Success in North makes case for a Garda authority
Northern Ireland system is close to home and merits careful scrutiny
PSNI officers form a barricade as Orangemen march past Ardoyne before the Twelfth of July march this year. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
As the first chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, from 2001 to 2009, and a former senior civil servant closely involved in the setting up of the board, we believe the creation of an independent policing authority adds to, rather than diminishes, the accountability of a police service – contrary to what Michael McDowell recently stated in The Irish Times.
Moreover, this can be achieved in a way that fully recognises the ultimate responsibility of the State for national security and other critical policing matters.
The Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, following the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 and chaired by Lord Patten, recommended the creation of a new policing board composed of political members and a nearly equal number of independent members.
The board’s primary function was to hold the police service for Northern Ireland to account through the chief constable, though the commission was clear that the chief constable should have operational responsibility for the actions of all those in the service he headed.
Mr McDowell asserted that “the Garda would be out of control” if the equivalent of the RTÉ Authority were nominally in charge of it. Such a body “wouldn’t be in a position to be accountable . . . to lay down strategy, to set budgets, to make executive decisions and directions, or to appoint or remove the Commissioner”. Yet these are all functions for which the Northern Ireland Policing Board has been responsible since its inception in October 2001.
Public accountabilityThe board’s success in holding successive chief constables to account has been one of its greatest achievements. Moreover, that accountability is very public. Statutorily, the board is required to hold almost monthly meetings in public (as well as in private), at which the media are also present. In the public session, the chief constable is asked a series of questions by board members to which frank replies are expected and generally given.
Each year, the Justice Minister provides the policing board and the chief constable with long-term objectives. Within that framework, the chief constable brings forward a draft annual plan for the board’s consideration, and the board itself sets the annual targets across a wide range of policing issues.
At each board meeting, business includes reports on delivery against targets. Moreover, the board does set the budgets and holds the chief constable to account for the delivery of services within budget.
The policing board is responsible for the appointment of the chief constable (subject to confirmation by the Justice Minister) through a public competition and a selection process it determines – contrary to the practice in respect of the Garda Síochána in Mr McDowell’s tenure.