Tuesday 21 May 2019

External oversight should be bedrock of accountability for Garda force


Report: Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan at the opening of the new Kevin Street garda station. Photo: Mark Condren
Report: Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan at the opening of the new Kevin Street garda station. Photo: Mark Condren
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Ploughing and policing are poles apart. So, the publication of the policing report on the same day that 100,000 decamped the annual agri-fest in windswept Tullamore meant a muted media response.

The Government's anaemic "noting" of the recommendations was indicative of its priority not to commit to more than the existing €1.6bn expenditure on policing. The report's absence of a financial compass, costings or future budgeting allows it to accompany previous strategic analysis - cherry-picking, with only occasional genuflections.

The lack of a headline-grabbing idea, like a name change for An Garda Síochána or a proposal to bear firearms/tasers, meant it didn't catch the public imagination. But fatigue with controversies shouldn't deter us from modernising the Garda by its centenary year of 2022.

Reform components laid out in previous Garda reports are reinforced again in the new report. Programmes to recruit 4,000 civilians to handle court prosecutions and coroners' inquests, process passport and licence applications, etc, is a no-brainer. Garda overtime last year cost taxpayers €110m.

Sworn officers must be released from administrative duties to ensure more visible community policing, cost savings and efficiencies. The average annual Garda pay is €63,500. Civilianisation makes sense, including the appointment of specialist, non-uniformed management expertise in HQ.

The greatest inefficiency within the Garda is due to the perennial lack of investment in technology. The Pulse system is 20 years out of date. Internationally, police forces ensure mobile officers have handheld digital devices that contain up-to-date file access of previous citizens' interactions with police. So when they are called to an address, they have all the relevant history at their fingertips. Endless paperwork can be eliminated.

The Garda is ill-equipped to deal with the fast-changing complexities of cybercrime.

Sustained technological investment over a five-year period will yield higher crime detection rates and prevent further fraud. Yet our politicians still prefer to bitch about Garda station closures to harvest constituency votes.

Grave deficiencies in training abound at all levels of the force. New recruits lack critical capabilities in basic requirements such as driving. Standard constant career development doesn't occur inside the Garda. In-service training is non-existent.

The recommended district model of policing, and analysis that 70pc of policing involves people with serious social problems (eg. mental health/addictions) presents an excellent analysis of how community policing can engender support for the Garda. Our gardaí have become a dumping ground for critical social services outside of Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 hours.

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc)reform to avoid gardaí investigating gardaí makes sense.

A practical blueprint of amalgamating Gsoc's own change proposals alongside this independent commission can overcome the obvious inadequacies of the current ombudsman complaints regime.

But there's one awesome weakness at the heart of this report, emphatically signalled by Dr Eddie Molloy and Dr Vicky Conway.

The idea that the Policing Authority and Garda Inspectorate should be emasculated, and their powers given back to the Garda Commissioner and an internal board, is preposterous.

Ministers, Garda commissioners and department secretary generals have been forced out of office by a Garda and Department of Justice culture that was "a law unto itself".

References to a "blame culture" denote that the higher echelons inside the Phoenix Park and St Stephen's Green really won't tolerate independent external oversight.

The Department of Justice, which was found to be dysfunctional and secretive in the Toland report, is seeking to reverse many of the transformational innovations of Josephine Feehily and Mark Toland. To remove the functions of senior management appointments and promotions from the Authority is a deeply regressive step.

Never forget that all the controversies relating to quashed penalty points, unserved summonses, 1.9 million fake breath tests, false finances in Templemore Training College, mis-classified homicides and the necessity for commissions of inquiry and tribunals all happened when oversight rested with the Department of Justice. On its watch, controversies relating to whistle-blowers were covered up.

It wants to revert to the tokenism of everything being accountable to the Justice Minister and the Oireachtas Committee for Justice. That's analogous to an FA Cup mismatch with a minnow coming to Old Trafford. Senior civil servants readily run rings around beleaguered politicos.

This proposal amounts to a return to a closed, secretive, insider clique, whose reflex is always to defend the system rather than transparency.

The recommendation to establish a National Security Co-ordinator fudges the separation of ordinary policing from highly sensitive intelligence/security policing.

The next justice minister needs to be a tough, courageous cookie, securing planned multi-annual funding for Garda technology, training and civilianisation, while repudiating the toothless proposal of a Policing and Community Oversight Commission.

On the question of total taxpayer resources for societal security, there's an elephant in the room - the €700m we spend on our Defence Forces, comprising of 8,898 full-time equivalents, the largest contingent of which is 7,187 Army personnel. A high-level, common sense re-evaluation to focus on greater co-operation between the Garda and the Defence Forces would provide greater efficiency and safety from terrorism threats.

The future of policing can't be outsourced by politicians. Any return to 'security as usual' within the Department of Justice will return to institutional nepotism, closet cultures and minimalist accountability.

The Policing Authority/Garda Inspectorate can be merged, but not neutered.

Irish Independent

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