Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 12 October 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Priorities for An Garda Síochána: Garda Commissioner
We have received an apology from Senator Black, who is indisposed.
The purpose of this morning's meeting is to have an engagement with Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan, the Garda Commissioner, on the priorities and challenges for An Garda Síochána in the near future. The joint committee has identified oversight and accountability of An Garda Síochána as one of its priority issues in its 2016 work programme. The chairperson of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring appeared before the committee last month and Ms Josephine Feehily of the Policing Authority appeared before it two weeks ago. Representatives from the Garda Inspectorate will come before us next week.
I welcome Ms O'Sullivan and her colleagues: Mr. Eugene Corcoran, assistant commissioner for governance and accountability; Mr. Joseph Nugent, newly appointed chief administrative officer; Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin, deputy commissioner for governance and strategy; Mr. Jack Nolan, assistant commissioner for the Dublin metropolitan region; and Dr. Gurchand Singh, head of the analysis service. The other colleagues of the Commissioner who are seated behind are Mr. Alan Mulligan, head of the civilian human resources section, Mr. Ken Ruane, head of the legal affairs, Mr. Andrew McLindon, director of communications, Mr. Michael O'Sullivan, assistant commissioner for executive support and corporate services, Ms Anne Marie McMahon, assistant commissioner for the southern region, Mr. Matt Nyland, chief superintendent for policy development, implementation and monitoring, and Mr. Aidan Glacken, chief superintendent of the strategic transformation office. I welcome everyone and thank the Commissioner on behalf of the committee for accepting our invitation to take part in this structured engagement, which we hope will inform us in the preparation of a report on Garda oversight and accountability that we aim to present to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality before the end of the month.
The format of the meeting is that the Commissioner will be invited to make a brief opening statement. This will be followed by a question-and-answer session in which members can indicate and I will take them in the order in which they do so.
Before we do that, I must issue the privilege reminder, which is part of the requirement of our meeting. I draw the Commissioner and her colleagues' attention as our witnesses to the situation in respect of privilege. The witnesses should please note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that, under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
It is my wish, and I expect it will be the case, that the Commissioner will be afforded the same courtesy that all other invitees to the committee have enjoyed. Members can, and no doubt will, ask salient and searching questions. That is what the exchange is all about. Without further commentary, I invite the Commissioner to make her opening statement.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I thank the Chairman for introducing my colleagues, which I will not now do.
A core focus of An Garda Síochána is working in partnership with communities and ensuring that we protect them. As such, I thank the committee for the opportunity to update it on the progress that An Garda Síochána is making in that respect, particularly regarding our working in partnership with community groups and others.
As the committee will be aware, the issue of burglaries in rural communities and communities all over the country has been a key concern and priority for An Garda Síochána over the past year. Early in 2015, when burglaries were beginning to become more frequent, we started to plan the implementation of a new multi-strand approach to tackling key crimes. As a result, we started to implement Operation Thor in November 2015. Operation Thor used advance analysis to identify burglary hotspots and prolific offenders and increased patrols were put into such areas. We ran a public awareness campaign on how people could protect their homes and reduce the opportunities for criminals to commit crimes. We conducted numerous checkpoints to stop criminal gangs using the road network. We ensured repeat offenders who carry out the vast majority of burglaries were put under increased scrutiny. We particularly targeted high-impact prolific offenders. We worked in partnership with community groups in urban and rural areas.
The pay-off from Operation Thor has been a reduction in burglaries. The number of such crimes fell by 30% in the first quarter of 2016 and by over 25% in the second quarter. According to our public attitudes survey, the proportion of people who perceived that crime was a serious or very serious problem in their local areas dropped from 33% in the third quarter of 2015, at the height of the public's concern about burglaries, to 25% in the second quarter of 2016. We are conscious that statistics cannot be used as an excuse for under-estimating or disregarding the impact that crime has on an individual. That is a key focus as we support the victims of crime. As burglaries tend to rise during the longer winter nights, Operation Thor will continue in partnership with the community with the aim of keeping burglaries down and keeping the fear of crime low. In that regard, we welcome the Government's announcement in yesterday's budget that continued funding for An Garda Síochána will allow us to plan for the future and particularly for the year ahead.
