Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan talks to Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe ahead of the publication of a report by the Commission on the Future of Policing
Riddled by scandal after scandal and with a conservative silo mentality that has resulted in the neglect of garda whistleblowers, the failure to rein in financial irregularities, and also deal with policing malfeasance, the Department of Justice has sat for years like an untouchable citadel.
The police force itself has limped through controversies, from the mistreatment of garda whistleblowers to phantom breath tests and to concerns around the garda college spending.
With little reform, authorities in both justice and the Gardaí circled the wagons when a shot was fired at them: Criticism was the enemy.
An expert outside report on the Department of Justice last month concluded:
Like the facade of the ageing Georgian department building on St Stephen’s Green, which at present is covered by scaffolding and undergoing detailed restoration, the department itself is facing change. Indeed, the entire policing and justice system from the top down is in a state of flux.
Justice has just recently appointed a new secretary general, Aidan O’Driscoll. There is a new garda commissioner, Drew Harris; and the future of policing report will be presented to the Government next month.
This latter point I take up with Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who took over the portfolio just over a year ago.
“This will be a blueprint for An Garda Síochána for decades ahead. It is particularly timely, as it coincides with the term of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner,” explains the minister.
Commissioner Harris will attend a garda walking out ceremony in a few weeks, his first ever, before that blueprint by the Commission on the Future of Policing is presented the same week.
It will potentially be the start of a defining moment for the force, or a symbolic sham if ignored. Former editor Conor Brady resigned from the commission in part over a lack of support for it.
It is therefore up to Mr Flanagan to not just grasp that nettle that is the dysfunctional policing and justice strategies so highly criticised time and again in recent years, but to commit to change, especially as we approach the centenary of the establishment of An Garda Síochána at the start of the next decade.
Mr Flanagan won’t be drawn on the commission’s work, but he seems prepared for change.
Nonetheless, just like the tired facade of the department building, which needs work, there will be no overnight solution that Mr Flanagan or indeed his new garda commissioner can offer up.
Also, there are a plethora of matters on the minister’s desk that need addressing, including demands for garda resources, ways to battle rural crime, the most prolific legislative agenda of any department, and preparations for the garda and justice budget next year.
Mr Flanagan, a Laois- Offaly TD, is adamant about wanting to protect rural communities. A spate of violent burglaries in recent years has sparked fears in isolated areas. CSO statistics last month also showed violent property crime has risen sharply, with a 17% rise in offences in the last year.
What will be done, I press the minister, to prevent gangs in high-powered cars speeding off motorways into areas and targetting households. This is not something gardaí can do alone, he answers.
“There is a very strong level of trust and confidence among people with gardaí. I want to ensure that is maintained.”
He notes that the Irish Farmers’ Association, Muintir na Tíre and community alert networks all work with gardaí, but more can be done.
“I want to assist gardaí with CCTV cameras, having regard to the changing nature of modern crime. One of the unintended consequences of our rapid expansion of our motorway network in the Celtic Tiger years has been the ease with which mobile criminals can engage in their illegal activities up and down the country.
“I want to see cameras on motorway slipways. It will stop them, as it will provide evidence to assist the gardaí in the detection and the investigation, prosecution and ultimately conviction [of criminals].
“I’ve got a million euro each year for three years for local communities for community CCTV that is currently being rolled out. I want to encourage local communities to get together and apply for these funds.”
Mr Flanagan also maintains that recent new laws, including strengthening bail restrictions, will be used to fight rural crime.
“We have a strong body of criminal legislation which would facilitate the conviction and jailing of ruthless gangs marauding up and down the country.”
With 800 garda recruitments annually now resulting in 500 new members after retirements, the hope is that more gardaí will be out on the beat. Increased visibility in communities is a priority, the minister also explains, and officers need to get out from behind desks.
Another headache for the minister is complaints by gardaí about hiring outside the force.
A recent advertisement for a chief superintendent position was pitched at the PRSI in the North and angered representative associations here, but the minister is open-minded about bringing in fresh blood, especially after Harris’s appointment.
“I want to see a greater level of mobility across police services, across Europe and across the world. I want to ensure that there is ease of transfer. For example, many young Irish people who emigrated over the last 10 years have joined police forces in other jurisdictions, in Australia for example. I want to make it easy for these people to come back and give of their experience and expertise to an Garda Síochána,” he says. “I do acknowledge that at superintendent level we have a number of former PSNI representatives, who are bringing with them experience and expertise from policing on the island of Ireland. I would welcome that.”
Such hiring is separate from Commissioner Drew Harris’s own special management team, which the former PSNI deputy chief constable is bringing with him, explains the minister.
Indeed, a key part of the Commission on the Future of Policing is to look outside Ireland at other policing models and to make recommendations around effectiveness and efficiency. This will likely play a part in the options recommended next month on how to modernise the force.
The commission will also look at a spectrum of justice authorities in Ireland and how they provide oversight of gardaí, including the Police Authority, the Garda Inspectorate, the Garda Ombudsman, Joint Policing Committees and, of course, the Department of Justice.
The landscape of policing and justice is likely to be uprooted with this report.
Government figures are preparing for major surgery in the gardaí, with fresh recommendations on battling the changing nature of crime, the need for continuous engagement with communities and the need to bed down strong leadership and ethos in the force.
Is the force ready for such tumultuous change? It will be up to Mr Flanagan to grasp the nettle and deal with any backlash if he is to successfully lay the foundations for modern policing and justice systems.