Although we are now effectively in the countdown to a general election and although the chances are that the legislation promised by the Government to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing may not be enacted in the lifetime of this Dáil, the very good news is that no legislation at all is needed to implement the proposals for reform of the Garda Síochána organisation recently announced by the Commissioner, Drew Harris.
It is vital that these reforms proceed now without meeting any further political or electoral roadblocks.
Minister Flanagan has written to all members of the Oireachtas seeking their backing for Commissioner Harris’s reforms and has made it clear that they enjoy his “strong backing”.
These far-reaching reforms will reduce the number of Garda divisions, increase the autonomy of those divisions, reduce centralised micro-management, increase the number of sergeants and inspectors, reduce the number of chief superintendents and commissioners, and increase civilianisation.
The Commissioner will be outlining his reforms which come into effect immediately to the Oireachtas Justice Committee and to the Local Policing Committees established under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 which provide a framework for consultation between local government elected representatives and local Garda management.
The Harris plan is long overdue. The financial crisis 2009 to 2014 and the ban on public service recruitment which resulted from it put paid to the major process of civilianising administrative and back roles in the Garda organisation which was envisaged in 2007.
This, I regret to say, was not an entirely unwelcome reprieve from civilianisation for some within the force. Many members of the force saw advancement into administrative roles as part of their career promotion and development path.
Indoors posts were regarded as more desirable by many Gardaí when compared with front-line policing roles. There were, admittedly, many other who relished the front-line role as “real” policing.
Of course, it would be simplistic to suggest that real policing always takes place outdoors. Sophisticated policing is not all done on the street, on the beat, on surveillance, or on patrol.
But there is no case at all for filling many purely administrative office roles with attested Gardaí. I was struck, in my time as Minister, by the extent to which such roles were being discharged by Gardaí of all ranks.
Commissioner Conroy and I visited the PSNI support services in Belfast which included civilian crime analysts whose job it was to analyse local data in order to detect patterns which might not be apparent to local unit sergeants operating in shift duties. That was an eye-opener.
Civilians need not be confined to the clerical or administrative functions. There is no reason why civilians should not take leading roles in managing the day to day support of criminal investigations and preparing investigation files and prosecution files, including matters such as disclosures to accused persons.
Sophisticated Policing and Sophisticated Crime
Crime is becoming much more sophisticated than it was when the existing Garda divisions and districts were established largely as a legacy of RIC. Detection, investigation and prevention must match the increasing sophistication of crime itself.
Modern investigation of crimes like rape, on-line child porn, commercial fraud and white collar crime requires sophisticated techniques and high degrees of professionalism. These are all part of front-line policing. They need highly skilled and experienced officers.
So it is entirely wrong to imagine Commissioner Harris’s reforms as just getting Gardaí out from behind their desks and onto neighbourhood foot patrols. Reducing the number of divisions should lead to improving the standard of specialist front-line policing units right across the country.
Rightly implemented, his reforms should make the jobs of Gardaí at all levels more satisfying as a career, and greatly increased civilianisation should mean that the increased numbers in the force really do make a difference for our communities.
The Commissioner’s plans for devolved autonomy to the new Garda divisions are very welcome. But it will be of little value if there is constant churn in the position of divisional commanders.
The Morris Tribunal identified a serious organisation defect in the force which allowed senior positions to be held for very short periods before onward promotion, lateral movement and retirement. Many divisional and district commanders were moved on from their positions after very short periods. The consequence was that officers did not have time to bed down and really acquaint themselves with their areas or personnel.
Somehow that promotional merry-go-round has to be halted and replaced by a policy that will leave incumbents with an expectation that they will be in a particular post for four or five years, giving them time to implement their plans.
Local Roots And The Garda Reserve
One aspect of modern society is that the local Garda and Sergeant no longer live locally. Indeed, they are no longer really stationed in many small local stations which are open for very limited hours and days. There is much less opportunity for casual contact between a local resident and members of the force.
Communities are generally distance-policed by Gardaí who may live in totally different areas and who commute to carry out shift duties patrolling in squad cars. Much of that is inevitable.
But the danger is that the Garda force is becoming unrooted in the community. Of course this can be countered in part by community police officers and by Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch schemes.
I firmly believe that the development of the Garda reserve can play a vital role in linking the force with individual communities. I have spoken on a number of occasions in the Seanad about the shameful way in which the Garda reserve was neglected and some reservists were treated.
Fine Gael promised to double the Garda Reserve to 2,200 in its last manifesto. Commissioner Harris has indicated that he wants to rethink the Garda Reserve. That is good. But I hope it does not mean mothballing the Reserve.
The idea of a reserve has entirely different connotations in Northern Ireland, as Commissioner Harris well knows. He must be careful of being influenced by that.
Reserve constables work very well in Britain. It is no threat to the role or status or effectiveness of full-time officers there who It complements and supports their role..
I remember bringing Irish journalists to Chester in 2005 to see the reservists in action. One vivid memory is of a woman reserve constable whose other fulltime job was that of nurse in an intensive care unit. That showed commitment.
It can work very well here. But it needs senior commitment to make it a success – commitment that matches the commitment shown by those who volunteer to join.
We have reason to be optimistic for the Commissionership of Drew Harris. He needs support and encouragement and, from the looks of things. he will get it at the political level.