Michael McDowell: I did not blow my chance to reform the Garda
Minister for Justice and Gsoc were given ample powers of oversight in my 2005 Act
Former minister for justice Michael McDowell inspects a guard of honour at a Garda graduation ceremony in Templemore. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The Irish Times security and crime editor Conor Lally wrote on Wednesday that the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition had blown its opportunity to reform An Garda Síochána “by being weak-kneed when backbone was needed”.
In support of this suggestion, he said that under the Garda Síochána Act, 2005, which I introduced, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) could not bypass the Garda to directly obtain documents and other evidence. He also states that the force was not compelled to act on the recommendations of the Garda inspectorate.
However, the Act made detailed provision for the search of Garda stations by Gsoc officers, provided that the Garda commissioner and the minister for justice were given advance notice, and the legislation provided that if there was any “security of the State” objections by the commissioner to a search of a document storage facility, including electronic storage, the minister would decide on whether any such objection was valid.
Apart from such “security of the State” objections, Gsoc officers have extensive powers of search, seizure of evidence, and arrest of anyone obstructing such searches. The Act provides for judicial oversight of the exercise of such Gsoc powers by a High Court judge.
The Act also required the Garda commissioner and Gsoc to agree protocols in relation to the sharing of information.
If there was any resistance or an absence of co-operation between the Garda and Gsoc in relation to access to information or records, the minister had full powers to order the Garda commissioner to co-operate with Gsoc by means of a formal directive under section 25 of the Act. There was accordingly ample statutory power to afford Gsoc access to Garda records and IT systems if the minister so directed.
But I note that The Irish Times reported on February 12th, 2014, that a minister for justice in October 2013 had refused Gsoc unfettered access to Pulse.
Secondly, the suggestion that gardaí may at their discretion “take or leave” recommendations of the Garda Inspectorate is also incorrect. They are obliged to implement such recommendations if directed to do so by the minister.
The minister retains power to issue directives requiring such implementation, notwithstanding the recent creation of the Policing Authority, and recent amendments to the Act of 2005 do not mean that the minister was previously powerless to require compliance with directives concerning co-operation with Gsoc or implementation of the inspectorate’s recommendations.
Thirdly, Lally charges me with “spectacularly” blowing my chance to implement the recommendations of what he terms “something called the Advisory Group on Garda Management and Leadership Development”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
After the enactment of the Act on July 10th, 2005, I set about commencing its sections, and establishing its institutions including Gsoc, the Garda Inspectorate and the Garda Reserve.
I agree that four subsequent governments may well have abandoned, diluted or delayed the reforms
On August 2nd, 2005, just three weeks later, I formed the four-member Advisory Body on Garda Management and Leadership Development, chaired by Senator Maurice Hayes (a former member of the Patten Commission). This small high-powered group furnished me an interim report and recommendations within 10 weeks in October 2005.
I informed the Seanad that I accepted the advisory group’s interim report’s recommendations, which included guidance on civilianisation, on an executive management board with civilian members, and proposals for widening the process for recruiting the next commissioner.
I then brought forward necessary Amendments to the Garda Act in the Criminal Justice Bill 2006, which was enacted in May 2007, the month I lost office. These changes included a Garda executive board with civilian directors. My actions in doing so were expressly welcomed by the advisory group in their final report which I also received in May 2007.
No statutory change was needed to hold an international competition for the post of commissioner in 2008, as was done in the case of former commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan’s appointment in 2014.
I had also commenced in early 2007 a major civilianisation programme, as recommended by the group, to appoint civilians to senior posts including deputy commissioner and other senior executives, and increasing the number of civilians by 70 per cent.
Indeed, Lally wrote in this paper on September 14th, 2007, shortly after my departure from office, that on foot of these reforms “[T]here is no doubt that the force is undergoing massive reform at present”, that what he termed a “radical” civilianisation programme, including senior posts had already begun, that “the inspectorate, headed by Kathy O’Toole, is already well up and running”, that Gsoc had been established, and that the Garda Reserve was being “bedded in”.
The facts show that I, and the government of which I was a member, never “blew” any opportunity to start, and were never “weak-kneed” about, reforming the Garda in accordance with the expert advice we received. I agree that four subsequent governments may well have abandoned, diluted or delayed these reforms. That’s different.
Michael McDowell was minister for justice between 2002 and 2007