Garda reform ideas are good, but will they ever happen?
Commission’s recommendations costly to implement and rivalled by housing crisis
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: knew when taking the job he was being hired primarily to implement the change programme in the commission’s report. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland’s long-awaited report was unveiled in the glorious surroundings of the Dublin City Hall’s Rotunda; a meeting space for merchants constructed in the late 1700s.
Some of the proposals contained in the commission’s report are almost as old.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But a decent chunk of these ideas have been doing the rounds for many years.
Other recommendations are newer and, without question, they are considered and they are groundbreaking.
If this report was implemented in full, the Garda organisation would be radically overhauled and improved beyond recognition.
But everywhere you look, this report costs money. We don’t know how much because nothing is costed.
Yet the head of commission, former US police chief Kathleen O’Toole, believes her group’s ideas can be implemented, and a new Garda organisation delivered, by 2022.
That schedule seems very ambitious, to say the least. It is one O’Toole would not set out if the responsibility for implementing these measures fell to her.
Taking a step back for a moment, there is a nagging feeling that the moment of maximum opportunity to reform the Garda has already passed.
There were loud and repeated calls for Garda reform for about five years when Martin Callinan, and Nóirín O’Sullivan after him, led the Garda.
The alleged treatment of whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe and crises around the inflating of alcohol breath-testing figures, homicide misclassifications and poor governance in the Garda College, Templemore, among other issues, all conspired to keep the pressure on Garda Headquarters and Government.
Jaws of pressure
Indeed, it was in the jaws of pressure to reform policing that the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was established in May 2017.
But since O’Sullivan’s departure 12 months ago and the completion of the Disclosures Tribunal into the alleged treatment of McCabe, calls for Garda reform have been notably more muted.
Either way, the Government is simply not under the same pressures now to reform the Garda that it was 12 months ago, and for the preceding five years.
The housing crisis is more pressing now and, as the winter progressed, hospital waiting lists and patients on trolleys will erupt hot and heavy. And it is these issues, rather than Garda reform, that will be used as sticks to beat the Government by the opposition and media from now until the next election.
Having said that, Drew Harris has been hired in, from the PSNI, as the new Garda Commissioner. And he knew when taking on the job that he was being hired primarily to implement the change programme in the commission’s report.
He has also undergone the transformative process that was the RUC becoming the PSNI, so he knows what these roads feel like.
The big question centres around how much funding will be made available to him by the Government to bring about the reforms recommended. And will the plans to reform Garda oversight be funded?
For example, the proposal to effectively rethink and replace the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) with a truly independent agency is an interesting one.
Gsoc investigates complaints made by members of the public against gardaí. However, it sends a very large number of complaints back to the Garda for investigation.
This has resulted in a system of gardaí investigating gardaí, which has undermined public confidence in Gsoc. And senior Garda officers say much of their time is occupied carrying out investigations on behalf of Gsoc.
It means the proposal to establish a body that is truly independent should be welcomed by all. However, Gsoc has long campaigned for more resources to bolster its investigative capacity.
And it has also lobbied Government for the right to streamline its operation and reduce the number of cases it must take on.
But its appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Against that backdrop, it is difficult to see why the Government would much better resource a new agency to make it truly independent when it wouldn’t do the same for Gsoc.
And that’s the big problem with many of the commission’s ideas; securing the funding to make them happen when other expensive items, like the housing crisis, have become Government priority.