Q&A: Why is Drew Harris suddenly criticising plans for Garda reform?

Strength of Commissioner’s opposition may test political resolve

It is unclear whether the stenngth of the Garda Commissioner’s criticism of the of the Government’s Policing, Security and Community Bill will prompt changes to it. File photograph: The Irish Times

It is unclear whether the stenngth of the Garda Commissioner’s criticism of the of the Government’s Policing, Security and Community Bill will prompt changes to it. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

Why is Drew Harris suddenly criticising Government plans for Garda reform?

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has written an appraisal of the Government’s Policing, Security and Community Bill and his criticisms are contained in that. The Bill provides for both reform of the Garda and its oversight agencies. The new legislation has been drafted and is in what’s known as the pre-legislative scrutiny stage.

As part of that process, the joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice asked Mr Harris to make a submission on what’s in the Bill. The Irish Times has seen a summary of his submission and revealed its contents in reports this week. That was the first time it emerged Mr Harris was so deeply opposed to the reforms being planned.

He has labelled some of the plans as “draconian” and says that, far from reforming and improving the Garda, they will undermine positive changes already under way.

But why are we still talking about Garda reforms, wasn’t that all done years ago?

In the years before Mr Harris’s appointment, exactly three years ago, the Garda force was mired in controversy - including the handling of whistleblower complaints by former Garda sergeant Maurice McCabe.

The Government set up the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland to review the Garda, study best practice in policing and publish a road map for reforming the Garda. It published its report in September, 2018, and Mr Harris was appointed around the same time. The Government intended Mr Harris to take up the plans for change and implement them.

In the period since then a lot of the changes have commenced. But other reforms needed new legislation before they could happen and that’s what this new Policing, Security and Community Bill is.

So what’s in this Bill?

At present the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) investigates complaints against gardaí. The Garda Inspectorate conducts reviews and assessments of the force. And the Policing Authority holds the Garda commissioner and his senior officers to account and decides on senior appointments within the Garda, something previously done by the government.

Under the Bill, the Garda Inspectorate and Policing Authority will merge into the Policing and Community Safety Authority. It will have the power to conduct unannounced inspections of the Garda, including stations. It will also be able to conduct broad ranging assessments of Garda performance, and will retain the regular public meetings with Garda leadership previously conducted by the Policing Authority.

Gsoc will be largely retained, with extra resources to carry out investigations into Garda members and with greater powers. A Garda board - like the board of a company - will also be established under the Bill. A new Independent Examiner of Security Legislation was being created as an oversight agency for State security services and legislation.

But why is Drew Harris so opposed to reforming the Garda in this way?

He has made it clear to the Oireachtas Committee that he is not against reforming the Garda. Indeed, he points out the Garda force accepted in its entirety the report by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in 2018 and that it still accepts the report.

He also states clearly there was a loss of confidence in the Garda, its leadership structures and its culture during the years of controversy. And he says against the backdrop of all of that controversy, it is understandable reforms would be drawn up.

However, he believes the measures in the Bill go too far, represent far more than the commission intended and will not work.

What, specifically, are his main concerns?

He says the plans for the oversight agencies are too complex and it is not clear how they will operate and overlap. The lack of clarity about how the new board, for example, would overlap with the new Policing and Community Safety Authority risked “encroaching on the operational independence” of the office of Garda Commissioner.

The powers being given to the complaints body now known was Gsoc were “disproportionate” and there was no oversight, including oversight over where and when they would carry out unannounced searches. Investigations into Garda members could “literally run for years”, he said. This would create “stress and anxiety” for those under investigation, who would not be entitled to know the nature of the allegations against them or the timeframe for the investigation. This was a “flagrant disregard to the established principles of fair procedure” that would so extreme it would result in legal challenges.

He believed those challenges would prevail, but only after lengthy and expensive legal battles that the system would become “mired” in.

So what’s going to happen now?

That’s not entirely clear. However, it has now emerged Mr Harris has been raising these concerns with the Department of Justice privately for well over a year. And the Government has pressed ahead with the Bill anyway so it seems determined to push it through.

But Mr Harris’s criticisms are so strong - and now revealed publicly - that many of the changes envisaged have now been undermined. It appears he felt he had no choice but to put those concerns in his submission to the Oireachtas committee, even though it was very likely his words would emerge publicly.

The big question now is whether his opposition being declared publicly will force the Government’s hand in changing parts of the Bill.