Although we are now effectively in the countdown to a general election and although the chances are that the legislation promised by the Government to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing may not be enacted in the lifetime of this Dáil, the very good news is that no legislation at all is needed to implement the proposals for reform of the Garda Síochána organisation recently announced by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.
It is vital that these reforms proceed now without meeting any further political or electoral roadblocks.
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has written to all members of the Oireachtas seeking their backing for Harris’s reforms and has made it clear that they enjoy his “strong backing”.
These far-reaching reforms will reduce the number of Garda divisions, increase the autonomy of those divisions, reduce centralised micro-management, increase the number of sergeants and inspectors, reduce the number of chief superintendents and commissioners, and increase civilianisation.
The commissioner will be outlining his reforms which come into effect immediately to the Oireachtas Justice Committee and to the Local Policing Committees established under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 which provide a framework for consultation between local government elected representatives and local Garda management.
The Harris plan is long overdue. The financial crisis 2009 to 2014 and the ban on public service recruitment which resulted from it put paid to the major process of civilianising administrative and back roles in the Garda organisation which was envisaged in 2007.
This, I regret to say, was not an entirely unwelcome reprieve from civilianisation for some within the force. Many members of the force saw advancement into administrative roles as part of their career promotion and development path.
Indoors posts were regarded as more desirable by many gardaí when compared with frontline policing roles. There were, admittedly, many others who relished the frontline role as “real” policing.
It would be simplistic to suggest that real policing always takes place outdoors
Of course, it would be simplistic to suggest that real policing always takes place outdoors. Sophisticated policing is not all done on the street, on the beat, on surveillance or on patrol.
But there is no case at all for filling many purely administrative office roles with attested gardaí. I was struck, in my time as minister between 2002 and 2007 by the extent to which such roles were being discharged by gardaí of all ranks.
The then commissioner Noel Conroy and I visited the PSNI support services in Belfast which included civilian crime analysts whose job it was to analyse local data to detect patterns which might not be apparent to local unit sergeants operating in shift duties. That was an eye-opener.
Civilians need not be confined to the clerical or administrative functions. There is no reason why civilians should not take leading roles in managing the day-to-day support of criminal investigations and preparing investigation files and prosecution files, including matters such as disclosures to accused persons.
Crime is becoming much more sophisticated than it was when the existing Garda divisions and districts were established largely as a legacy of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Detection, investigation and prevention must match the increasing sophistication of crime itself.
Modern investigation of crimes like rape, online child porn, commercial fraud and white-collar crime requires sophisticated techniques and high degrees of professionalism. These are all part of frontline policing. They need highly skilled and experienced officers.
So it is entirely wrong to imagine Harris’s reforms as just getting gardaí out from behind their desks and on to neighbourhood foot patrols. Reducing the number of divisions should lead to improving the standard of specialist frontline policing units right across the country.
Rightly implemented, his reforms should make the jobs of gardaí at all levels more satisfying as a career, and greatly increased civilianisation should mean that the increased numbers in the force really do make a difference for our communities.
The commissioner’s plans for devolved autonomy to the new Garda divisions are very welcome. But it will be of little value if there is constant churn in the position of divisional commanders.
Greatly increased civilianisation should mean the increased numbers in the force really do make a difference for our communities
The 2002 Morris Tribunal identified a serious organisation defect in the force which allowed senior positions to be held for very short periods before onward promotion, lateral movement and retirement. Many divisional and district commanders were moved on from their positions after very short periods. The consequence was that officers did not have time to bed down and really acquaint themselves with their areas or personnel.
Somehow that promotional merry-go-round has to be halted and replaced by a policy that will leave incumbents with an expectation that they will be in a particular post for four or five years, giving them time to implement their plans.
One aspect of modern society is that the local garda and sergeant no longer live locally. Indeed, they are no longer really stationed in many small local stations which are open for very limited hours and days. There is much less opportunity for casual contact between a local resident and members of the force.
Communities are generally distance-policed by gardaí who may live in totally different areas and who commute to carry out shift duties patrolling in squad cars. Much of that is inevitable.
But the danger is that the Garda force is becoming unrooted in the community. Of course this can be countered in part by community police officers and by community alert and neighbourhood watch schemes.
Fine Gael promised to double the Garda Reserve to 2,200 in its last manifesto. Harris has indicated that he wants to rethink the Garda Reserve. That is good. But I hope it does not mean mothballing the reserve.
The idea of a reserve has entirely different connotations in Northern Ireland, as Harris well knows. He must be careful of being influenced by that.
Reserve constables work very well in Britain. They are no threat to the role or status or effectiveness of full-time officers there who they complement and supports.
I remember bringing Irish journalists to Chester in 2005 to see the reservists in action. One vivid memory is of a woman reserve constable whose other full-time job was that of nurse in an intensive care unit. That showed commitment.
It can work very well here. But it needs senior commitment to make it a success – commitment that matches the commitment shown by those who volunteer to join.
We have reason to be optimistic for the commissionership of Drew Harris. He needs support and encouragement and, from the looks of things. he will get it at the political level.
Senator Michael McDowell SC is a former attorney general and minister for justice