A wide net must be cast for new Garda commissioner

Opinion: Robust Northern Ireland Policing Board offers pointers for change


As a body, an Garda Siochana may not yet be on the dissecting slab, but there are enough probes and diagnostic tests going on to cause concern — Cooke and the GSOC separately on bugging, scans by PAC and the Justice Committee, a blood test by Seán Guerin to see whether more drastic intervention is required, scrutiny by faceless people on the Haddington Road agenda to see if financial diets can be reduced, and now, in a shift from tapping to taping, the promise of a deeper and more invasive examination by a Commission of Inquiry.

Apart altogether from distracting the police from the task of catching criminals, there is a real danger that such piecemeal raking over the entrails will deal only with symptoms rather than the deeper underlying malaise, and will produce a series of ad hoc, band-aid repairs rather than tackling the complex structural, managerial and cultural problems which have provoked the present crisis of confidence in the force and the lack of accountability and the unhealthy relationship with the Department of Justice and the political system.

All of which calls out for a whole-body scan, and a more co-ordinated and more considered review of the current problems and what might be done to correct them.

An exception would be the inquiry into taping at Garda stations, where the potential implications for human rights and criminal justice are so corrosive that urgency is imperative.

That apart, the agenda for reform has been clearly set out in a leader in this newspaper yesterday: robust policing and regulatory structures, along with necessary reforms of the judicial and legal systems, a need to depoliticise the Garda Siochana, reduce the influence of the Department of Justice, and strengthen oversight and accountability. The government statement on the exit of Commissioner Callinan (it is hard to find a less loaded word for it) which carries a promise to bring forward its own proposals for reform, suggests that this will be done in-house by those who know best. And who in government knows better than the Department of Justice, and the Minister?

For a lot of good reasons, these are the very last persons who should control, or even seriously influence the process. People who have been looking at policing through the same set of lenses for decades, and with an unwarranted degree of self-satisfaction, are not the most likely to detect the necessary changes, or to implement them with enthusiasm. The Department and the Minister are a major part of the problem. They cannot be allowed to prescribe the cure.

There needs to be a much wider involvement of all the interests, not least serving gardai at all levels, who know what the business is about. As it is, the only specific measure mentioned in the government statement is the establishment of an independent garda authority (with the qualifying weasel words “appropriate to Ireland’s needs and which will maintain appropriate democratic accountability to the Oireachtas”. Nice word, appropriate, depending on who defines it.

The Northern Ireland Policing Board proposed by Patten was only one strand in a web of accountability in the North. The others were accountability to the law, financial accountability to parliament, internal accountability through good management, transparency, openness to communication and a willingness to dialogue. A board in itself will not ensure accountability without significant change in garda culture. Neither can it do so without statutory independence and authority and the necessary resources of money and people.

The Northern Ireland board was intended to be a body which would command respect and could not be taken lightly by government or police, and which would reflect the make-up of the society as a whole. Of the 19 members, a majority would be elected Assembly members, selected on the D’Hondt principle to represent party strengths. The other nine would be selected by the First and deputy First Ministers to provide relevant expertise and broad balance.

The Board has the power to appoint (and dismiss) the Chief Constable and senior officers (subject to ministerial approval in both cases) and their primary statutory duty is to hold the Chief Constable and the police service publicly to account. They also set the priorities for policing, and the style of policing, through policing plans, and monitor delivery against these. They can require reports and explanations from the Chief Constable, and, if necessary, carry out or commission investigations into irregularities. The purpose of the board is to insulate the police from political interference in day to day policing, and from political patronage in appointments to senior positions, to preserve the operational discretion of the Chief Constable and individual officers when acting within agreed plans and protocols, and to require retrospective reports when things go wrong.

It would be a pity, and a lost opportunity, if the arrangements proposed for the Garda were to be any less robust, and if external controls were not to be accompanied by cultural, structural and managerial changes within the organisation. The most powerful agent of change would be the new Commissioner, and this should be a prime consideration in approaching that appointment. Without in any way diminishing the credentials of any possible internal candidates, there is much to be said, at this critical juncture, for the importation of new blood, new ideas, and new energy.

The Garda Siochana has existed in a cocoon of their own making for the last 90 years, in which promotion to the top jobs has been largely a predictable procession to fill dead men’s boots, deprived of the periodic incomer from a parallel world who would challenge received thinking and attitudes, entrenched culture and outdated management practices. This is a recipe for defensiveness and complacency. On this occasion at least the government should throw the net wider with a genuine attempt to attract candidate from abroad, particularly perhaps from US or Canada. They owe that sort of inspiring leadership to all those garda officers at all ranks who have served, and continue to serve the state so well.

Maurice Hayes was a member of Patten Commission, is a former NI Ombudsman and author of report which led to creation of Police Ombudsman NI

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