More red tape or a better thin blue line?

A police authority will uncouple the close relationship between the justice minister and Garda commissioner, says Cormac O’Keeffe.

DESPITE being one of most fundamental changes to the structure of policing for decades, it has been largely sidelined in the heat and noise surrounding the Garda controversies.

But the Government’s decision to establish a new State body to regulate An Garda Síochána and sit between the force and the Government is, in the words of one leading academic, “a momentous” decision, if a surprising and sudden one.

A Cabinet committee chaired by Taoiseach Enda Kenny is to research and consider the structure of a new Garda Authority. Not only does this mark a major change in policing, it also seems to herald the end of the old regime in terms of the control wielded by the Department of Justice and its minister, currently Alan Shatter.

In so doing, it marks a U-turn in that department’s and minister’s opposition to police authorities.

Major questions and concerns remain, not least who sits on the authority and who decides who sits on it. Then there is the thorny issue of whether or not, or to what extent, the authority has domain over nat-ional security and intelligence matters.

Dermot Walsh at Kent University’s school of law has written extensively on the gardaí and the criminal justice system and is currently completing another book on the area. He is a long-time advocate of a police authority.

“It provides an essential governance/accountability buffer between central government and the national police. It helps avoid adverse effects of a cosy relationship between minister and commissioner — an acute issue in Ireland given the historically close relationship between central government and policing.”

Prof Walsh said this means the minister can rely on the commissioner to maintain publicly that government is providing him with adequate resources and can also rely on the commissioner’s support for unpopular policies.

He said the “quid pro quo” was that the commissioner can rely on the minister for cover when public concerns are expressed over Garda negligence and corruption.

The two main Garda staff associations have long called for an independent police authority.

Last year, at its annual conference, the Garda Representative Association — comprising rank-and-file members — said such a body should be put in place to remove what they claimed was political interference.

The power of the minister and the role of the secretary general of the department in relation to the Garda boss are enshrined and expanded on in the Garda Síochána Act 2005.

This includes ministerial powers to issue directives to the commissioner and to demand reports on any aspect of policing from him.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors — representing supervisory ranks — has been calling for a police authority for 16 years.

The issue was again debated at its annual conference this week, where deputy general secretary John Jacob advised the Government not to just “transplant” a model from abroad but devise one that suits Ireland and is “cognisant” of the policing here.

Retired detective inspector Brian Sherry told the Irish Examiner he welcomed a police authority: “Political interference is appalling and I believe this government is the most interfering government in the history of the gardaí.”

But one senior garda differs from the above opinions: “We have loads of oversight: We have disciplinary regulations, we have internal audit, we have the Garda Inspectorate, we have GSOC, and we have the Garda Síochána Act. We have more oversight than we need. We are very well-monitored and now they’re talking about putting in a police authority. It’s another layer of bureaucracy.”

The senior officer added that police authorities had “not worked” in England and Wales.

Police authorities existed in England and Wales from 1964 to 2012, with separate authorities for each police force, numbering more than 40.

A Home Office report in 2012, Policing in the 21st Century, read: “Individual police authority members have worked hard to engage their communities, but police authorities remain too invisible to the public. The public do not know how to influence the way policing is delivered in their community, let alone get involved.”

The report said there was no direct way for the public to choose representatives. Instead of authorities, individual police and crime commissioners were put in place. They are directly elected and hold the chief constable and the police force to account.

Research by the Institute of Local Government Studies in Birmingham University says: “Throughout their time, police authorities have generally had a very low public profile — few of the public know of their existence, let alone who is on them, when they meet or what their role is.”

It says reporting of their proceedings and decisions is “scant” and adds: “For the most part too, their contribution in terms of holding chief constables to account has also been week and without much evidence of substantive impact, whether in terms of force resourcing or policy.”

Back home, Mr Shatter rejected calls for an authority before the current Garda crises. Last February, he told the Dáil there was “a lack of democratic accountability” in the English and Welsh authorities.

“I do not see how interposing an undemocratic layer between the gardaí and the Oireachtas will assist in increasing accountability,” he said at the time. “Internationally, there is now a move away from independent policing authorities.”

Prof Walsh said the English and Welsh authorities failed due to a combination of reasons: The composition of its members; decisions of the courts expanding the operational independence of police; and decisions of the Home Secretary in expanding his regulatory and budgetary powers.

He said this was not to say there were not pitfalls with a police authority and that they are “only as good as the people on them”. He said that, like all oversight committees, there was the potential of a “lack of focus, debilitating infighting, subservience, carrying passengers”.

But, said Prof Walsh, with the correct mix of “talent, experience, leadership, and mission, [authorities] can be a dynamic force for good”. He said the Northern Ireland Policing Board could serve as a model, with representatives of the main political parties, interest groups.

He said it should have the power of hiring and firing the commissioner, setting annual policing plans, and demanding reports from the commissioner. It should also hold public meetings and set up inquiries. Budgetary powers would be in conjunction with the minister.

Prof Walsh said one “thorny” issue — and an argument put forward by Mr Shatter against an authority — was the sensitive area of national security. Unlike most European states, which have separate security agencies, the Garda Síochána is both a police service and the national security agency.

His solution would be to take those functions away from the gardaí and establish a separate agency. He added: “Alternatively, and less satisfactorily, the Gardaí retain national security functions, which are then considered to be outside the remit of the police authority.”

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