Our close relationship with communities and the support we get from them is vital in preventing and tackling crime, particularly in rural areas. We can achieve greater results by working in partnership with the community. The Text Alert scheme, which was introduced by An Garda Síochána in co-operation with Muintir na Tíre, Neighbourhood Watch and the Irish Farmers Association, is an excellent example of this. The purpose of the scheme, under which communities set up groups to receive alerts advising them of suspicious or criminal activity in their local areas, is to ensure awareness among users of the service and lead them to report suspicious activity to the Garda. A total of 985 Text Alert groups exist throughout the country. More than 175,000 people are Text Alert members. In the average month, more than 430,000 text messages are sent using the system to prevent and detect crimes. The feedback we have received from the community shows the Text Alert scheme provides reassurance while at the same time alerting gardaí. We have also worked with the IFA on the TheftStop initiative, which is designed to deter criminals from taking and selling farm equipment by ensuring it is clearly marked with a unique ID and registered on a nationwide database. We will continue to examine new ways to prevent and detect crime in rural and urban areas by continuing our tradition of working with and building stronger partnerships with the community. It is by listening to the community that we can understand exactly how we can provide a service.
As the committee will be aware, organised crime has posed serious challenges for An Garda Síochána this year. We have made significant progress in disrupting and tackling organised crime gangs over recent months. As part of our modernisation and renewal programme, we have built on our expertise in the drugs and organised crime area by amalgamating our skills and introducing a special crime task force to focus on criminals working at lower levels in organised crime gangs. Members will have seen the results. Significant arrests and seizures in recent weeks have substantially disrupted and degraded organised crime gangs by taking guns, drugs and cash from them. Lives have been saved and more than 12 assassination attempts have been foiled. The threat posed by organised crime gangs remains a key priority for An Garda Síochána.
To give the committee a flavour of what has been done, I can state that between 9 March 2015, when the drugs and organised crime bureau was established, and September 2016, we seized over €1.9 million in cash, as well as 35 guns and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, including AK-74 assault rifles, submachine guns, sawn-off shotguns, Glock pistols and other semi-automatic weapons and silencers. Drugs worth more than €36 million have been seized and we have arrested 167 people for drug trafficking, money laundering and possession of firearms. The many organised crime gangs that operate internationally cannot be tackled effectively without international co-operation. We work actively with our counterparts in Europe and with Europol and Interpol. This was seen in recent operations in Dublin and Spain and again last week in Kilkenny. For the first time, members of An Garda Síochána were accompanied by colleagues from La Guardia Civil on an operation in Dublin and we had officers present for La Guardia Civil operations in Marbella. Such operations require significant planning and information sharing over a long and protracted period of time. In that case, it had a significant pay-off and gives us a template for future joint operations.
Having spoken about the day job of providing a policing and security service and keeping communities safe, I would like to touch briefly on the modernisation and renewal programme. This comprehensive programme of reform is being undertaken by An Garda Síochána at the same time as doing the day job of providing policing and security. This is the biggest programme of change in the 94-year history of An Garda Síochána. It will change An Garda Síochána significantly and prepare it for the next 100 years of policing in Ireland. It will make the Garda a beacon of 21st century policing and security. As a result, the people of our country will be proud of the service and our members will be proud to serve in it. The programme is based on feedback from the public, our own people and critical friends such as this committee, the Policing Authority, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Department of Justice and Equality.
The development of our programme of reform took on board the recommendations of all 11 reports of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, which contained over 1,000 recommendations on how improvements could be made to policing. For the first time in the history of the organisation, we have been able to use these recommendations to prepare a coherent roadmap for the delivery of real reform over the next five years. We have spent a considerable part of the last two years ensuring we secure the commitment and investment required to deliver these real reforms. We welcome this committee's decision to look at the oversight and accountability arrangements for An Garda Síochána. The recent introduction of the Policing Authority, along with the oversight arrangements by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, will provide an opportunity to meet the shared objective of promoting confidence in policing and ensuring there is transparency, such as appearances before this committee, where the public can hold us to account.
Changes already have been introduced under the programme that benefitted individual citizens and communities. These include the setting up of 28 victim service offices and the bringing together of expertise in specialist areas like drugs, organised crime, sexual crime and domestic violence. This will help to protect our most vulnerable victims. We have secured substantial investment in new vehicles and technology to create a better infrastructure for our own people and the communities we serve. We are working more closely with criminal justice partners to identify and manage repeat offenders who cause harm to communities. We have enhanced training and supports for all employees. We are creating greater partnerships in collaboration with private industry and academia. A significant restructuring of the organisation will give regional officers greater responsibility to make decisions based on taking account of local policing needs, listening to local communities and understanding what their requirements are. Restructuring at headquarters level will ensure we flatten our bureaucracy, as outlined by the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, and we have greater transparency, governance and accountability.
