Changes planned by the Government for An Garda Síochána and the force’s watchdog bodies will undo a number of reforms to policing made following a litany of Garda scandals across 20 years.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and his senior officers will still have to account for their actions before two oversight bodies instead of three at present. But, crucially, some of the main powers that one of the oversight agencies has will revert to the Garda.
It is likely the process will still take about two years, perhaps a little longer. And if that timetable comes to pass, the changes will be bedding in around the same time Harris leaves his post at the expiry of his five-year contract.
The ability to control promotions and appointments, at ranks above sergeant and inspector, was lost by the Garda to the Policing Authority in 2017. Until that change, many Garda members felt the promotions system was unfair. It was said that it favoured members taken under the wing of senior officers in a form of patronage, with loyalty to colleagues and more senior officers seen as the way to advance.
Many of the commissions and tribunals into Garda scandals found a culture in which it was difficult for members of the force to speak up for fear of derailing their careers by showing what would be interpreted as disloyalty.
The fact that changes are now being planned by the Government for the Garda and its oversight agencies is not new. Two years ago, just as Harris was appointed, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was publishing its report. It was tasked, under chairwoman and former US police chief Kathleen O’Toole, to review the force in the context of many recent scandals and to plan a path to a better system of policing and oversight.
A document drawn up between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, which has been seen by The Irish Times, puts flesh on the bones of proposals made by the commission. That document turns commission proposals into official Government policy.
The commission concluded it was unfair that the Garda commissioner did not have power to appoint senior officers yet once appointed he was accountable for their performance. Hence the recommendation that recruitment and promotion be put back in the hands of the force.
Another of the commission’s key conclusions was that the system of oversight is too complex, to the extent it wasn’t clear who was accountable to whom. So a number of basic changes were planned.
At present there are three oversight agencies: the Policing Authority; Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission; and the Garda Inspectorate. Of the three, the authority is the most powerful. In conjunction with the force it sets annual policing plans and longer-term strategies.
The authority has full control over the process for appointing assistant commissioners, chief superintendents and superintendents. It also designs the job specification and recruitment process for appointments to the ranks of commissioner and deputy commission. However, the Government still has the power to accept or reject names submitted to it by the authority for appointment to the rank of commissioner and deputy commissioner.
The Garda ombudsman commission is a separate oversight body and its main function is to investigate complaints – up to an including criminal allegations – made against individual officers by members of the public. The inspectorate, the third oversight agency, conducts appraisals and investigations into a variety of Garda structures, procedures and practices.
It has, for example, examined how public order policing is conducted, problems with Garda data and crime counting, the supervision of frontline gardaí and how sexual crimes were being investigated.
Under the plans drawn up by the Government, the Garda ombudsman commission would be retained, but reformed. While details are not yet clear, it was expected to retain responsibility for investigating complaints made against members of the force.
The authority and inspectorate will be merged into one oversight agency: the policing and community safety authority. And while that authority will still examine the Garda and its practices and hold the force to account, the key responsibilities of setting policing plans, strategies and controlling recruitment will revert to the Garda which would report to a new board – a new layer of oversight .
The new board is set to work in the same way as company boards, with senior Garda officers answerable , but the commissioner is ultimately answerable to the minister for justice.