Achieving the right human rights balance

The justice system and reformers must work hand in glove to restore the public’s trust after years of scandals, writes Donncha O’Connell

It is eight months since the Report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was published, and almost four months into the transformation programme adopted swiftly by the Government to implement the Commission’s recommendations over a four-year period.

At first glance, it might seem that a fast-paced reform process is under way but accepting the commission’s recommendations was probably the easy bit.

The timeline and sequencing of the reform initiatives as set out in the Government’s implementation plan is a realistic reflection of the scale of the challenges. The plan also makes plain the holistic approach required in addressing deep systemic problems.

Appearing before the Oireachtas Justice Committee last November, Kathleen O’Toole, chairwoman of the Commission on the Future of Policing, characterised the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations as “a first-order national priority”.

Dr O’Toole stressed the core importance of community safety and harm prevention as animating principles of policing with a strong emphasis on effective inter-agency working, especially in dealing with vulnerable individuals and communities. Such an approach is merely a reflection of the essential purpose of policing — the protection of human rights.

The commission also made proposals for reform of national security arrangements and these are being progressed without delay, as evidenced by the moves already in train to establish a National Security Analysis Centre located in the Department of An Taoiseach.

Our recommendations for independent oversight of these new arrangements also require serious and immediate attention so as to achieve the appropriate human rights balance within the framework of the rule of law.

In relation to the governance of An Garda Síochána, the commission recommended the creation of a statutory board and significant restructuring of the current policing oversight mechanisms through the amalgamation of the Policing Authority and Inspectorate of An Garda Síochána into a single new oversight body, the Policing and Community Safety Oversight Commission.

This recommendation did not meet with universal approval although it is supported unequivocally by the Effectiveness and Renewal Group led by Pádraig Ó Ríordáin that is working on major reforms of the Department of Justice & Equality. The Commission also recommended that GSOC be radically reformed and reconstituted as an Independent Office of Police Ombudsman.

All of our recommendations were based on an extensive and rigorous process of consultation with many stakeholders in Ireland and abroad.

Perhaps some of the most formative encounters in our work were with community groups whose insights on the need for closer connections with An Garda Síochána and more accountability for policing at the local level were crystal clear.

Those members of An Garda Síochána who worked in community policing testified to the perceived lack of esteem for their work in an organisation that prioritised other areas of policing while paying lip service to what should be the core business of any policing service — policing with communities.

It should be possible to reconcile the loud demands of communities for greater visibility and improved engagement with the police service, with the desire of those Gardaí engaged in community policing for this critical work to be given greater recognition within the organisation.

However, making it happen will require a fundamental shift in the culture of An Garda Síochána — one that must be driven from the top but supported at all levels of the organisation.

In particular, the Garda representative associations must broaden their view of how their members’ interests are best served by looking at the reform process as an opportunity to improve the working lives of Gardaí at the same time as delivering the best possible service in communities.

The Commission’s extensive contacts with individual members of An Garda Síochána reflected a strong desire for radical change. Posturing to postpone or undermine reform will serve neither their members’ interests nor the public interest well.

Pragmatically, the focus of the transformation scheme is on strengthening core capabilities within An Garda Síochána — a not inconsiderable task — to drive the necessary changes to things like rosters, performance management, disciplinary processes, and IT. These are all indispensable levers of large-scale change.

The emphasis is on empowering the organisation to take ownership of the reform process, harnessing the positive energy of those advocating change and dismantling those elements of organisational culture that are dysfunctional or even toxic.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris faces a massive set of challenges but is signalling firm purpose. He will need a robust structure of supportive governance to guide him but he will also need a confident openness to external challenge to maintain momentum in the years ahead.

The Commission on the Future of Policing was unequivocal in its opposition to piecemeal change and unapologetic in its ambition for a transformation of policing in Ireland.

Translating the vision of the commission into actual reform is a mammoth task of holistic re-engineering. It demands change of all players, not just An Garda Síochána, to bring about a restoration of public trust and confidence.

Donncha O’Connell is an established professor in the School of Law, NUI Galway and was a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. He is the convenor of a conference on ‘Policing, Human Rights and Communities’ hosted by the School of Law and Irish Centre for Human Rights in NUI Galway today.

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