Policing the Garda in wake of Cooke report
Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has expressed confidence in the board of the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). It is more than she has done for the secretary general of her own Department Brian Purcell. This dichotomy reflects the political and administrative tensions that continue to affect relations between the Government, the Garda Siochána, GSOC and the Department of the Justice. Radical reform, a depoliticisation of structures, and greater accountability are required to rebuild public confidence.
Mr Justice Cooke has found no evidence the offices of GSOC had been bugged last year. That is hardly surprising. Neither did GSOC when it conducted its own investigation. Lacking such evidence and with limited terms of reference, the judge concluded that surveillance of the kind suggested in a newspaper article had not occurred and that members of the Garda Siochána had not been involved. He criticised GSOC for not telling former minister Alan Shatter about what he believed might have been a premature investigation. But he accepted it had acted in good faith.
The retired judge noted that GSOC is restricted by law to investigating possible misconduct by members of the Garda Siochána. That explains why the board specifically exonerated members of the gardai in its report. The reference was represented, however, as an unwarranted attack on the force and a reason to limit the powers of GSOC. Many gardai dislike the way in which GSOC conducts its business. They have been extremely reluctant to accept robust external oversight and strict accountability and have received sympathetic hearings from successive ministers and from within the Department of Justice. That may be about to change.
Following publication of the Cooke report, Minister Fitzgerald accepted the need to strengthen the investigative powers of GSOC and improve its protocols with the Garda Siochána. She acknowledged, however, that without a change in Garda attitudes and a culture of cooperation, new legislation and protocols would have little effect. There is, therefore, an obligation on all concerned to accept fair and transparent systems of discipline and accountability.
Events of recent months that forced the resignations of Martin Callinan and Alan Shatter exposed penalty point abuses and the mistreatment of whistle-blowers along with a wilful disregard for the Garda Inspectorate and have shaken public confidence in policing structures.
Governments have a tendency to half-complete reform programmes. This time, Minister Fitzgerald and her colleagues can do things differently. The establishment of a community-based Garda Authority would reduce the stultifying influence of the Department of Justice. The disciplinary remit of GSOC should be extended to include the Garda Commissioner, and its general powers of investigation should be enhanced. Resistance can be expected at many levels. In that regard, the appointment of a new commissioner from outside the force would signal the beginning of change to a moribund culture.