Restoring trust and confidence in An Garda Síochána

19 July 2017

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party to MacGill Summer School

As our programme points out, reform of the Garda Síochána has featured several times over recent years at MacGill.

As someone who has been calling for Garda reform for well over a decade, this is welcome.

But, I believe, this debate must be grounded in an appreciation of why society needs policing.

And about who loses out if society is not properly policed.

I believe that much crime is the result of poverty and disadvantage, of poor social services, of inadequate intervention at an early stage, and under-investment in disadvantaged communities.

But it is not enough to say that poverty produces crime.

We need to appreciate that our disadvantaged communities are also the biggest victims of crime.

From minor break-ins to more serious anti-social behaviour to our shocking level of gangland homicide, crime is concentrated where vulnerable people can least afford its consequences.

The rest of us can become inured to this, and can write it off as other people’s problems.

There is the occasional, short-term political commitment to areas such as in Limerick and more recently to Dublin’s north inner city.

But I wonder if the lack of permanent dedication towards bettering conditions in these neighbourhoods isn’t just an indication that many of us have written them off.

For many in politics, there is no lasting dedication to investment in education and early years interventions; to a sustained commitment to tackling poverty; or a continuing determination to eliminate notions such as that of ‘jobless households’.

So, for the Labour Party, my starting point is that the reason we want reformed policing is because we want effective policing.

And the reason we want effective policing, is because neighbourhoods in need are entitled to a policing service that safeguards their communities.

 Imperfect legislation

The Labour Party’s Garda Authority policy dates back to 2006, during my last stint as our Party’s Justice spokesperson.

The legislation we enacted in Government is not perfect.

Its birth was tortuous. 

For neither the first, nor the last time, Fine Gael’s commitment to meaningful reform of policing in Ireland was less than full-throated. 

But, born of a political crisis involving the Taoiseach, Fine Gael’s resistance to reform collapsed.

Not for the last time, progress was made on a difficult issue when political necessity demanded it.

This also reflects, I believe, the institutional resistance of the Department of Justice.

A Department, lest we forget, that was itself the subject of the scathing Toland review, which we no longer hear much about at all.

A Department which the one party most associated with reform – the Labour Party – has never held, as it has always remained the responsibility of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and their offshoots, the Progressive Democrats.

But what if the Department of Justice is part of the problem. 

I have long been convinced that the Department hasn’t seen securing Garda accountability as a core role. 

When the IRA were attacking this state over a thirty year period, the Department of Justice stood in the front line against that threat. 

But what worked then doesn’t necessarily work now. 

You can’t truly support An Garda Síochána today if you don’t hold them to modern standards of accountability. 

The imperfections in the Policing Authority Act also highlight an impediment to serious public debate about the design of our institutions of state.

I hope the new commission on the future of policing can examine this issue more clearly.

I am referring to the legal advice to the last Government that under the Constitution policing belongs inherently to the executive branch of government.

Therefore, we were told, the powers of the independent policing authority would have to circumscribed.

I am all in favour of a close, confidential role between the Government and its Attorney General.

But, when it comes to legislating for the oversight of policing, the Government’s legal advice about what the Constitution permits cannot be kept secret from legislators.

I say this because other eminent lawyers do not see where this argument, that our Constitution requires that the Government maintain a firm grip on policing, comes from.

It is, after all, asserted in the context of a Constitution that makes no reference, even in passing, to policing.

This might seem like obscure legal argument.

But it is an argument that had direct consequences for the arrangements we enacted.

It is the reason why the Act says that the Commissioner must be appointed, and may only be removed from office, by the Government.

So we have awkward and maybe unworkable arrangements, that we need to look again, properly and in the light of all relevant constitutional advice, publicly provided.

Garda management

This is additional to the need for the new commission to take account of the long series of investigations into the Garda Síochána, from Morris to Smithwick to O’Higgins and onwards to Charleton.

I think the most recent media revelations were the most dispiriting, because they seem to suggest routine, institutionalised maladministration.

In particular the stupefying news that Garda Síochána breath tests data throughout the State were, it appears systematically, falsified.

And still, months later, no one can say why.

Public confidence in the ability and credibility of Garda management has been seriously undermined.

In particular, I believe Garda management has shown no ability to respond effectively to the modernisation agenda that is championed by the Garda Inspectorate.

I was impressed by the presentation by the Garda Inspectorate of their 2015 report. 

