In recent years, An Garda Síochána has endured negative, destructive attention.
Its morale has been undermined; its insular, sometimes aloof, culture criticised relentlessly; and, most of all, its relationships with the public and Government have been strained. The force, like all public institutions, has had to cope with a new economic reality, one that often meant it did not have the resources to do the job it and the public wished it to do. Recruits’ pay scales are inadequate and well below those their senior colleagues enjoyed at the start of their service. These issues, and shortages all across our public services, must question the wisdom of promising to end the €4bn-a-year USC tax over the next five years.
The force has also had to cope with a new level of criminal violence, violence almost on a par with the paramilitary outrages of the last century. It has done so courageously and without complaint. It also had to deal with controversy around how whistleblowers, nearly all of them vindicated, were treated. For a time, it seemed as if the force was its own worst enemy.
Despite that criticism, An Garda Síochána remains an essential bulwark, a position reflected in the core support this society always offers, if not unquestioningly then secure in the knowledge that a good society depends on a good police force. This society also accepts the force needs more support but expects that the delivery of any new, extra resources runs parallel to the kind of reforms needed to overcome shortcomings, cultural or professional, identified in myriad reports.
A strand of that process played out earlier this week when the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) made a submission to the Óireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality and highlighted what it regarded as weaknesses in the Garda Síochána Act 2005. GSOC said that An Garda Síochána was still too slow providing evidence or documentation needed to investigate complaints against the force. The watchdog believes the force has used legislative weaknesses to delay investigations and said it asks the courts to compel the force to surrender evidence. The agency also complained that, at the completion of an investigation, An Garda Síochána can review its conclusions and may reject or overrule them or decide not to impose the suggested sanction. Or, to put it in the vernacular, “stuff your investigation...” The force is not obliged to explain this dismissal.
Additionally, the report that Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has moved responsibilities for discipline from the force’s Internal Affairs unit, led by a senior civilian, to an assistant commissioner, feeds suspicions that this particular leopard is struggling to change its deep blue spots. This is, from the public’s point of view at least, very unsatisfactory. The force may have a different view but it is once again behaving as if it imagines itself a free agent, unfettered by the very valid expectations of this democracy. The last government put sectional interests above the common good when it shamefully emasculated Alan Shatter’s Legal Service Bill to placate the legal profession. Let us hope it does not do so again with efforts to reshape An Garda Síochána.
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