No easy fix for the heavily loaded layers of policing structure

It sounds impressive to appoint an international expert to examine how we do things here — particularly when we continue to be hit with policing and justice controversies and scandals.

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

But is tasking another set of eyes — ones that may have to start from scratch in terms of their knowledge of Irish policing — the best way to change the system?

The policing structure is already heavily loaded with layers — of governance, of supervision, of inspection, of investigation — and is already buckling under a landfill of reports and documents and enough recommendations to wallpaper the Oireachtas inside and out.

In a statement to the Irish Examiner regarding what this outside person would do, the Department of Justice said: “An independent international expert will be recruited to carry out a review into issues of culture and ethos in the Garda Síochána.

“It is expected that this person will have a background in policing and will work closely with the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate and have regard to the work already underway in this respect by those bodies.”

It is not clear what reviewing the issues of culture and ethos means, nor does having regard to the work already done.

The Authority, the Inspectorate and GSOC are already tasked with this work and the Inspectorate and GSOC have examined these issues in detail for years.

What is to happen to the report of this expert? Who will implement it? How will its recommendations work alongside the hundreds of others that are piled up?

One thing is for sure: there are no easy or quick fixes.

Department of Justice

The Garda Síochána is both a policing and security service.

The Justice Minister and the Department of Justice retain complete supervisory powers and functions regarding the security side of the organisation.

This was most recently made clear in law in the 2015 legislation setting up the Policing Authority (more of which anon).

On the policing front, the minister and the department retain significant powers, far more so than when the Policing Authority was initially proposed.

The secretary general remains the garda commissioner’s immediate boss and the minister the political master.

Under the secretary general, the department has two sections — the Crime and Security Division and the Policing Division that share responsibility for different aspects of the force.

When the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority) Bill 2015 was published, it specified significant powers that had to remain with the minister.

Crucially, the garda commissioner was no longer “accountable” to the new Policing Authority, but would merely “report” to it, with the line of accountability staying with the minister.

In addition, the final word on the appointment of deputy commissioners and the commissioner stayed with the minister and the government, while the minister can also issue the authority with written directives, which the authority must carry out.

Many of the powers retained by the minister were said to be because of constitutional reasons.

The department was heavily criticised in the Guerin report and in the Fennelly report.

It’s secretary general Brian Purcell moved sideways and the department was subject to an audit by Kevin Toland.

Among other things he highlighted a “closed, secretive and silo-drive culture.”

Since Frances Fitzgerald took over she has implemented what she has described as a “sea change” in policing, including the creation of the Policing Authority, the expansion of GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate and investment in technology and systems, in addition to recruitment, in the force.

But she only handed over power in relation to the appointment of senior officers at the start of this year, long after it was due.

This caused disagreement with the chair of the Policing Authority, Josephine Feehily.

But the Tánaiste was also being hit on the other side by the commissioner who wanted those already listed for promotion to be appointed.

Now the department is tasking an outside expert to “review issues of culture and ethos” in the Gardaí — which is a body of work already entrusted by the same department in both the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate, and more indirectly in the Garda Ombudsman.

The Policing Authority

The Policing Authority sits between the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána and is supposed to take the politics out of policing, in terms of supervision, appointments, implementing policy changes and providing a buffer between the commissioner and the minister.

The commissioner retains operational control, but the authority can question, including in public, her actions and can request documentation and reports.

Still relatively young, the authority will continue growing in its reach and public prominence, as their sister bodies in the North and in Scotland (upon which they are partly modelled) have.

The authority is conducting a number of policy probes and recently published its first document on Garda Ethics. Changing the culture of the organisation is a significant part in what the authority has tasked itself with.

The chair of the board Josephine Feehily is seen as a strong leader and is believed to have argued the authority’s case in frank discussions with the Minister and the department regarding the appointment of senior officers.

The linkages between the authority and the GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate are not yet clear. The heads of each of the bodies have been meeting to draw up a protocol as to how they interact with each other.

The authority has responsibility in relation to joint policing committees around the country.

The authority is obliged to submit a report to the minister and is accountable to Oireachtas committees.

The remit of the international expert and his or her team will be seen as moving in on the authority’s hard-fought-for turf.

Garda Ombudsman

Similar to the Inspectorate, GSOC has been operating since 2007.

