Garda reform will result in less public oversight of force

Effort to divide governance and oversight is problematic and will cause confusion

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris at his first meeting with the Policing Authority in Dublin Castle: policing of public protests is firmly on the agenda. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris at his first meeting with the Policing Authority in Dublin Castle: policing of public protests is firmly on the agenda. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland has been richly welcomed, though some questions have arisen over recommendations concerning oversight and governance. The commission has called for a new Policing and Community Safety Oversight Commission (PCSoc), superseding the Garda Síochána Inspectorate and the Policing Authority, and taking on most of their functions as well as some new ones.

Dr Eddie Molloy and I disagreed with our fellow members of the commission. We called instead for a strengthened Policing Authority. My position was in part informed by my direct experience as a former member of the authority but largely shaped by the consultations and discussions undertaken by the commission.

This week the Policing Authority had its first meeting in public with the new Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris. On the agenda was the policing of public protests, an issue which has long seen An Garda Síochána come in for criticism, most recently during the repossession of a building on North Frederick Street in Dublin.

What transpired at the meeting gives an insight into the authority and also the changes in Garda oversight proposed by the commission.

The policing of protests brings into conflict fundamental rights (freedom of assembly and the right to property), the need for public order and, often, concerns about the use of force by the Garda. It causes public disquiet from different perspectives. Transparent oversight is essential.

Traditional methods of oversight failed in this space. Ten years ago, concerns about the policing of protests could be raised in a number of spaces including Gsoc, But complaints from Shell to Sea – the group opposing the development of a gas-processing plant in Mayo between 2005 and 2013 – exposed the limitations of that lengthy process. The gardaí often investigated complaints and the Minister blocked Gsoc’s desired public interest inquiry.

Human rights

Democratic avenues were also available including questioning the minister in the Dáil and at meetings of parliamentary committees. But these were also ineffective. Other options included hoping the Garda Inspectorate would involve itself (it didn’t) or go to court, a slow and costly approach which shouldn’t be necessary when human rights are at issue.

Jump to the current day and note the changes that have occurred. Gsoc no longer needs the Minister’s permission to conduct a public interest investigation, and we have a Policing Authority which is approaching its third anniversary.

Gsoc no longer needs the Minister’s permission to conduct a public interest investigation, and we have a Policing Authority approaching its third anniversary

What difference has it made? Its role is to oversee the performance of policing functions and it has shaped its work practices accordingly. This involves conducting background research, gathering information and meeting with relevant parties.

The expertise of its members (policing, legal, human rights, organisational reform and management, human resources etc) also shapes that work. They question the commissioner and his team in private and in public on a monthly basis. Issues are pursued at committee level: public order could arise at the performance, ethics, organisational development, and audit and risk committees.

The authority comments via biannual reports on Garda performance against the policing plan and feeds this back into the policing plans and strategy statements in all appropriate areas. It may commission research or ask the inspectorate to carry out work, as chairwoman of the Policing Authority Josephine Feehily indicated on Thursday that they have done over the policing of protests. This has resulted in increased knowledge and deeper questioning (in an unrelenting manner) which no other actor in the space has the dedicated capacity to do.

Policing of protest

And while much of this work is done behind closed doors, the lasting impact is through the public meeting. Those who watched Bob Collins’s questioning of the commissioner and his team this week about the policing of protest will have seen informed, impartial, probing and persistent questioning, which is what the public is entitled to see. They saw the commissioner and his team respond frankly. They will have been assured that this issue is being watched, intently, and isn’t leaving the table any time soon.

So what would change under the proposals in the report? The new Police and Community Safety Oversight Commission would conduct oversight. A new internal board would take responsibility for governance. It could be argued that not much will change. One read is that the authority is divested of its functions concerning planning and appointments, gains the knowledge of the inspectorate and a human rights adviser, and nothing more.

One read is the authority is divested of its functions concerning planning and appointments, gains the knowledge of the inspectorate and a human rights adviser, and nothing more

It might seem like this would have little impact on the oversight of the policing of protests but that is not, I suggest, the case. The attempt to divide governance and oversight is problematic and will cause confusion. Under the proposals, the commissioner will have to account to the new internal board for the performance of his functions, while PCSoc (the authority) will oversee performance of policing functions.

A responsible internal board will ask all the questions asked of the commissioner on Thursday, but so too will PCSoc. And the commissioner is also accountable to the Minister, while Dáil committees sit in the wings. Rather than streamlining the process to a “single pair of eyes”, an additional layer of accountability has been added. With so many bodies to answer to, the energy and attention of Garda management will inevitably be devoted to those which matter most.

Internal board

The one which matters most is evident in the proposals. The commissioner is ultimately accountable to the Government, via the Minister. Government hires and fires the commissioner, and determines the size of the Garda budget. The Minister is at the top of the hierarchy. Next will be the internal board. The commissioner must account to the internal board. He does not have to account to PCSoc.

The internal board will oversee policing plans, senior appointments, the budget and so on. Thus the board will be directly involved in ensuring that changes, as needed, are made to the policing of protests: training, deployment, policy, prioritisation and so on. There is no contest here. These issues are too determinative in the running of the organisation. The board will be of greater importance to the senior management team than PCSoc, whose status will be limited.

Thus, under the new proposals, PCSoc will have a reduced remit and be of less importance than the Policing Authority. So the body which has brought transparent, informed and persistent oversight will be diminished .

We can hope the board will do the things it should but it will be behind closed doors (this is an internal board). And it will lack the diverse expertise of the membership of the authority: its required expertise on human rights, policing and communities is core to oversight of protest policing.

How protests are policed cuts to the very core of what it means to be a democratic state. Other issues discussed on Thursday, like homicide statistics or roads policing, are equally important. Under these proposals, I fear the conversations that matter most will happen behind closed doors, within the organisation. The loss of the transparency so hard fought for would severely weaken public confidence in police oversight.

Vicky Conway is a lecturer in law in the school of law and governance in DCU

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