Garda report another damning indictment

We are well used to Garda scandals and shortcomings, but last week’s report by the Inspectorate gathered all these errors together and proved change is long overdue, writes Dr Vicky Conway

Morris, Kerry Babies, Kieran Boylan, Shane Touhey, the Heavy Gang, Frank Shortt. Inadequacies, shortcomings, and failures in garda investigations are not new.

We have unfortunately become somewhat accustomed to headlines revealing these errors and wrongdoings to us. Those who have followed and studied these or who have been affected by them respond to the Garda Inspectorate Report on Criminal Investigation without shock or surprise. There are many cases and reports which can be pointed to which lay out much of what is included in this report. The individual findings don’t feel that new.

But it is new. And this report is significant. This is the first time such a comprehensive review of criminal investigations by An Garda Síochána has been conducted and published by external experts.

This examination was not motivated by one particular case or scandal. It does not concern a specific set of facts in one particular district. It is an objective, detailed analysis of the whole system, from start to finish. Every moment and decision from the time an allegation of criminal activity is submitted to the gardaí to the moment it is handed over to the DPP, or not, are picked apart in meticulous detail.

Despite all my research in this area, I found reading the report grossly disheartening, not because of the individual details, but the whole they make. At every turn in the system — and there are a lot of turns — procedures are failing, discretion is abused, supervision is lacking, and the technological supports necessary to make the system work are backwards and outdated.

These problems are institutionalised and systematic. They don’t necessarily affect all investigations and very many crimes are solved, though this report does throw into doubt our confidence in existing figures.

That this report is not a response to one specific incident forces us all, the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána included, to face the fact that any claim of rotten apples is irrelevant. The report is clear. These failings cannot be put down to a few rogue gardaí, or the weaker elements that any organisation will contain.

While it is essential those who have committed wrongdoing face whatever disciplinary or criminal charges are appropriate, that is not what this report is about. Scapegoating individual members would be nothing more than distraction. If anything, it is time to recognise the state of the barrel may be rotting far more apples than it should.

The temptation is to leap to reform and change, and promises that things will be different, that there will be a sea-change. But we’ve heard that before. We were told after Justice Morris published his first report that we would see the greatest shake-up of An Garda Síochána since the foundation of the State. Similar language is now being used. I have real and not unfounded fears of reactive changes that don’t address the root of the problem. I fear that in five to ten years we will once again be shocked by a report, and promised the Earth in terms of reform.

How do we avoid that? How do we avoid more victims of garda misconduct? How do we avoid more victims of crime being revictimised by our police service? How do we avoid the rights of suspects being abused? How do we ensure that our gardaí can have pride in the organisation for which they work?

First, we must study this report carefully, appreciate fully the endemic nature of what has been found, and consider its recommendations cautiously. Helpfully, what can and should be done in the short term has been clearly expressed. Many of the recommendations have benefitted from the experience of police forces in other jurisdictions.

There is a wealth of research which can provide substantial critical insight into the effectiveness of those recommendations. If the new Policing Authority is to play a role in overseeing the implementation of those recommendations then it should consult with experts in the relevant fields to ensure progress is based on all available information. Second, political control over An Garda Síochána must be ceded for, at the very least, it makes the waters very murky. The Policing Authority is a step towards this but there are limits in the proposed legislation. As we have seen this week, its chairperson is a political appointee. The minister will have power of veto over appointments and removals at the level of commissioner and deputy commissioner. The minister will decide what constitutes a security matter and will have to agree to all policing and strategy plans. That is significant political input and I question how necessary it is for policing in Ireland to be effective.

We need the representative associations to recognise the deficiencies in Irish policing and to come on board with such wide-scale change. We need changes within the department. We also need changes in the criminal justice system as a whole and the proposals for a criminal justice inspectorate should be seriously considered. The police are just one part of that system and are not the only part proving defective.

An Garda Síochána needs leadership. It needs a robust oversight system that is not just focused on holding it to account but which aims to support and enable it to achieve its functions.

Internally, the brave and difficult steps towards changing cultures and practices that have been engrained for decades must be taken.

  • Vicky Conway is a senior lecturer in criminal law at the University of Kent


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