Proposed Garda oversight powers ‘unconstitutional’, Harris says

Justice committee hears investigations into gardaí for wrongdoing could go on for years

  Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: he said powers proposed for  Garda oversight agencies  would be greater than those  gardaí   currently have. Photograph: Alan Betson

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris: he said powers proposed for Garda oversight agencies would be greater than those gardaí currently have. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

New “disproportionate” powers to be given to the Garda oversight agencies are so unfair to gardaí who could be placed under investigation that they are “unconstitutional”, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said.

Investigations into Garda members accused of wrongdoing could go on for years and the members concerned would not be told if the allegations against them were disciplinary or criminal in nature, the Oireachtas Committee on Justice was told. Members would also have no right to complain to an independent oversight body about how the investigations were being conducted.

“This would appear to be a flagrant breach of a suspect’s human rights, as well as being incredibly stressful for them,” Mr Harris said.

He was commenting on reforms contained in the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill, which seeks to implement the 2018 recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

Mr Harris said the Bill gives the agency that would replace the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission more legal powers to conduct investigations into all Garda personnel – including civilian staff – than gardaí investigating crime currently have.

Bob Collins, chairman of the Policing Authority, told the hearing that the proposed legislation represented as “a significant step back” from the “character of oversight” introduced for the Garda just six years ago.

Mr Collins said the 2015 legislation, which provided for 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”.

Policing strategy

The authority was opposed to “returning responsibility to the Garda Síochána for determining the [annual] Policing Plan”. Under the Bill, the authority would only have a role in framing the plan at the invitation of the Garda commissioner of the day, with a similar situation pertaining with longer-term policing strategy.

“That is a significant shift of policy and practice and weakens oversight. What is its logic?” Mr Collins asked.

Mark Toland, the chief inspector with the Garda Inspectorate, said the Bill as currently 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.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said the Bill should provide for the removal of “all prosecutorial powers” from An Garda Síochána as the “removal of gardaí from non-policing functions was a key recommendation” of the commission.

Doireann Ansbro, head of legal and policy at ICCL, said this would require “additional resources” for the Director of Public Prosecutions but would greatly assist resource management within the force.

“Both victims and accused persons have the right for their case to be prosecuted by an impartial legal professional,” she added.