Monday 24 November 2014

Frances Fitzgerald in scathing criticism of garda force

New Justice Minister wants change 'at every level' to rebuild trust in scandal-plagued force

Published 21/07/2014 | 02:30

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has said that the number of children adopted from abroad by Irish people will continue to be low this year. Photo: Tom Burke
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has said that the number of children adopted from abroad by Irish people will continue to be low this year. Photo: Tom Burke

JUSTICE Minister Frances Fitzgerald has demanded urgent and fundamental change in the "structure and culture" of the gardai as she delivered scathing criticism of the Garda Siochanna.

In her most outspoken comments since taking over from her predecessor Alan Shatter, she said that the public image of the Garda had become tainted by "massive controversy" and public "mistrust".

Ms Fitzgerald said she was determined to reform the force by providing greater oversight through a new Garda Authority, and strengthening the powers of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

But she said that without a more fundamental change in the attitude and approach of each individual garda, these overarching reforms may not be enough.

The new Justice Minister's hard-hitting comments come in an exclusive article for the Irish Independent.

Ms Fitzgerald's criticisms mark the first time since her appointment to the Justice Department last May that she has specifically addressed the issue of the culture within the gardai.

Mr Shatter was forced to resign following a torrent of controversies that included the GSOC bugging allegations, the departure of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, and the inquiry by Sean Guerin SC into allegations of garda malpractice.

Two months after inheriting the tumultuous portfolio, Ms Fitzgerald concludes that the last attempt to reform An Garda Siochana with legislation in 2005 had failed. "Less than 10 years later, a series of systemic failings have caused massive controversy and generated mistrust in our police service," she says.

One after another, areas of concern on penalty points, crime investigation and whistleblowers emerged," Ms Fitzgerald writes today.

The minister said that these tainted the public perception of the force and established an urgent need for reform at every level.

While she welcomes many innovations in the gardai in recent years, Ms Fitzgerald does not believe these went far enough.

“I cannot be blind to the reality that, in some areas, the structure and culture have changed little,” she adds.

Problems of oversight are now being addressed, she says, with a new Garda Authority to be appointed before the end of this year.

New legislation giving GSOC strong investigative powers are to be published later this week.

But she argues that more subtle changes are necessary – “the ones affecting all systems and the behaviour of every individual” within the force.

“These are the bread-and-butter issues, which come into play, everyday, in every garda district, every garda unit.”

Rank-and-file gardai as well as their superiors recently complained that the mood within the force was at rock bottom, as they dealt with a seemingly endless procession of controversies.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors called for an urgent review of the role of the force to help lift flagging morale from “the floor”.

The Justice Minister this week announced a new intake of recruits will begin at the garda training college in Templemore this September. The 100 applicants are the first new members to join the force in more than five years.

Recruits

She believes the wider cultural diversity of newer garda recruits will change the culture of the force gradually and over time.

But Ms Fitzgerald admits the need for change is more urgent.

“The challenge is immediate and the changes needed run right through all of the practices and structures within the force in order to foster a culture which supports the effective working of all gardai and enables the crafting of a policing service for 21st-century Ireland,” she argues.

Ms Fitzgerald says that every facet of the force’s operations must now be closely examined. She also warns of the need to closely examine what she calls “the accretion of unexamined habits” – or the gradual accumulation of questionable practices which pass into daily routine without scrutiny.

Her comments come in advance of an appearance at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, later today.

Ms Fitzgerald will take part in a panel on ‘Law and Justice – Openness, Transparency and Accountability Required’. Other participants include Michael McDowell SC, who was formerly Tanaiste, Minister for Justice, and Attorney General.

Irish Independent

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