The nature of the public order challenges facing An Garda Síochána is changing and policing needs to change with it. That was the central message of Garda Commissioner Drew Harris at the Oireachtas Justice Committee on Wednesday. He outlined plans to provide more protective and crowd-control equipment, such as water cannon, tasers and stronger pepper spray and to increase public order training. The force will continue to follow a “graduated response” to trouble, but will be prepared to use the “full extent” of its powers when needed.
There were clearly shortcomings in the response to last Thursday’s Dublin riots, which followed the shocking stabbing incident in Parnell Square. There was a period of hours when public order broke down, individual gardaí were left exposed and huge damage was done to the city centre. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and the commissioner struggled in their initial reaction, a reflection in part of the unprecedented nature of what happened. Both need to show that they can chart a way forward.
Yesterday’s committee meeting featured a mix of useful questioning, grandstanding and playing to a local audience. But several points seem clear.
Harris may be correct that other European cities have suffered longer disturbances. But there were worrying signs last Thursday: the apparent lack of a plan to respond to such a major event; the resulting pace and method of deployment; and uncertainty about the appropriate tactics.
Gardaí now face a vital job in follow-up investigations and prosecutions, particularly of the senior figures who prompted the events. But they must also show a greater level of preparedness if and when a similar threat next emerges. To take just one basic point, protective gear must be readily available in local stations. In working through all this, the poor state of relations between Garda management and members of the force – evident again in recent days – is an issue of concern.
There is a balance to be struck, meanwhile, in the wider policy, legislative and policing response. The introduction of body cameras and facial recognition technology – both under Government consideration – need to have appropriate limits and safeguards. Using technology to scan visual evidence in an investigation may, as Harris said, save many hours of work. Its wider use raises deeper questions.
Other issues have emerged, including uncertainty over the appropriate use of force and fears by gardaí of Gsoc investigations if they overstep the mark. If clarifications are needed, they should happen. But history shows that proper oversight of the Garda and its operations are essential, both for the public but also for the force itself.
In the meantime, the promise of more gardaí on the streets must be met – and not just over the next few weeks in the run up to Christmas.