The Irish Times view on Garda reform: Time for real change has come

Unlike other reform programmes for the Garda, this latest one comes at a time of calm and strength for Irish policing

 Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.  The latest legislation is effectively an effort to reset, or at least reframe, the Garda Síochana’s role and place in society. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. The latest legislation is effectively an effort to reset, or at least reframe, the Garda Síochana’s role and place in society. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The latest in a long series of efforts by the State to reform the Garda has just been set out with the publication by Government of the general scheme of the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill. It sets aside the Garda Síochana Act of 2005 – the then Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition’s efforts to transform the Garda in the wake of the damaging findings of the Morris Tribunal.

The new legislation is based on the 2018 report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. It was established, under former Boston police chief Kathleen O’Toole, to chart a course for Garda reforms in the wake of the Sgt Maurice McCabe whistleblower controversy. The latest legislation is effectively an effort to reset, or at least reframe, the Garda’s role and place in society.

It bolsters the power of the Garda commissioner as the “true chief executive officer” of the organisation with greater powers, but answerable to a new policing board. It also provides for a merger of the Policing Authority and Garda Inspectorate oversight agencies. There are new powers for the Garda Ombudsman to carry out no-warning inspections, including at Garda stations, and to begin investigations without a public complaint. A new office of Independent Examiner of Security Legislation is also included, intended to oversee the use of legal powers in the State security area.

Under the new legislation the core role of An Garda Síochána is the prevention of harm, especially to people who are vulnerable or at risk. That is a welcome acknowledgement that fighting crime is only one part of modern and progressive policing. The Garda is statutorily obliged to work with other agencies in executing this role. There is also a new reciprocal obligation on all other State agencies to cooperate with the Garda. This recognises that a response based exclusively on policing is inappropriate for many scenarios the force is presented with.

Unlike other reform programmes for the Garda, this latest one comes at a time of calm and strength for Irish policing. The scandals that dogged the organisation for about two decades have dissipated. Garda oversight, though long resisted and cumbersome in its current form, has finally become an accepted concept within the force. The Garda organisation is now at a record strength and has won plaudits from the Policing Authority for its performance during the pandemic, especially the new “tone” to frontline policing. There has also been much praise from the authority for the Garda’s “transformed” approach to domestic violence victims.

Almost eight years after the Smithwick Tribunal depressingly concluded “loyalty” was still “prized over honesty” in the Garda, the time for and the path to effective and lasting change may finally have come.

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