The Irish Times view on Garda oversight: policing the police

The Government should not be afraid to give stronger powers to agencies overseeing one of the State’s most powerful institutions

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (Agsi) has become the latest group in Irish policing to criticise Government plans to reform the Garda and its oversight agencies. Agsi has described as “unjustified” new powers planned for those who investigate gardaí accused of wrongdoing. Oversight agencies would be permitted to carry out unannounced searches, without a warrant, at Garda stations and other locations. This and other measures would, according to Agsi, create a system of investigation that “will encroach on the legal, constitutional, and privacy rights” of gardaí.

The planned changes are contained in the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill. It would also amalgamate some of the existing oversight agencies and introduce a new Garda board to which the Garda commissioner would be accountable. The Bill aims to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing which was charged with plotting a reform plan for the Garda after years of controversies. As the commission's report was published, in September 2018, Drew Harris was appointed commissioner of An Garda Síochána. He was ushered in as an outsider to change a Garda culture in dire need of reform. The commission's recommendations would be his road map.

Just over three years later, Harris has proven the harshest critic of the new Bill. The powers and procedures being granted to Gsoc to investigate all Garda members were so "draconian", he told the Oireachtas justice committee, that it was "all but certain" they would be legally challenged. The courts, he believed, would find the investigative process had "transgressed the very foundational principles of constitutional fairness". He also believes if the new legislation was enacted, he would spend "more time reporting and accounting to [oversight] bodies than actually overseeing policing, security matters and the leadership and direction of An Garda Síochána". The Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate have also raised doubts about the Bill.

Many will justifiably regard Garda criticism of oversight proposals with a sceptical eye; the force is not exactly a model of transparency and openness and has in the past fiercely resisted numerous attempts to prise it open. It is understandable but striking nonetheless that Agsi’s focus is exclusively on how the Bill will impact its members, whereas the Government’s attention must be on how the force can best serve society.


That is not to say that Goverment should resist input from the force and disregard Harris’s views. If clarity is needed on how different oversight agencies will interact with each other and hold gardaí to account, so be it. But the Government should not be afraid to give stronger powers to agencies overseeing one of the State’s most powerful institutions.