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Comment - Irish Politics

Our so-called Policing Authority is a useless and ineffectual quango

The report of the newly created Policing Authority makes alarming reading for two reasons – firstly, the omni-shambles it describes in Garda management, and, secondly, the frightening picture it paints of the Policing Authority itself – a grim self-portrait.

In truth, the Policing Authority is not an authority at all; it is an ineffectual and redundant piece of political window-dressing established by Enda Kenny’s government as a kneejerk reaction to the crisis in public confidence arising from the departure of a Garda commissioner who received a late-night visit from Enda Kenny’s emissaries in early 2014. The establishment of a policing authority was bitterly opposed at cabinet by the then Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, but he was over-ruled at the instance of the Labour Party - and within weeks he was gone himself.

Policing is one of the most central functions of the executive arm of any state, including Ireland. No common law country has made its national police force (as distinct from regional constabularies) subject to a policing authority independent of the elected government.

The Irish constitution places the exercise of the executive power of the Irish state in the hands of the Government which is made accountable to the Dáil. The Garda Síochána is at once a national police force, a national security service, and a national immigration service. It must be under the control of the Executive in any functioning democracy. It cannot constitutionally be handed over to a non-governmental body that is independent of the Government and the Dáil.

And that is why the pretence of an apolitical policing authority has entirely failed. The litany of underperformance and non-performance by Garda management described in its 3rd report equally demonstrates that the Authority itself is useless and ineffectual. The Garda Inspectorate set the agenda for change. But the Authority is not delivering that change and never will. A body consisting of a chairperson and 7 members (none of whom has a democratic mandate) is wholly unsuited to exercise any authority over the Garda Síochána. It can’t and won’t.

Even its own statute admits that its primary function is “oversight” of the Garda performance of its functions. “Oversight” is not authority; it is nothing like authority. The Act leaves the real function of giving formal directions to the Commissioner with the Minister and Government, which must always be the case in a democratic society.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of an executive management board for the Gardai. Such a board with a civilian majority was recommended in 2006 by the report of an Advisory Group chaired by Senator Maurice Hayes, a member of the Patten Commission in Northern Ireland. I made statutory provision for its establishment in 2007, but four governments came and went without appointing its members.

What is very wrong is the pretence that national policing and security can be taken away from the control of the democratically elected parliament and government. That is wrong in principle and is also wrong in practice.

We hear people point to the policing board in the North as a model. That board is composed as to its majority of elected politicians reflecting party strength– ten out of its nineteen members – with the rest appointed by their Minister for Justice. It is highly political in its composition.

It is a far cry from our so-called “authority” from which elected any politicians with a mandate are expressly barred. And it was designed to mirror the power-sharing nature of the Northern assembly and executive in the context of a community deeply divided about policing. We have a very different constitutional order in the Republic.

Real constitutional authority and accountability in this state lies, and should lie, with the Government, the Minister and a serious all-party Oireachtas policing committee.

Your heart would sink at the impenetrable mass of management speak, pie charts, flow diagrams, acronyms, cross-references, and tables that makes up the latest report of the Policing Authority. It seems so detached from hands-on governance in a real, living, breathing police service. The Garda Inspectorate could easily and far quicker assess whether its own recommendations were being implemented - if the Minister so requested.

 We simply do not need a further finger-pointing quango pretending to be an “authority” to monitor implementation of the Inspectorate’s reports. If the Minister and the Chief Inspector were called regularly before an all-party policing committee of the Oireachtas, the public would have accountability and transparency.  The Commissioner could not then hide underperformance or engage in management misinformation of which the latest report complains. Nor could the Minister.

The Authority’s latest report is dated July, 2017. It has been on the desks of the Minister and the Commissioner for many weeks, long before the Commissioner’s “unexpected” resignation. And it was probably available to them in draft form well before that. It may very well have been straw that broke the camel’s back - both for the Minister and the Commissioner. “Sources” were recently muttering dark tales that “the worst was yet to come” in the wake of the breath test audit. It clearly provides the context in which the Commissioner made her resignation letter complaint of being in full time explanation and accountability mode rather being allowed to carry out her duty.

The brutal truth that the Garda management has been allowed to deliberately neglect and run down the Garda Reserve is reflected in the report. But it has been obvious for a long time that this was so. I have received despairing letters and messages from decent reservists who know that they are receiving a humiliating slow death at the hands of Garda management at all levels.

What did Frances Fitzgerald do about that? What will Charlie Flanagan do about it? Did they issue a “do it or else” direction to the Commissioner to build up the Reserve? I had to stand up to threats of bullying and non-cooperation to establish the Reserve in the first place. And it is worth noting that England has a fully functional volunteer reserve police with more members than our entire full-time Garda Síochána.

The report also demonstrates what has been obvious since 2008 – that Garda management were actively opposed to the civilianisation process as recommended by the Maurice Hayes report and as initiated by me.

It is the Minister’s proper function to determine strategy, and to issue formal directions to the Commissioner to implement it – if necessary making it clear that non-implementation will result in dismissal. The policing authority quango simply muddies the waters of democratic control and prevents any direct exaction of accountability. It is a car crash in slow motion.

Happily, there is a chance that the latest two-year review of the policing service in Ireland initiated by the Government will conclude that the recommendation for a lay majority executive management board by the Maurice Hayes group in 2006 should not have been abandoned in 2008 and that the policing authority is a tragic, useless and counter-productive  mistake that we can well do without.




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