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Tuesday 23 January 2018

We need action on the force - instead we get more reports

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Steve Humphreys
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Downing

John Downing

Ireland does not lack trenchant reports on our problems - but we often lack action of any kind on those reports.

The case of An Garda Síochána is among the more glaring examples of that sorry situation.

Yet the Government has endorsed plans to set up a "wide-ranging" Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. In anyone's language that is yet another - albeit bigger - report.

Yet again, the whole thing smacks of "political parking" and buying time on an issue which could force an election nobody wants.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said the terms of reference would allow examination of all aspects of policing.

Comparisons are made with the 1999 Commission in Northern Ireland led by Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong. This opened the way for the change from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Ms Fitzgerald has given a broad outline of the comprehensive range of topics for this review process.

There will be consultation with the Opposition parties and relevant bodies, including the Policing Authority, An Garda Síochána Ombudsman and the Garda Inspectorate, before these review terms of reference are finally cleared by the Government.

Twelve days after we learned about one million bogus drink-driving breath tests, and the wrongful conviction of 14,700 motorists, we now know a number of basic facts.

We know Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan has no intention of stepping down.

We know these lamentable revelations of senior management failings to adequately supervise the force drove home the urgent need for Garda reforms. Even in times of stable majority government, the required changes would need singular political determination.

But with this minority hybrid Government, there is little prospect of it delivering the required policing transformation. So, yet another review is the chosen way to go.

Read More: 15 questions Oireachtas committee says the Garda chief must answer

This is not to say that more immediate reforms could not borrow heavily from the Patten model in the North. True, the political circumstances are different in the Republic, but some aspects of Patten could apply.

Key among these would be ending years of foot-dragging resistance to supervision by the Garda Ombudsman and Policing Authority.

Last week, at the Oireachtas Justice Committee, we saw senior gardaí unable to convincingly explain a three-year delay in investigating the false recording of those one million breath tests.

Ms O'Sullivan said part of the cause was a lack of resources and a depleted management team.

Happily, as the recession ended, those shortcomings have since been addressed.

But few people were reassured by the Commissioner's commitment that gardaí at all levels would be held accountable "if wrongdoing was established".

Reality is that false records were created in every Garda district nationwide.

Garda management is essentially telling us that they are baffled as to why this should happen.

We have since heard of reports of similar inaccuracy in relation to the handling of more serious crime.

The Commissioner's talk about openness and transparency did not stand well against failures to answer specific questions by elected TDs and senators.

The bigger point screaming out here is that three years ago, the Garda Inspectorate warned that ordinary crime figures were being massaged to portray a lower number of offences and an inflated detection rate.

More grim details are expected from further reports nearing completion by the Garda Inspectorate.

We also have a new investigation, headed by Supreme Court Judge Peter Charleton, into the treatment of whistleblowers, and completion of the Fennelly Commission's report on the phone call recordings at garda stations. We are not short of reviews.

Amid all this, the time for action on change is now.

Irish Independent

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