I am offering this level of detail because it is crucial that our legislators, and through them the public, know the progress we are making and the progress we plan to make in the coming months and years. This includes the introduction of advanced IT systems and technology to enhance the investigation of crime. We will hire civilians with the right skills and place them in the right roles to enhance the professionalism of the organisation and increase Garda presence in the community. We will improve how we investigate cybercrime and economic crime. We will enhance collaboration with national and international partners to tackle and disrupt terrorism and organised crime. Continuous professional development, mentoring and coaching will be provided to support the development and skills of all members and staff. All of this will accompany the renewal of Garda culture so that we are more open to internal and external dissent. There will be a focus on attitudes and behaviours that live up to our values, including our new value of empathy. We will learn from the experience and expertise of our partners. There will be a major focus on strengthening the governance of the organisation and enhancing our approach to risk management.
We are determined that anyone who brings forward issues or concerns will be listened to and supported. As part of this approach, we have introduced a protected disclosures policy, appointed protected disclosure managers, put a structure in place and ensured all personnel have been informed of these measures. We recognise this needs to be a process of continuous improvement. That is why we are taking external advice on our policies and procedures.
We also welcome the Policing Authority’s review of our protected disclosures policy and would welcome the views of the joint committee on the matter as well.
An Garda Síochána is committed to real change and this has begun. This major journey of renewal will not be quick or easy. It is widely recognised that cultural change takes time, but change is happening. It must happen because we are all committed to providing the communities we serve with the best policing and security service in the world.
I thank the Commissioner and her colleagues for coming to the committee today to brief us.
Before I start, I wish to express my thanks and that of everybody in the country for the work of every member of An Garda Síochána. The work of the Garda is at the heart of keeping people safe and protecting our country every day. Sometimes, when people focus on one or two specific issues, they miss the bigger picture, which is that there is a police service that is dedicated. I believe that every single person in the service works every single day to serve the community and the country. I think we owe everybody a thanks for that service.
That ties in to some of the points I wish to raise with the Commissioner. Ms O'Sullivan alludes to the matter in her opening remarks but I would like her to outline some of the key steps she believes are necessary to restore some of the eroded public confidence in the service. All surveys show that the public has a tremendous regard for An Garda Síochána, but there has been some erosion of that support. In terms of the overall view of the actions she is taking to reform the service, will she tell us the key steps she believes are necessary to be enacted as quickly as possible to restore public confidence in all aspects of An Garda Síochána from its top management and leadership right the way down the organisation?
I have a number of follow up questions, but I do not know if the Chair wants me to put all the questions together.
The Commissioner touched on the role and impact of civilianisation. Obviously civilianisation is critical in freeing up gardaí to be front facing and relieving them from desk duties. Will Ms O'Sullivan enlarge further on the impact of civilianisation and how quickly she would like to see that happen and how she believes it will serve to improve the management structures and modernisation of the Garda Síochána? Tying into that point, and I am not sure there was a reference to this in her statement, given the work done on building up the Garda Reserve, how does the Commissioner see its members being deployed in conjunction with the main body of An Garda Síochána?
Obviously people acknowledge the successes in recent weeks in tackling gangland crime. One aspect in which I am particularly interested is the role and co-operation that is now taking place between An Garda Síochána and the Spanish policing authorities and specifically the impact that can bring to dealing with criminal organisations that are primarily based outside the jurisdiction of our country.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I thank the Chairman, and I thank Deputy Brophy for his acknowledgment of the dedication and professionalism of the men and women of An Garda Síochána who put themselves in harm's way every single day for the protection of our communities. We were reminded of that most poignantly last night as we attended a mass in Blackrock, County Louth for our colleague, Garda Tony Golden, who was shot and murdered in the line of duty while he was protecting a vulnerable woman one year ago yesterday afternoon. I thank Deputy Brophy for that and we will certainly pass that on to our members.
