Wednesday 28 September 2016

One year on, little has changed in furtive world of justice

Published 16/04/2015 | 02:30

The honeymoon is over for Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan, as many fundamental issues remain unresolved
The honeymoon is over for Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan, as many fundamental issues remain unresolved

In the early half of 2014 the country was convulsed for months with crises relating to the Department of Justice. Whistleblowers were vindicated about internal maladministration and abuses of the fixed penalty points system. Garda oversight through the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) was proven to be defective and operating under inadequate legislation. The Department of Justice itself operated through a culture of secrecy and with a lack of proper management.

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All this culminated in the unprecedented resignation of the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and Justice Minister Alan Shatter. The secretary general of the department, Brian Purcell, was reassigned to another post in the public sector at his own request.

A new era was promised, but one year later there's little evidence of anything different.

The department's website is short on information about Mr Purcell's successor. An open recruitment process for the post, carried out as usual by the Top Level Appointments Commission, (TLAC) did not come up with a suitable candidate.

The Toland Report, published last July, was scathing about the Management Advisory Committee failing to exercise leadership and oversee strategic management functions within the department.

The Government promised an independent police authority by the end of 2014. Despite the publication of Heads of the Bill and the appointment of Josephine Feehily as chairperson, there's no clarity as to how existing structures will be reformed.

The present year-end deadline, is not likely to be met. Deferral to the next administration is probable. Models for the authority in Scotland and Northern Ireland are still being considered. It is quite bizarre that almost every week the Cabinet routinely approves individual appointments of Garda superintendents and other senior positions.

The political system was historically joined at the hip to senior Garda echelons, through the Department of Justice, because of subversive paramilitary activities. Modern police forces function at arm's length from politicians, whose job is to deal solely with finance allocations and crime legislation.

The Garda Inspectorate, under Bob Olson, has done a superb job in providing the public with insights into police force effectiveness and performance. He produced two reports last year dealing with penalty points, and in March produced a 500-page dossier, with 200 recommendations.

Systemic deficiencies are repeatedly revealed in detection rates; defective notification procedures; inadequate personnel training; underinvestment in technology and the dubious reclassification of offences.

Specifically exposed were facts, such as: 66pc of suspects who should have had their fingerprints taken did not; 83pc of crimes were downgraded to less serious offences; Pulse technology is outdated; and there are 700 untrained detectives.

The Cook and Guerin reports lacerated decision-makers in our administration of justice. The knee-jerk response has been the appointment of yet another Criminal Justice Working Group. We also have Justices Niall Fennelly and Kevin O'Higgins currently sitting on Commissions of Inquiry.

For decades, the Department of Justice has allowed storms generated by the media and opposition politicians to rage and then abate over months. When reports are belatedly delivered, a jaded public has forgotten the original controversy. Crime correspondents rely on "official" sources for background information on breaking murder stories, they can't bite the hand that feeds them. Endgame: minimal change.

The recent reshuffle of Garda top brass is welcome. The establishment of a specialist squad to deal with child protection and domestic violence is long overdue. Merging of the National Drugs and Organised Crime Units makes sense. This 'transformation plan' doesn't deal with cultural inner issues however.

One retired detective, with an exemplary record, recently explained: "If you worked in a sweet shop, you'd expect free sweets at Christmas; working as a cop, you'd expect discretion if you get into trouble."

Unexplained accounts of non-prosecution and/or non-service of court warrants of individuals remain a reminder of previously prevalent attitudes. TV3's new drama series 'Red Rock' makes fascinating viewing as to how the ethos of internal loyalty operates.

Fundamental issues remain unresolved at the highest level. Why were the Justice and Defence Departments not retained together in the reshuffle?

When will GSOC be given full legal powers to oversee the Garda Commissioner? As the Garda Confidential Recipient has patently failed, should GSOC carry out internal and external investigations? Should a Garda investigation, or personnel, form any part of a GSOC probe?

A separation of roles between a new police authority, GSOC, the Garda Inspectorate and Justice Department remains clouded in uncertainty.

What are optimum Garda numbers: 13,000, 14,000 or 17,000? When will latest technology and a modern training timetable be available to help solve increasing localised crimes?

Meanwhile, the Department continues to operate in closed silo structures, without a new external boss. Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald had an untroubled passage as the first full Children's Minister. Her undoubted people and political skills provide an antidote to Alan Shatter's abrasive tendencies.

The challenges of delivering transparent accountability to the furtive world of her department was always going to require facing down permanent establishment practices, regularly citing the cloak of secrecy and the 'security of the state'.

The jury is still out on whether this Government has the interest, the bottle or the enduring determination and the guile for such modernisation. Time is running out, as reports gather dust. The honeymoon for Ms Fitzgerald and Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan is over.

Irish Independent

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