Garda reform commission: an exercise in can kicking

September 2018 deadline for final report suggests the Government is buying time

Can they all be wrong? Maurice Hayes, Denis Bradley, Nuala O'Loan and Mary Ellen Ring – prominent people with close links to police reform, the first three in relation to the Patten Commission and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Ms Ring as chairman of the Garda Síochána Ombudman Commission (Gsoc). They share reservations about a Government decision to establish a commission on the future of policing in this State, arguing that the changes required have already been detailed in official reports.

So, is this a time-buying exercise as Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald kicks a can down the road? Elements of that approach are suggested by the commission's unwieldy size, composed of 12 members, and by the formal requirement to deliver its final report by September 2018. That lengthy timescale will reduce pressure on Fianna Fáil to abandon its 'confidence and supply agreement' with Fine Gael in pursuit of the departure of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O Sullivan. Rather than stumble into an election, Fianna Fáil has welcomed the commission's establishment .

Public confidence in the Garda should not become a plaything of politics. The problems besetting the force need urgent attention and they have been influenced by a long-standing and unhealthy relationship between governments, the Department of Justice and Garda management, linked to promotional prospects and public accountability. A breakdown in ethical behaviour and internal discipline was reported on by the Morris tribunal a decade ago. Since then, the situation has deteriorated.

Sacking Ms O’Sullivan will not, of itself, bring about cultural change. Retirement of senior managers and their replacement by individuals, some with external policing experience and committed to reform, will be required. As Ms Ring has observed: change must seep down through all levels of the organisation and a team of people will be required to implement such a vision. A separate national security agency, with oversight bodies gaining additional powers, may emerge. Meanwhile, an inadequate reform agenda will trundle on.