That is the key function of An Garda Síochána and the men and women who join on Garda Síochána do exactly that. They know the courage that is required at any given hour of the day can be called upon. They know the dedication and professionalism they need to go about their duty, whether it be like Garda Tony Golden, whether it be on the checkpoint, whether it be like what happened last Friday, confronting armed criminals who were about to cause harm to a community in Dunboyne, or whether it be like last Thursday in Kilkenny, where there were 64 arrests. A number of international observers were present to look at how we operate and how we target crime and harm to communities. I thank the Deputy for his remarks.
The Deputy asked about public confidence in the Garda Síochána and some of his later questions speak to how we have done that. Let me give a very tangible example. In April 2014 when I took over as Commissioner, trust and confidence in An Garda Síochána had reached an all-time low of 67% according to The Irish Times. We made it one of our objectives to work on restoring that confidence and trust. By international comparisons the level of 67% was high, but by Irish standards that had dipped to an all-time low. When I say that to colleagues internationally, they look in wonder. What we have done, and I will ask my colleague, Dr. Singh, to speak on it, is borne out in our most recent public attitude survey which shows that trust and confidence in An Garda Síochána has been restored to more than 85%. As Deputy Brophy said in his opening address, there is no doubt that confidence can be eroded very quickly. That is something we will never take for granted. We must ensure we build on that trust and that we maintain the trust and confidence of the community every day.
Some of the key priorities we have for doing that, and I have outlined some of them in my opening address, is making sure there is high visibility engagement in communities and that our members are out and about engaging with the public. We have had feedback from communities. Most recently my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Nolan attended a forum in the city and prior to that we met the Lord Mayor of Dublin. The Lord Mayor said that the feedback he is getting is that they are seeing more gardaí in the community. It is not just seeing gardaí but seeing them engaging with the communities. That is something we have started with our recruits who, thankfully, are now coming back into the college. We are making sure there are members out in the community visibly and actively and proactively engaging with people. We are making sure we have high visibility, particularly in rural areas, where people are very fearful. We have listened very carefully to communities. We are getting the feedback from communities throughout the country, including in the city where sometimes people can feel very isolated and alone, that they are seeing more gardaí. We very much welcome the Government's commitment to the 800 new recruits for next year because the new student gardaí will be out in the community. It takes the presence of gardaí to do this.
The professionalism of the Garda and how the members do their job is very important. We established victim service offices, and our feedback from victims of crime and particularly as outlined in the O'Higgins report and the Garda Inspectorate report was that victims did not always feel they were treated appropriately. We prioritised victims of crime. We set up 28 victim service offices, one in every Garda division, staffed by both Garda and civilian members. That speaks to the cultural renewal, making sure that Garda and civilian members were working side by side in a key area such as providing support to victims of crime. We worked with the victims of crime groups to hear their feedback and understand what they needed. We also make sure that when a crime happens, we support the victim and also investigate the crime professionally to ensure the best outcome. Again we work very closely with the Forensic Science Laboratory in making sure that we use the best in forensic technology to ensure charges are sustained against people, and an example of that would be the Graham Dwyer murder investigation where the best and most advanced technology was used.
Again, in terms of making sure that we have a professional fit for purpose police force, civilianisation - we like to call it professionalisation - plays a key role. The Government announcement yesterday or today to increase civilianisation by 2,000 before 2021, bringing it up to a total of 4,000, is very welcome.
Deputy Brophy asked me to outline the priorities in terms of the prioritisation around professionalisation. My colleague, Mr. Nugent, and his colleagues in HR have developed a workforce plan in which we have identified up to 600 positions that we would like to have prioritised and filled this year. We are working very closely with the Policing Authority, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and our own Department to ensure those positions are prioritised. Some of the positions are around data quality management, risk management and, at the assistant commissioner level of our organisation, having somebody for legal and compliance, ensuring we are compliant with the regulatory frameworks and ensuring we can provide not just the service to the community but the accountability that is required.
I can ask my colleague, Mr. Joe Nugent, to go into more detail about it.
Deputy Brophy also mentioned the Garda Reserve. Yesterday, the budget provided that the Garda Reserve would be increased. During the past 18 months we have established a dedicated Garda Reserve office and examined increasing the powers of the Garda Reserve to ensure the reserves can be deployed more effectively. We also want to ensure that, after ten years in operation, we recognise the contribution the Garda Reserve has made to the Garda Síochána, working alongside their full-time colleagues. We want to develop it into the future. In particular, we want to encourage people to come and build confidence and trust, and build a bridge with the Garda Síochána. We want people from minority communities and those who may not have always traditionally joined the Garda Síochána to come and join the Garda Reserve and see how we operate, hopefully with a view to joining full time.
