposedly designed to usher in a new era post-Morris – gives the minister the power to determine and revise Garda priorities, alter the force’s strategy and issue directives to the commissioner. The commissioner can do lots of things, but quite a few of them he can only do after seeking the minister’s permission. Yet in practice, the relationship between the minister and the commissioner of the day – one of the key relationships in the running of the State – appears to remain a delicate balancing act.
“We don’t know much about the relationship,” says Conway. “It has often been quite secretive. I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial way – it’s just not something that has been considered in great detail in public.”
Conor Brady, a former member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, recently described “a dangerous fault-line” where the functions, powers and responsibilities of the commissioner meet those of the minister.
“It is rooted in history and it has never suited the political and administrative establishment to address it in any fundamental way,” he wrote.
Giving evidence at the Morris tribunal, Seán Aylward, a former secretary general at the Department of Justice, described how the department’s relationship with An Garda had evolved over the past century. In the early decades of the State there was “very direct micro-management” by the department. This gave way to a “more modern” relationship, where the department’s focus was on general policy rather than on specific events and incidents. Latterly, there was also “an emphasis on the Garda Síochána working to a plan and bringing in modern management methods”, Aylward said.
Many people have long argued that the most modern way of managing the strange relationship between the Garda and the Department of Justice is to end it – at least as it’s currently constituted.
The Government has recently agreed as much, pledging to establish an independent Garda authority, which would take on oversight of the force, by the end of the year.
The idea of such an authority was broached but rejected after Morris. It may well have taken the fall of a minister and a commissioner for the argument finally to carry the day.