It was exciting and radical.  It felt like a shake-up.   

But for all the reassurances I was given about implementation, it was given a speedy burial. 

By the Commissioner and the Minister both.

Lately, we have just been told that there are not enough resources to provide any implementation updates.

As an aside, I think the PAC findings published yesterday raise even further questions about the competence of Garda management.

But I should emphasise that Labour’s reform agenda was never just about senior Garda management.

Our 2006 policy document called both for a Garda Authority and for a new model of community policing, to travel hand in hand.

Both of these initiatives are ostensibly adopted, but both are still very much work in progress.

In particular, we have a lot more work to do before communities can say they have a real sense of shared ownership of the policing of their neighbourhoods.

Structural accountability

The problem here is not just a ‘cultural’ one – the term the Garda Commissioner uses so often.

It is a structural one.

We still do not have any body with the power, duty and capacity to bring senior Garda management into the modern age.

An age in which effectiveness, efficiency, openness, transparency and accountability are expected and delivered.

That is why we need this independent policing review.

I hope it will be both radical and comprehensive.

We need proposals for future structures and arrangements that promote policing that is both effective and efficient, and also fair and impartial.

A policing service that is fully accountable both to the law and to the community.

So much turns on getting this right.

If we are to expand the number of Gardaí, they should be recruited into an efficient and effective force, using modern equipment and policing methods to improve results.

We also need a serious look at Garda formation and training.

We need to ask if a separate and remote residential institution provides the best preparation for working life on the beat.

Would Templemore serve us better if it was merged with a third level institution?

This would mean Gardaí being prepared like our Defence Forces officers are, largely in multi-disciplinary colleges.

More broadly, we need a wide range of educational, social and economic measures aimed at ending social deprivation and alienation.

We need a serious debate about the fight against drugs, and the contribution of law enforcement to that fight.

The new drug strategy launched on Monday seems to hint at a health-focussed harm reduction strategy, as proposed in a Bill drafted by Senators Lynn Ruane and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

We need much greater urgency in tackling now the conditions that cause the crime of the future.

A serious concerted effort can target the young people most at risk.

A new intelligence agency?

There is another issue that should be on the new commission’s agenda.

The policing service here performs functions that are discharged by separate agencies in other countries.

The price for setting up a Policing Authority in 2015 was that it got oversight of what I will call ‘ordinary’ policing, but not over ‘security services’.

Some suggest that we should now go the whole hog – that we should create a standalone security service, to enable the Policing Authority to have complete oversight of the Gardaí.

There are two issues being conflated in this part of the debate. 

First, whether our current security and counter-terrorism services are fit for purpose. 

Second, what oversight arrangements should apply to policing.

You heard from Michael Murphy and from Ben Tonra earlier in the week.

Both were scathing about our lack of counterterrorism preparation.

Let us examine that criticism.

If it is valid; if things could be better done by a new agency; then let us go down that road – and soon.

But let us do it for the right reason.

Let us debate a national security service on its own merits.

In order to carve out security services from the oversight remit of the new Authority, the 2015 Act had first to define what such security services are.

It centres on offences against the State, terrorist offences, espionage, sabotage, and so on.

In other words, this is all about preventing crimes, detecting and investigating crimes and bringing criminals to justice.

It is a policing function.

There is no difference in principle between surveillance of those who threaten national security, and surveillance of any other type of criminal gang, from drug barons to bicycle thieves.

It is all police work, concerned with criminal behaviour.

Often, our advantage as a nation in debating reform is that we come to it so late.

We can see the mistakes that have been made elsewhere.

Other countries have controversies about the creation of national security agencies that are subject to no proper democratic oversight or accountability.

We must not stumble unthinkingly into that territory.


The Gardaí are the primary guardians of our communities.

They must be, and be seen to be, a part of the community.

As the first Garda Commissioner Michael Staines put it:

“The Garda Síochána will succeed, not by force of arms or numbers, but by their moral authority as servants of the people.”

Under the Patten reforms the PSNI became a transformed service that enjoys increasing acceptance and support throughout the community.

If we can achieve something similar, then this should be the last time we gather to express collective dismay and disbelief about Garda scandals.

Above all else, we need a changed mind-set in Government and in Garda management.

A mind-set that understands the need for efficient and effective policing.

That believes in the need for a clear framework for Garda accountability to both the law and the communities they serve.

And a mind-set that sees no contradiction between these.

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