The litany of policing controversies and scandals funnelled through various tribunals of inquiry, commissions of investigation and scoping inquiries – causing, ultimately, the early departures of two Garda commissioners, two secretaries-general of the Department of Justice and two ministers for justice – crystallised as a crisis for An Garda Síochána in 2017 that was, frankly, existential.
In political terms the issue of policing was toxic. The Commission on the Future of Policing chaired by Dr Kathleen O’Toole, intended to mirror the earlier Patten Commission in Northern Ireland of which she was also a member, was the last-chance saloon for An Garda Síochána. While its comprehensive report published in September 2018, following extensive stakeholder consultation, is not the last word on policing reform, it does provide a blueprint that, if followed, will give the Irish policing service a good start as it embarks on its second century.
How a policing service responds to such controversies and what it learns from them is what marks a good policing service out from a bad one
More than four years on from the publication of the commission’s report, the Government has published the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill, which will implement the most important recommendations of the commission and those of some other expert bodies. The commission had envisaged a more rapid process, with 2022 identified as the target date for implementation of its recommendations, all of which were accepted or accepted in principle by government within months of publication in 2018.
Better late than never is probably the least that can be said of the legislative implementation phase. But it must also be acknowledged that converting the high-level recommendations of the commission into detailed provisions to ground a radical reform programme in statute was no easy task, and the level of ambition contained in this single Bill – covering governance, oversight (including security oversight), complaints, harm reduction and community safety – is impressive.
It should also be acknowledged that progress has been made since 2018 on non-legislative implementation of commission recommendations, even during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, in areas such as: the rollout of the district policing model, new rosters, recruitment at all levels of the organisation and new Garda uniforms.
The only issue on which there was any recorded dissent in the report of the commission was in respect of the proposal, supported by nine of the 11 commission members, to establish a statutory board (with consequential changes for the Policing Authority) following the governance model of most State agencies. In the Bill just published, this proposal is provided for and should go some way towards achieving the appropriate balance between support and challenge for the Garda Commissioner as “chief executive” of the policing service, while also creating a structure through which the unavoidably tricky relationship with the Department of Justice can be managed.
The Bill also contains significant changes to the oversight bodies that were established in a piecemeal manner in response to earlier policing controversies and scandals. As recommended by the commission, the Policing Authority and Inspectorate of An Garda Síochána – both of which have had a largely positive impact on policing standards – are to be merged to form a single new entity with an expanded and strengthened remit called the Policing and Community Safety Authority.
This recognises the fact that harm reduction and community safety are core responsibilities of any policing service, but that means nothing without robust mechanisms for engagement with communities and other agencies with overlapping remits. The Bill makes a serious effort to address this complex problem.
The beleaguered Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) that has existed since 2005 is to be replaced by a new strengthened Office of Police Ombudsman. Significantly, Gsoc has already welcomed the proposed changes, many of which it had sought for years.
For the first time, a comprehensive superstructure of security oversight is to be created but, oddly, arrangements for national or State security – whether carried out by An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces or the non-statutory National Security Analysis Centre in the Department of the Taoiseach – are not being placed on a detailed or coherent statutory footing.
If we are serious about holding the Government and its diffuse security services to account with real effectiveness, we must get this right
The Bill will establish an Office of Independent Examiner of National Security, modelled somewhat on the UK equivalent, with extensive oversight and adjudicative powers. It remains to be seen if this new entity will be resourced to the level that allows it to provide effective oversight or if its functions actually cohere.
Eligibility for appointment as independent examiner is restricted to senior judicial office-holders, whether serving or not. This is not a good idea and was not recommended by the commission. It should be revisited when the Bill is being debated. If we are serious about holding the Government and its diffuse security services to account with real effectiveness, we must get this right. It is vital that sight is not lost of the causal connection, historically, between the dual role of An Garda Síochána in policing and security, and many of its more recent problems.
All policing services will experience periodic controversy. Some would say that a defining quality of policing is that of perpetual controversy. How a policing service responds to such controversies and what it learns from them is what marks a good policing service out from a bad one. Robust structures and systems will go some way towards improving things but not without ongoing and vigilant evaluation of organisational culture.
The biggest risk to An Garda Síochána, having come through a period of seemingly intractable crisis, is that it or the political system might become complacent about shallow reform and the signalling of virtue that is merely decorative. It is therefore imperative that the momentum for radical reform of policing is renewed and, crucially, resourced. Legislating to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing is a political act of determined commitment but it is decidedly, at this stage, a case of “mission advanced” rather than “mission accomplished”.
Prof Donncha O’Connell teaches law at the University of Galway and was a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland