Latest: Garda oversight chief backs calls to delay new Commissioner appointment

Update 10.30am: A Garda oversight chief has said calls to put off the appointment of a new Commissioner until a policing reform body has reported are useful.

The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland wrote to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan this week with a warning that it would be a serious mistake to recruit a new chief before it has done its work.

The head of the reform body, Kathleen O'Toole, said its recommendations will affect the specifications of the job the new commissioner is asked to do and how the force will be managed.

The commission is expected to complete its work about a year from now.

Josephine Feehily, chair of the Policing Authority, said questions would have to be asked about how delaying a new appointment would impact policing.

"My personal reaction is that she makes a very useful and significant point. It's clearly well considered," Ms Feehily said.

"I would imagine that the minister will be weighing up the impact of a lacuna and how long it will be."

Ms Feehily told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that Ms O'Toole's warning would be examined at the Policing Authority's next meeting on Thursday.

"If I was a candidate, I kind of might want to know what job was going to be laid out before me in the future before deciding whether to apply," the Policing Authority chief said.

Josephine Feehily

"On the other hand ... the idea of a lacuna troubles me.

"So I can see arguments on both sides."

Government and justice chiefs are beginning the process of seeking a new Garda Commissioner after Noirin O'Sullivan's sudden retirement earlier this month.

Among the damaging scandals to have surrounded her tenure was the revelation that officers had recorded 1.5 million bogus breath tests, the treatment of whistle-blowers, in particular Sergeant Maurice McCabe, inaccurate homicide records and irregular financial affairs at the Templemore training college.

The Patten-style policing reform body, set up under Ms O'Toole - an internationally recognised police chief and former head of the Garda Inspectorate, was charged with advising on radical change in the force amid the welter of controversies over the last five years.

Ms Feehily also told the committee: "It is important that I end by underlining that oversight is not an end in itself and it is not a game of 'gotcha'.

"It is about enhancing policing performance with a view to ensuring that communities are safe, that the country is secure and that the Irish people receive the best possible service from the Garda Siochana."

Ms Feehily also noted that confidence and trust in the Garda remains strong.

Ms Feehily also said the authority would be particularly concerned about allegations from the Garda Representative Authority (GRA) that rank-and-file officers were acting under duress from superiors when incorrect breath test data was recorded.

"Certainly in that context, I imagine the authority would be keen to see disciplinary action if there was evidence of duress," Ms Feehily said.

"It's a serious allegation, but it needs to be stood up before anything can be done about it."

Earlier: The appointment of the next Garda commissioner may not happen until 2019 after a dramatic intervention by the Policing Commission, writes Cormac O'Keeffe.

Commission chairwoman Kathleen O’Toole has written to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan telling him it would be a “serious mistake” to proceed with the selection of a new commissioner until the expert group has produced its report.

She said the commission believed the selection process “should begin only” after they reported — saying it would be unrealistic to expect “credible candidates” to apply in the absence of clarity as to the job.

The report of the commission is due to be supplied to the minister in September 2018 — and there is no mention in the two-page letter of any interim report before then. This is despite repeated mentions by Mr Flanagan in recent weeks that the commission could, under its terms of reference, produce an interim report if it deemed it necessary.

The letter is seen within both the Policing Authority and the commission as referring to the September 2018 report — although an interim report has not been ruled out.

The Department of Justice, the Policing Authority, and the Public Appointments Service had begun researching and discussing the competition, which was expected to take up to six months before an appointment would be made.

Now the process appears, unless other developments occur, to be delayed considerably — with the establishment of the job specifications, followed by the competition, only beginning after the report is published — potentially pushing the process well into 2019.

Mr Flanagan and the Policing Authority received a copy of the letter on Monday.

Mr Flanagan last night said he would “carefully consider” the letter.

The authority said the matter would be discussed at their meeting tomorrow. Authority chairwoman Josephine Feehily is likely to be questioned about the matter when she appears before the Oireachtas Justice Committee this morning.

Ms O’Toole told the minister the letter had the “unanimous support” of members of the commission.

Ms O’Toole said: “We believe it would be a serious mistake to proceed with the selection of a new Garda Commissioner until this commission has produced its report on the transformation of national policing arrangements.”

The Seattle police chief said the commission was “still at an early stage” and it was too early to predict their eventual recommendations.

“But we can say without doubt that they will significantly affect the future role and responsibilities of the commissioner, and the management structure of the organisation s/he heads.”

She said their consultations had identified issues around governance, accountability, the role of policing and the powers and responsibilities of the commissioner, which suggested a need for “very significant” changes, including legislation.

“This clearly has implications for the search and selection process for the next commissioner,” said Ms O’Toole. “We are strongly of the view that the selection process for a new commissioner should begin only when the future policing arrangements, including partnerships with other government agencies, and the role of the commissioner within these arrangements, become clear.

“It would not be possible in advance of that to draw up job specifications for the position, nor would it be realistic to expect credible candidates to come forward in the absence of clarity about what the job will entail.”

She said they were “struck” by the large backlog of recommendations from the Inspectorate and the “very slow pace of action”.

She said there was an urgency in providing assistance to the acting commissioner and said the new commissioner “will undoubtedly need latitude to select a new Command Team”.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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