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Colum Kenny: Garda pay review must link to reform

Gardai are calling for an independent body to review garda pay. The Garda Commissioner reportedly supports their demand. But garda pay is not the only part of Ireland's policing system that is in need of review. Discipline and efficiency are also important.

Many of Ireland's gardai are hard-working and dedicated. The gardai in general have a good relationship with the public and have enjoyed a broad level of trust.

But garda whistleblowers lately revealed internal concerns about the way in which the force as a whole works. Their complaints about indiscipline have not been confined to the alleged random setting aside of penalty points for a broad range of people including TDs, district judges, county registrars and senior police. They include alleged failures to investigate serious crimes.

It has emerged that one of the whistleblowers, John Wilson, is a nephew of the late and respected Tanaiste John Wilson TD and a brother of the current Fianna Fail whip in the Seanad, Senator Diarmuid Wilson. Garda Wilson quit the force last week.

So just how well does Ireland's police system serve society? At a time when the public is concerned about levels of crime, can we even depend on official statistics on which the Department of Justice bases its policing policy?

Last week John Parker, president of the Garda Representative Association, claimed that crime statistics are being compiled in a way that hides many offences. although he later rowed back on this claim after meeting the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, saying that some of his remarks had been taken out of context and that he had not indicated there was any wrongdoing involved.

The views of an experienced and independent international expert on policing would be welcome in this context. A senior British or Scandinavian officer could be asked to compare policing here with best practice elsewhere.

Such an investigator would have to be able to talk to gardai in confidence so that those who wish to share their concerns can avoid the pressures that recent garda whistleblowers have experienced both publicly and privately.

Some other gardai may be playing a dangerous political game, cranking up concerns about public security merely to further their argument for special treatment when it comes to pay claims.

Part of the campaign against the closure of rural garda stations has sounded like special pleading. If gardai cry wolf about matters of minor inconvenience or unsustainable infrastructure then they may not be heard when they have serious concerns about the level of criminality.

Our criminal law and enforcement system is outdated and inadequate. And not just for dealing with violent crime. Company law, banking and building laws left Ireland ruinously exposed. There was no political will to pass and enforce sufficiently strict rules, and we are paying the cost of that failure.

And we are all paying that cost, not just gardai. The billions given to banks to replace money that the banks had spent in ways that the public has yet to see clearly explained, have left us out of pocket for public services.

The Garda Siochana is part of the public service, and the public service as a whole has been hit. The extent of the damage in health, education and other areas is only beginning to become clear.

There is a crisis of reform as some of the most experienced public servants retire. Remaining employees are demoralised and politicians struggle to effect reforms that are more than simply crude cuts. We can ill-afford to lose experienced gardai like John Wilson.

Any changes in garda pay should be clearly connected to an overall reform of the force that delivers a policing service that is as efficient as the best in Europe, while guaranteeing public confidence in garda discipline.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has not yet presented to his Cabinet colleagues the findings of a recent internal garda inquiry into a limited number of the tens of thousands of alleged instances in which penalty points notices were set aside by individual senior gardai. It is understood that garda whistleblowers who first brought this matter to light were not interviewed fully as part of that inquiry.

While some citizens have enjoyed penalty point set- asides, most have either not had the neck to ask a local garda to intervene or were unaware of the sweeping range of excuses that some gardai accept for setting aside fines and points. Other citizens did seek set-asides but were rebuffed in instances where they seemed to have had better grounds in some cases than those on which points were set aside.

People outside the favoured circle have had to pay fines and have had penalty points imposed, and in a range of instances suffered loadings on their car insurance and consequences for their employment prospects.

One driver from Drogheda says that he received penalty points and a fine last year relating to his use of a wide motorway slip-road near Dublin airport. A garda who stopped him told him that he had been doing 84km in 60km zone. But shortly after paying the fine he was on the same stretch of road and noticed that there were no speed signs visible on it.

This motorist then tried to have the fine quashed but says that he was refused on the grounds that he had already paid the fine. He has been left with a sense of injustice.

Any policing system that appears to be enforced randomly or arbitrarily undermines public confidence in the administration of justice.

As too can a court system where some people, such as RTE's political editor David Davin-Power, turn up with a solicitor and escape a fine and speeding conviction by donating money to charity. Unless of course it is clear in law that we can all do that – and on what grounds.

Either everyone or nobody should have such options. Either everyone or nobody should be informed of some of the wide grounds on which it appears that some gardai have been setting aside penalty points and other fixed-fine notices for particular citizens. One garda source claimed last week that summonses are also not being served as they ought in selective cases.

It is vital that the gardai provide Ireland with the best possible policing system. The unedifying spectacle of gardai arguing publicly with the Minister for Justice and seeking special treatment last week highlighted a real problem.

A short, external and independent review of garda pay, practices and discipline by an international expert would help to maintain public confidence in the force.

Irish Independent