The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has said the entire system of Garda oversight introduced after the Morris Tribunal needs to be "reset" and believes it should be permitted to subsume the office of confidential recipient into its operations.
The extra powers now being sought by the Garda watchdog, coupled with its recently introduced unfettered access to the Garda’s PULSE data base, would usher in a radical new system under which the oversight powers of the commission over the Garda force would be total.
The commission, which outlined its proposals to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice this morning, also wants to investigate a wider range of complaints against members of the force.
For example, under the current provisions of the Garda Síochána Act, which provides for the commission, only cases involving “death or serious harm” to a person around the time of contact with Garda members must be referred by the Garda Commissioner to the watchdog for investigation.
GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien told the committee that definition does not include allegations of, for example, sexual assault on the part of a Garda member.
“(Sex crimes) can be investigated internally, which we do not believe is fair for any party involved,” he said.
He complained the commission was continuing to experience delays in receiving evidence, files and documents requested from the force as part of its investigations.
This is despite a high profile dispute with the force, when it alleged the Garda had for years deliberately frustrated its biggest investigation to date.
In that case allegations around the handling of a Garda informant who was allegedly still dealing drugs while an informer and had serious drugs charges against him dropped were probed for four years. No evidence of wrong doing was ever found.
The reforms now being sought by GSOC have emerged under a new review process of Garda oversight being conducted by the Justice Committee at the instigation of Government and following the recent Garda whistleblower controversies. They include:
*A streamlining of GSOC’s procedures for handling what it termed minor complaints against gardaí. It believes allegations of discourtesy or poor response performances by Garda members should not be dealt with by GSOC being obliged to open a full and formal investigation. It believes informal resolution should be used more often and that restrictions stipulating such as procedure can only be used if the gardaí at the centre of complaints agrees needs to be removed. Currently only one per cent of complaints to the commission are informally resolved.
* GSOC believes the current system of it referring some serious complaints to the Garda to investigate on its behalf, though with oversight retained, is unsuitable and should be stopped. However, if the system were retained, the Garda force should be obliged to send the full file on its investigation to GSOC so the watchdog can decide on any further actions to be taken.
* It is pushing for the placement on a statutory footing the obligations of the Garda in cooperating with requests from GSOC during investigations. These include the timely provision of information and evidence to the watchdog, an obligation GSOC has long claimed is not being adhered to and for which it believes there is no deterrent.
“ It wants the office of the Garda Commissioner to be included within its reach. Currently, the holder of that office is the only Garda member GSOC cannot investigate. “GSOC believes that effective oversight of policing, and public confidence therein, favours the Garda Commissioner being subject to independent oversight and that legislation should be changed to allow for that,” Mr O’ Brien said.
* The commission also wants the power to commence of its own volition examinations of policy, practice and procedures within the Garda. Under the Act at present, such examinations can only be conducted on request of the Minister for Justice. Such a proposal, if implemented, would enable GSOC to conduct investigations into allegations where the competence or approach of a group of Garda members in a particular station or district is called into question. Whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe has alleged that when some allegations of serious crimes, up to attempted rape, emerged in Cavan-Monaghan no investigations resulted. At present, GSOC is only set up to probe specific complaints against named gardaí.
* Under its proposal to become the confidential recipient, GSOC would for the first time be empowered to accept and investigate complaints made by Garda members against others in force. Currently, when those complaints are made to an independent confidential recipient’s office held by one person with a legal background, they are then passed to Garda Headquarters for investigation.
A range of stake holders, including human rights and civil rights groups were also making submission to the Justice Committee today as part of its review of the Garda Síochána Act.
John Devitt, from Transparency Ireland, said full Garda oversight was resisted by some members of the force on the basis the Garda had responsibility for both State security and fighting crime.
Some gardaí have argued that some of the information the force dealt with was so confidential it was a serious matter of State security and no outside agency should be granted access to those parts of the Garda’s work.
However, Mr Devitt told the committee that other police forces, including in the UK, dealt with serious matters necessitating absolute confidentiality and discretion including running criminal informers and building intelligence on international terrorism.
He added this had not hindered the independent oversight of those forces.
Mark Kelly, from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said the G2 section of the Defence Forces and the Crime and Security section of the Garda worked "hand in glove" on State security and intelligence and yet were not subjected to any oversight.
David Joyce, from the Irish Human Rights Commission, said while State's needed to protect itself and gather intelligence, this was no reason for restricting oversight of policing.