There are deep soundings of ‘sea change’ in the structure and role of An Garda Síochána. So many allegations, controversies and issues have been raised, that the public is reeling at the volume – and few can distil any meaningful analysis. The Guerin Report repeated the allegations made by garda whistleblowers originating from the penalty points system, and the publication of the Cooke Report into alleged surveillance of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). We await the Commission of Investigation into the recording of telephone communications in garda stations and, furthermore, a review of the performance, management and administration of the Department of Justice.
In all of the reforming measures already planned, underway or fully implemented, many will be reacting to the perceived failings before it is established which of the issues should be addressed first. The primary definers who set the agenda for public debate have failed to identify the core issues – and instead have opted for reform ahead of the findings of the plethora of investigations and inquiries. We contend it would be prudent to await all of the reports – including the full review under Haddington Road – before the harried and reflex piecemeal reconstruction of the justice sector. We need to establish what is broken before we ‘fix’ or ‘replace’ everything with new designs and imported parts.
“Before the powers of GSOC are extended, it would be wise counsel to suggest that the implications are debated and understood – and that at last we find out, in a practical sense, who is in charge of this agency.”
Garda whistleblowers first highlighted that the penalty points system was not being consistently applied across the country – and a report by the Garda Inspectorate made recommendations that have been implemented to restore public confidence and assuaged public disquiet. Yet before the terms of reference or timeframe for the formal establishment of a Commission of Investigation recommended by the Guerin Report, or before the Garda Inspectorate can report on its task to carry out a comprehensive inquiry into operational issues raised – the government has already outlined the heads of new legislation to increase the powers of the GSOC –without proper public debate or stakeholder consultation.
The Guerin Report was debated on our national broadcaster the day before publication; and Prime Time billed it as ‘Policing the Future’; but no elected representatives or accountable heads of organisations could feasibly define the issues in studio or by videolink the day before the report was published. As a result, only those commentators prepared to speculate were featured. In our democracy, it is important that there is a functioning public sphere to fully investigate new laws or powers. This has not happened with regard to the proposed new powers for the GSOC, and our fear is that the new legislation will be pushed through by a political elite in a knee-jerk reaction before any real problems have been isolated.
There are appropriate powers held by GSOC investigators, but several of the proposals are inordinate and undue; such misplaced government urgency has overridden the careful consideration such powers demand. We urge caution on extending GSOC powers until we have clarity to whom the GSOC commissioners are accountable. If we have learned one thing this summer – it is that it is not the Department of Justice, Dáil committees, the judiciary or the wider public. So far, GSOC failed to supply files in time to the Guerin Report and did not see the need to inform either An Garda Síochána or the Minister for Justice the moment they feared their security had been compromised, nor did they see fit to mention instances of perceived physical surveillance to a public committee.
When one of the three GSOC Commissioners complained that gardaí attended interview accompanied by their legal counsel, it suggested that this was somehow inherently wrong – yet we hear that when Justice Cooke interviewed GSOC staff, many had their lawyers present. This is hypocritical.
For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.