Policing report's transformative potential hinges on Government response

Clarity needed on recomendations about Garda accountablity and transparency

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris passes a poster of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore: the Government must find the political vision and resolve to use the commission’s report as a platform for change. Photograph: Tom Honan

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris passes a poster of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore: the Government must find the political vision and resolve to use the commission’s report as a platform for change. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

The publication of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland ought to be a pivotal moment. Whether that proves to be the case will depend heavily on the capacity of its recommendations to provide essential and forward-looking remedies for the inward-looking, secretive and self-serving culture that has permeated the Garda and policing in this State for too long. Equally significant is whether the Government will find the necessary political vision and resolve to use the commission’s report as a platform for transformative change.

Many of the commission’s recommendations are quite familiar. They have been proposed in one form or another over the past few decades by successive tribunals of inquiry, the Garda Inspectorate, individual parliamentarians, academics and others. What is distinctive about the commission’s seminal contribution is that it pulls them together, gives them an unprecedented coherence and visibility and introduces new thinking from best international practice in some areas. The report provides a valuable roadmap for the future of policing in this State, albeit not quite on the scale of the former Patten commission on policing in Northern Ireland.

The report provides a valuable roadmap for the future of policing in this State

The roadmap encompasses a wealth of very necessary recommendations on recruitment, education and training, promotions, personnel development, internal management and organisation, inter-agency co-operation, and the use technologies and social media, among others. If implemented fully, they offer the prospects of replacing the homogenous, hierarchical, and hidebound Garda organisation with one that incorporates diversity, a confident and outward-looking service mentality, investment in personnel development, a commitment to ethical and professional policing values and, generally, the capacity to deal more efficiently and effectively with the policing challenges of the 21st century.

Mixed bag

Given the events and revelations of the past two decades, however, the familiar challenges of Garda governance, accountability, remit and powers remain key. On first reading, the commission’s offerings in these areas seem to be something of a mixed bag of proposals that require further elaboration and detail than was possible in an exercise of this nature.

Despite the recent establishment of the Policing Authority, the Garda has remained largely insulated from effective democratic scrutiny and transparency. The commission’s recommendations for change have the merit of bringing much-needed clarity and cohesion to the complex and confusing infrastructure in this vital area. At the same time, however, they seem to entail a significant strengthening of the power and status of the Garda Commissioner and the relationship between the government and senior Garda management. The latter, of course, was one of the key concerns that led to the establishment of the commission in the first place.

It is not at all clear that the Oireachtas Justice Committee and the commission’s replacement for the Policing Authority and inspectorate have the capacity to inject sufficient checks and balances in the proposed new arrangements.

Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland of Commission chair Kathleen O’Toole: for reform, the Government must resist negative lobbying by institutional and vested interests. Photograph: Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland/PA
Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland of Commission chair Kathleen O’Toole: for reform, the Government must resist negative lobbying by institutional and vested interests. Photograph: Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland/PA

The handling of complaints against the Garda has been another exercise in pretence for more than 30 years. Despite repeated government posturing, the current Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSoc) still lacks the powers, procedures and resources to make a difference. Commendably, this is recognised by the commission, which offers a body of innovative recommendations which should help address some of the systemic deficiencies.

Secretive culture

The unusual combination of the State security service with the civil policing service in the Garda remit has been key to the organisation’s inward-looking and secretive culture. It has also proved a roadblock to transparent governance and accountability. The commission has responded to this problem not by curtailing the Garda’s State security remit, but by recommending the establishment of a separate scrutiny body in the shape of an independent examiner of terrorist and serious crime legislation. Not only will this undermine the status and functioning of the other scrutiny and accountability bodies, but it also opens up the prospect of State security developing a more expansive role in the Garda remit at the expense of the commitment to policing by consent.

Rights to liberty, bodily integrity, privacy, family life, freedom of expression and protection are widely exposed to opaque decision-making within the Garda organisation

One of the features of policing in this State over the past few decades is the relentless and ominous expansion of Garda powers and discretion, and how they are used. Rights to liberty, bodily integrity, privacy, family life, freedom of expression and protection are widely exposed to the vagaries of opaque decision-making within the Garda organisation. Increasingly, gardaí, and their powers and resources, are being deployed to serve powerful economic, property and select political interests at the expense of the needs and rights of individuals and local communities. Frequently, it is this aspect of policing that generates the most frustration and despair on the ground.

Human rights

The commission responds to this challenge by advocating clarity and transparency in police powers, and the adoption of codes of practice on how they should be exercised. Unfortunately, it goes on to limit that valuable recommendation to some police powers and not all. More commendably, it foregrounds the importance of human rights and calls for them to be “a central concern and an informing principle when police policies and strategies are being developed, when operations are planned and executed, and when cases are brought to a conclusion”. Fully implemented, this would have a transformative effect on policing as experienced on the ground.

It foregrounds the importance of human rights and calls for them to be 'a central concern and an informing principle when police policies and strategies are being developed'

Overall, there is transformative potential in the commission’s report. Whether it can be fully realised will depend heavily on the Government’s resolve to resist negative lobbying behind the scenes by institutional and vested interests, most notably within the Department of Justice and in the Garda organisation itself.

Unfortunately, both government and the Garda have a long track record of frustrating proposed reforms either by quietly shelving them or implementing the appearance of reform without the substance. Whether the commission’s recommendations will experience the same fate cannot be left to government, Garda management and the commission’s proposed implementation group. Their full implementation will also depend on sustained pressure from parliamentarians across the political spectrum, the proposed scrutiny and accountability bodies, the many excellent police officers within the Garda and all of us.

Realistically, this opportunity for fundamental change is not going to come around again in our lifetimes. We need to act on it urgently to develop a Garda organisation that will serve all sections of the community professionally, fairly and without fear, favour or submission to powerful individuals or vested interests.

Dermot Walsh is professor of law and co-director of research at Kent Law School

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