An Garda Síochána and democratic accountability
Sir, – If we want more accountability to the public of the Garda Síochána, we need to devise a policing system that has more democratic accountability.
This might seem counter-intuitive to those who are cynical about politics, particularly in the aftermath of the latest revelations, but the problem is that our policing structures are too centralised and too secretive.
Many other jurisdictions have models of democratic accountability of their police forces that we can look to. For example, in Britain there are directly elected police and crime commissioners.
In other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland, there are policing authorities that have a majority of elected members. We could, as was done in Northern Ireland through the Patten commission, establish a policing commission that engages the public in devising a democratically accountable model of policing that best suited our needs in the Republic of Ireland.
A related issue is that for too long we have relied as a society on the media to unearth information via Garda “sources”. This secretive source of information, linked to the need for media outlets to outdo each other with scoops, has meant fertile ground for false information to be spread about individuals, including members of the Garda Síochána, but also about civilians.
In 2008, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission published its report into its investigation into the communication and publication of false information about Derek O’Toole after his death. Mr O’Toole had died following an accident where he was hit by a car driven by an off-duty member of the Garda Síochána.
According to the GSOC report, the newspaper reporter who first reported the false information invoked the guidelines of the National Union of Journalists in declining to reveal the identity of his sources.
Journalists need to scrutinise the role of the media in normalising news reporting that is reliant on Garda leaks and sources.
It would be far better if the predominant source of information about the Garda Síochána was open, transparent and accountable. A policing authority accountable to the voters, and with a democratic mandate entirely independent of the Minister and Department of Justice, would be a powerful tool to bring information about policing into the public domain.
The call to “make heads roll” might be popular but it won’t bring about fundamental change to policing in Ireland. The best type of accountability is democratic accountability and the best type of information is free, publicly available and verifiable, and those two interconnected principles should underpin policing reforms in the aftermath of the latest Garda Síochána controversies. – Yours, etc,