The early retirement of the Garda commissioner is a consequence of an ingrained government failure to tackle the endemic weaknesses in Garda governance and accountability over the past two decades.
Time and again, it has been content to present the appearance of reform as a substitute for concrete and meaningful change. Behind the facade of embracing more external oversight and transparency, the reality is that the Government has managed to retain a tight grip over the Garda and policing.
That aspect must be tackled resolutely if transparency and accountability are to displace the culture of secrecy and cosy political relations that has characterised policing in this State to its detriment.
Nóirín O'Sullivan's appointment as commissioner is an apposite example. While she may have been qualified to lead a major police service, the Garda Síochána was not that police service.
The case for an external appointment was overwhelming at the time. The government, however, lacked the political resolve to create the conditions, and engage in the search needed, to find a suitable external candidate. While proclaiming a new dawn and a new change of direction, it kept faith with the familiar insider. There was a certain inevitability about the ultimate outcome.
As a part of the Garda senior management that failed to detect and remedy some of the most shocking examples of neglect and mismanagement in its history, O’Sullivan was always going to struggle to deliver on the change needed in Garda culture, management, accountability and transparency. And so it proved.
Significantly, in the statement announcing her retirement, the commissioner expressed frustration over the burden of accountability to so many diverse bodies at this challenging time.
In doing so, she touched, perhaps unwittingly, upon an even more glaring example of the Government’s determination to retain control behind the scenes. The real issue is not so much the number of bodies. Rather, it is the fact that they lack clarity and cohesion in their functional remits, and they convey the mere appearance of extensive democratic accountability while lacking the capacity to deliver the substance.
The Policing Authority should be pivotal in this context. It was presented as the most radical shake-up in the democratic governance and accountability of the Garda in its history. The impression conveyed was that the independent authority would break the cosy and opaque relationship between government and senior Garda management that is widely believed to have been at the root of so many policing problems in this State.
It would also subject policing to transparent scrutiny and accountability from a body broadly representative of the whole community.
Power over policing remains largely where it always was; namely with the Minister and the Government
The reality is sadly different. The Policing Authority lacks the basic representativeness, powers and functions essential to deliver on its promise. Its current members are appointed by the Government, lack elected representatives and are drawn from a relatively narrow spectrum of business, management and public service.
Its powers and functions pale by comparison with those retained by the Minister. It cannot issue directives to the Garda commissioner; it has no budgetary control over the Garda; it has no control over buildings, vehicles, equipment, manpower or specialist units; it has no express role in monitoring human rights compliance in policing; its remit does not extend to State security aspects of policing; the commissioner is not explicitly rendered accountable to the authority; and virtually all of the authority’s powers are subject to ministerial veto.
The combined effect of these and other fundamental weaknesses seriously undermines even those limited powers that are conferred on the authority.
Equally significant is the fact that the Minister’s accountability for operational policing policies, strategies and incidents has been left conveniently unspecified and unclarified in any of the legislative reforms. This means a continuation of the ministerial practice of avoiding embarrassing questions on such matters in the Dáil by pleading that they are a matter for the Garda authorities.
The net effect is that, despite all the public furore and political posturing associated with the relentless succession of Garda scandals, power over policing remains largely where it always was; namely with the Minister and the Government. If anything, the Minister’s hand has been strengthened. He can continue to exert a close influence over the Garda and policing while at the same time avoiding direct accountability for that influence by deflecting awkward questions and issues on to the authority.
There are already examples of that happening, including in the current breathalyser and Garda College financial scandals, even though the authority has no powers to remedy them.
In the absence of real reform in the governance and accountability structures, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that policing in this State will continue to dominate the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
There is hope, however, in the fact that the current Commission on the Future of Policing has a mandate to revisit these structures and redesign them in a manner that reaches a sensible accommodation for the needs of government, professional policing, transparency and accountability to all sections of the community.
Real reform in governance and accountability structures will not be sufficient in itself to cure the deep-rooted problems in the Garda Síochána and the policing of the State. It is, however, an essential part of the cure. Delivering it will require equally real reform in government culture.
Dermot Walsh is professor of law at the University of Kent