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

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 accountability

The 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.

In addition, statutorily, the board may call upon any senior officer to retire “in the interests of efficiency or effectiveness”.

The composition of the policing authority is important. In Northern Ireland, 10 of the 19 board members are Assembly Members nominated by their parties proportionately on the d’Hondt system, while the remaining nine are independents chosen by the Justice Minister, after a rigorous open competition. In our experience, this balance worked well, especially when the elected members have been senior politicians.

In 2007, Sinn Féin joined the board comparatively seamlessly. The breadth of political representation has ensured that a wide spectrum of the community’s views are taken into account, while the strong cadre of independent members has on occasions held the politicians in check and ensured a constructive outcome.

The board has dealt successfully with a range of challenges, including holding the PSNI to account for the delivery of consent (50:50 recruitment), the Police Ombudsman’s 2001 report on the Omagh bombing, and the 2002 raid on Sinn Féin offices at Stormont (which preceded the suspension of the Assembly).

The Independent Commission was clear that on matters of national security the chief constable should report directly to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State. This separation has mostly worked satisfactorily. Mr McDowell observes that areas such as organised crime and subversive activity require the Minister of the day to become involved. We would agree that organised crime does raise issues that require attention from both the policing authority and the Minister, but that should lead to healthy discussion, rather than competition.

Emotive issues

However, we would not agree that only a Minister can address decisions such as the closure of rural police stations. In Northern Ireland, that emotive issue benefited from consultation with the then District Policing Partnerships, and from detailed – yet public – board discussion.

Since the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland in April 2010, there is also the Assembly Justice Committee. That, too, provides a valuable forum for elected representatives to probe policing issues, including questioning the Justice Minister on policing matters. In our observation, the relationships between each of those and the board have worked well, to the credit of all.

It is our view that the demonstrable effectiveness of the policing board since its creation strengthens the case for an independent Garda authority. We do not claim that the Northern Ireland system is perfect, but it is surely a model that is close to home and merits careful scrutiny.

Prof Sir Desmond Rea and Robin Masefield are writing a history of policing in Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2009. It will be published later this year.

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