Commissioner Drew Harris raised concerns over Garda reform plans for almost two years

Changes intended to improve ‘performance and accountability’ says Dept of Justice

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris flanked by other senior members of the force at a briefing in July.  Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris flanked by other senior members of the force at a briefing in July. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin.

 

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and his senior management team have for almost two years privately raised their concerns with the Government over plans for reform of An Garda Síochána but felt “ignored”, according to sources.

The Irish Times understands the concerns were raised, beginning in late 2019 or early 2020, at meetings with officials from the Department of Justice. They were also contained in correspondence to the officials and the Minister’s office, currently occupied by Heather Humphreys TD as Helen McEntee TD takes maternity leave.

News that serious concerns have been raised by Mr Harris over a prolonged period comes just 24 hours after The Irish Times revealed the stinging criticism of the reforms he set out in a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice. While that document was submitted over a month ago, it remained private until this week.

Mr Harris’s forthright criticisms came as a surprise to many as he is a reforming commissioner and is regarded as very measured in his remarks and an astute political operator.

However, security sources said Mr Harris was “so worried” about the plans the Government was progressing that he felt he was left with “no option” but to set out his objections to the Oireachtas committee.

The very strong criticism of the Government’s plans were unprecedented coming from a commissioner in the modern era. However, security sources said he felt compelled to speak up in the hope it would cause the Government to reflect on what was planned.

In reply to queries, the Department of Justice said significant reform was often challenging, adding they had been consultations about the reforms over the last two years.

However, the reforms represented the “most wide ranging and coherent reform of policing in a generation by improving the performance and accountability of our policing and security services”.

Proposed reforms

Department officials had discussed the proposed reforms “in detail with the Commissioner and his senior team” as well as with Gsoc, the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate. During the past two years “many, though not all, views” had been “taken into account to date”.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (Agsi) on Thursday night expressed concern about the proposed reforms. It said it was in the process of making a detailed submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice about Government’s Bill. Agsi general secretary Antoinette Cunningham said the Bill “contains matters which are of grave concern” to sergeants and inspectors.

“Not only will the Association be making a written submission but are seeking to make an appearance before the Committee to make an oral submission also,” she said.

The Garda Representative Association (GRA) has not made any comment on Mr Harris’s remarks, but is believed to share many of his concerns.

As part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process Mr Harris submitted to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice a lengthy submission on the Government’s Policing, Security and Community Bill. That legislation will provide for a raft of changes to the Garda oversight agencies, and their powers, including the creation of new oversight entities.

Mr Harris said in his submission that some of what was envisaged was “draconian” and threatened to comprise the operational independence of his office. He added plans to give more powers and resources to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) were so obviously unfair they would be legally challenged and would not stand up to those challenges.

He said extending Gsoc’s investigations to Garda civilian staff was not justified as they did not hold any policing powers that might be used as justification for a heightened investigative regime. But even the plans for investigating gardaí were unacceptable.

He said when gardaí were being investigated there were no timelines set out for those investigations and no obligation on Gsoc to inform those gardaí of the nature of the investigations.

He also complained of a lack of oversight and transparency around the new power given to Gsoc to search any Garda premises unannounced, including individual offices and Garda stations.

Mr Harris has also set out his complete opposition to any sharing of State security intelligence with the new ‘independent examiner of security legislation’ unless in specific cases, where the entity that provided the intelligence agreed it could be shared.