Monday 17 June 2019

New commissioner and an oversight system are now key

Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was one of the gardai drafted in from uniformed duties in Blanchardstown to the Tango Squad
Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was one of the gardai drafted in from uniformed duties in Blanchardstown to the Tango Squad
New Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald speaking to media at Government Buildings, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
John Downing

John Downing

Change is in the air. It doesn't mean change is going to happen – but it does mean there will be a lot of talk about it.

The coming week's political agenda will be all about justice and police reforms. On top of that, Labour, in anticipation of a considerable political kicking in the elections on Friday week, is already talking about radically redirecting the focus of this Fine Gael-Labour Coalition.

And for good measure, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar is also out there talking about the need to start a complete cultural shift to "a rules-based society" over the coming generation. He thinks we need to become "a by-the-book nation" getting rid of the "man-who-knows-the-man-who-can-sort-this-out". Mr Varadkar reckons this could take us 20 years or more to achieve. Tomorrow the Cabinet will consider the promised commission of inquiry into An Garda Siochana, which was recommended by senior counsel Sean Guerin in his report last Friday. The new Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, has already raised eyebrows by failing on three occasions at her first press occasion last Friday to express confidence in the secretary general of her department, Brian Purcell.

Mr Purcell was a central figure in the events in late March prior to Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan stepping down from his job. On the Taoiseach's instruction, Mr Purcell went to see the commissioner the evening before he announced his decision to go.

As the most senior official in the Justice Department, described yesterday by the minister as "not fit for purpose", Brian Purcell will again be under the spotlight this week. Opposition TDs are bound to pose a series of further questions.

Enda Kenny knows he is facing into some fundamental things here. He knows he has very little political cover after the departure of the Garda Commissioner and the Justice Minister. The Taoiseach has taken a direct hand in these matters and, for good or ill, what happens next will have direct consequences for him.

This is a tough time to be a member of An Garda Siochana and even tougher to be in the Justice Department or in the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). The Guerin Report has led to other serious and disturbing allegations against the justice system.

There is absolutely no doubt major changes are required sooner rather than later. The question is what kind of change and how quickly. Taking the three institutions under the spotlight, let us deal with the last one first. The GSOC was the horse designed by committee. It began life severely hampered and cannot go on as it is.

Ms Fitzgerald has promised us a new system of garda oversight before the year is out. She is about to open a consultation process. Wednesday's hearings at Leinster House will be a good taster of this consultation.

We will hear from pretty much all of the leading players within or close to the justice system.

If Ms Fitzgerald sticks with her resolve and can deliver on her promise, we will soon have a new garda supervision system with more powers.

That will be a major change in our policing operations. It is in everybody's interest, including the individual gardai, that the new system is independent, informed about the exigencies of policing and, above all, fair.

But before it exits the stage, let us note GSOC has this weekend mounted a convincing case for not delivering the documents Guerin required for his review.

The full import of the data protection legislation is only gradually becoming apparent to the average citizen.

GSOC's central argument – that it could not hand over volumes of sensitive personal data to a lawyer-led, non-statutory inquiry – appears entirely reasonable.

At the same time, we now await Judge John Cooke's inquiry results into allegations that GSOC was the subject of illicit surveillance. Then we must see about Mr Justice Nial Fennelly's inquiry into the recording of garda station phone calls over 30 years.

Among the things the Cabinet must decide tomorrow is whether this can be merged into a new inquiry or whether it will run as planned in parallel.

Work will continue beyond this week on the terms of reference for the new commission of inquiry. Such work does take time and it is important to get things right.

But there is a clear need for some changes to ensure this most law-abiding Irish nation does not lose confidence in the gardai and the justice system.

Irish Independent

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