It has had a difficult, and sometimes tempestuous, relationship with the Garda Síochána, not least with the staff associations and, at times, garda bosses, including the previous commissioner.

It has had long-running, and according to the current and relatively new chair, Judge Mary Ellen Ring, persistent problems in getting access to documents quickly, and in some thorny cases, at all.

Minister Fitzgerald has indicated changes that will give GSOC legal powers in this regard.

GSOC takes complaints from members of the public about gardaí and conducts a range of investigations, including criminal investigations and investigations where a death or serious injury has resulted from possible garda action.

It, like the Inspectorate, can also investigate wider policy or systems issues. It can also conduct public interest inquiries. Its power has been expanded in terms of initiating investigations, taking complaints from garda members, the power to conduct covert surveillance on garda members under investigation and even investigate the commissioner (but with the consent of the minister).

It provides reports to the minister and is also answerable to Oireachtas committees.

GSOC has published a raft of policy and inspection reports – covering everything from garda surveillance operations, garda informants, controversial deaths, the policing of protests, the leaking of information and penalty points.

It has also conducted a lengthy investigation into a complaint filed by Ian Bailey and is investigating issues arising out of the O’Higgins inquiry.

It has extensive corporate knowledge of dealing with gardaí, both individually and at HQ level, right up to garda commissioners.

Garda Commissioner

Ultimately, the person who has to drive and implement changes set by the authority, the inspectorate, the ombudsman, or even the department is the Garda Commissioner.

Nóirín O’Sullivan has made openness and transparency the supposed hallmarks of her tenure — traits that have been tested, and, critics would argue, contradicted, by the reality.

The Garda Inspectorate has expressed concern regarding the slow implementation of many of their recommendations and the culture, often resistant to change, that they have repeatedly come across in their inspections.

Nóirín O’Sullivan 

Against that, her supporters would say that while she and others in Garda HQ might not like some of the Inspectorate’s recommendations and disagree with others (such as the number of gardaí that could be freed from office work to the frontline), they say that the commissioner had agreed to implement the bulk of the requests.

Many are included in the commissioner’s five-year Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021.

This includes everything from changing the culture of the force, introducing new management and operational structures and systems and improving the treatment of victims.

Garda HQ has also just put out to tender for a “cultural audit” of the organisation, which will be conducted by an outside body. This will do part of what the new external expert has been tasked to looked into.

The commissioner has committed the organisation and Garda Training College to implement the Policing Authority’s Code of Ethics.

The commissioner and her senior management, typically in large numbers, have to attend private and public meetings with the Authority.

While that process is little over a year old and is still conducted in a relatively courteous atmosphere, it is likely to grow in the demands placed on garda commissioners and senior management.

The authority will also be in a position to conduct examinations of its own into policies and practices, like its sister agencies in the North and Scotland.

Garda sources have pointed out that a layer of management and internal bureaucracy has had to be set up to liaise with all outside policing bodies, including the authority.

They say that a lot of time and effort of management will now have to go into dealing with the international expert and supplying documentation and dealing with requests — in many cases replicating what they are already doing with the authority and the inspectorate.

The external review may well commend the commissioner for what she has done, or plans to do, but it could also throw up, yet again, continuing issues regarding the culture of Garda HQ.

Garda Inspectorate

The Garda Inspectorate, which sits within the Department of Justice, has been doing much of the work, and for many years, of what the international expert will be doing.

With just three leaders and a small staff, the Inspectorate has produced a dozen or so reports since 2006, many of them extremely detailed and comprehensive.

They have examined management structures, garda ‘barricade’ incidents, roads policing, missing persons, resource allocation, examination of child abuse, front line supervision and penalty points (resulting from McCabe complaints).

But its last two reports were the two Behemoths of documents on policing in recent times: the 490-page Crime Investigation report in October 2014 and the 442-page Changing Policing in Ireland report in November 2015.

The inspectorate conducted massive research for these reports, including interviews with gardaí around the country and a major analysis of raw data.

Each of those tomes have directly resulted in restructuring (both planned and actual) of the Garda Siochana and have exposed a plethora of systemic issues.

The international expert, pushed for by the Independent Alliance and supposed to report in nine months, would do well to read and digest these two reports, and assess their implementation, in that time.

The Department of Justice has said the expert will examine the “culture and ethos” in the Garda Síochána.

The inspectorate has already examined and commented on these issues at length.

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