Garda Commissioner critical of reform plan for force

Changes would result in ‘seeping away’ of his authority as most senior Garda officer, says Harris

Drew Harris said, in respect of the proposed Bill, that the ‘Garda Commissioner as employer may not be made immediately aware of investigations related to serious matters’. File photograph: The Irish Times

Drew Harris said, in respect of the proposed Bill, that the ‘Garda Commissioner as employer may not be made immediately aware of investigations related to serious matters’. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, head of the Policing Authority Bob Collins, head of the Garda Inspectorate Mark Toland and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) have all criticised the Government’s plans for Garda reform.

Mr Harris said new legislation to introduce the changes would result in a “seeping away” of his authority as the most senior Garda officer in the force at a time when he is undertaking significant reforms that were already well under way.

Mr Harris and the senior oversight figures have all set out their concerns, some of them very significant, to a joint Oireachtas committee on justice hearing on Wednesday relating to the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill. That new legislation seeks to reform An Garda Síochána based on the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland (CFP).

That commission, which was led by the former Boston police chief Kathleen O’Toole, deliberated for more than a year and published its findings and recommendations for widespread reform of the force and its oversight agencies just over three years ago.

Mr Harris, whose concerns were first reported by The Irish Times last month, said if new legislation providing for policing reform was enacted, he would spend “more time reporting and accounting to [oversight] bodies than actually overseeing policing, security matters and the leadership and direction of An Garda Síochána”.

He also believed new powers given to the body now known as the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission were so unfair to gardaí who would be placed under investigation that they were “unconstitutional”.

Investigations could go on for years and the Garda members under investigation for alleged wrongdoing would not be told if allegations against them were disciplinary or criminal in nature. They would also have no right to “complain to an independent oversight body about how these investigations are being conducted” into them.

“This would appear to be a flagrant breach of a suspect’s human rights, as well as being incredibly stressful for them,” Mr Harris told the Oireachtas hearing. “Furthermore, the Garda Commissioner as employer may not be made immediately aware of investigations related to serious matters. As such, in our view, these powers are disproportionate, unconstitutional and will not withstand an expensive and time-consuming test in the courts.”

He also had significant wide-ranging concerns about the impact of the full piece of legislation, saying key functions that should be exercised within the Garda to keep discipline would be outsourced to other agencies.

In effect, the micromanagement and erosion of operational independence that the commission strongly warned against,” he said.

“It also gives the replacement for GSOC [Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission] more legal powers to conduct investigations into all Garda personnel – including Garda staff – than gardaí investigating crime currently have.”

Mr Collins, described the proposed legislation, the heads of which have been published, as “a significant step back” from the “character of oversight” introduced for the Garda just six years ago.

He said under the 2015 legislation that provided for his agency, the authority, “created a greater structural distance” between the Department of Justice and the Garda and, as such, “created a distance between politics and policing”.

Welcomed provisions

This progress deemed so necessary just six years ago was now being rowed back on, he said. Mr Collins also believed it was a retrograde step to row back on the authority’s current role in recruiting the Garda Commissioner. He was also against passing responsibility back to the commissioner, and away from the authority, for appointing superintendents.

Under the new plans in the Bill, the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate will be merged in the new policing and community safety authority.

However, Mark Toland – chief inspector of the Garda Inspectorate – said the powers of the new entity were weaker than what was intended by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

Mr Toland also said the Bill as framed was not clear on how the new proposed Garda board would work with the other new oversight agencies that will be created under the Bill. While he welcomed the provisions that will allow investigators for the new oversight agencies to carry out unannounced searches – including at Garda stations – he doubted some of these would take place given how poorly the new powers and procedures were provided for in the Bill.

The ICCL was alone in expressing the belief that changes to Garda oversight contained in the proposed Bill were largely in line with the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

However, the ICCL noted other shortcomings in the Bill and said it should provide for the removal of “all prosecutorial powers” from the Garda.

“The removal of gardaí from non-policing functions was a key recommendation of the CFP [Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland],” said Doireann Ansbro, head of legal and policy at ICCL.

“This will require additional resources for the DPP but will greatly assist resources management within AGS. Both victims and accused persons have the right for their case to be prosecuted by an impartial legal professional.”

More to come.