Deputy Brophy asked about international co-operation. We have always participated in international co-operation, and it is vital and essential given the policing and security challenges policing and intelligence services are facing the world over. We have built on it over the years. We have tremendous relationships with Europol, Interpol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, which allow us to have outreach to countries where some of our indigenous countries have decided to place themselves. It also allows us to go upstream and target people who are sourcing drugs from areas around the world. It allows us to work in true partnership and collaboration. We have also used those partnerships to provide training to our people. Recently, the Guardia Civil and the Policia National came here and assisted in operations, and we will see more of this. It is the future of policing. We must ensure this level of co-operation is strengthened and built upon to ensure we protect all our communities here at home and abroad.
Dr. Gurchand Singh:
We run a public attitudes survey on trust levels within the Garda Síochána. We survey 1,500 people per quarter, or 6,000 people per year. The results show that we have strong trust levels that are robust and consistent. In the last quarter for which we have results, the second quarter of 2016, there was a medium to high trust level of 87%. We have strong trust levels. Within a European context, our trust levels are good. People can see these results. The European Social Survey asks people across Europe their trust levels in the police and when we compare ourselves with other European countries, our trust levels are fairly high.
For many years before being elected, I was a councillor in Tallaght working on the Joint Policing Commission, JPC. The work done by gardaí at all levels in making the community link is at the heart of why the Garda Síochána has such a good relationship with the community. We alluded to it when the Policing Authority came before the committee. In any reforms the Commissioner is considering, she should seek to strengthen community-based policing which proactively builds the relationship between the Garda Síochána and the community as well as the other aspects we talked about.
I welcome the Commissioner and her team. The behaviour and attitude survey to which Dr. Singh referred is indicative of the work the Commissioner is doing. She is leading an operation which is in change mode. It is interesting that the survey that put confidence above 85% happened within the first 12 months of the Commissioner taking charge of the Garda Síochána. I have observed the Commissioner, and the decency with which she goes about her business and her personal work ethic is a fantastic example to the Garda Síochána. We are very fortunate that more than 85% of our population have confidence in the Garda Síochána. Unfortunately, in the media circus that spins around on a regular basis, these facts and figures get lost. It is important we put it on the record.
Deputy Colm Brophy said we had the Policing Authority before the committee recently. I would be interested in the Commissioner's views on the Policing Authority and its evolving relationship with the Garda Síochána. It is important that an equilibrium be achieved. The critique following the first public meeting of the Policing Authority said the Garda Síochána had had a difficult encounter. I would be interested in the Commissioner's views on the Policing Authority and whether there is anything in its modus operandithat needs to change. There is a review after two years.
It has been flagged that there will be a Garda strike of some sort next month. I would be interested to hear the contingency plans the Commissioner has in place to deal with it, assuming the dispute is not resolved and a significant number of her colleagues are not prepared to play ball on those four Fridays. Regarding the plan for the modernisation of the force, how do we rate internationally? In terms of the behaviour and attitude survey, we rate very well. In terms of a modern police force, how do we compare internationally?
The Commissioner mentioned the text alerts, which is using modern technology, particularly in rural areas, very effectively. There is a cost to communities which set up text alert groups, which is probably unfair. Is the cost still in place and is it the intention of the Commissioner or the Government to eliminate the cost over time? Perhaps the Commissioner cannot comment on it. Deputy Colm Brophy mentioned JPCs. Josephine Feehily met the chairmen of the JPCs at a recent meeting. Has the Commissioner ever brought the chairmen of the JPCs into a meeting to have a discourse such as we are having here? Her representatives all over the country attend the JPCs regularly. The JPCs have an important role which must be developed, nurtured and built upon. The Commissioner of the Garda Síochána might consider it in due course. Perhaps she could have some sort of engagement even with the chairmen for a day in Dublin or in the Garda Síochána headquarters.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I thank Senator Martin Conway for his remarks. The trust levels in the Garda Síochána are very much due to the men and women of the Garda Síochána and the work they do every day. I also acknowledge it and pay tribute to all the men and women of the Garda Síochána. Without them, we would not have those levels of trust and confidence. Without the support of the community, which we do not take for granted, we could not do the job we do, and we very much thank the communities for the support they continue to provide.
The Senator asked about the Policing Authority. As the Senator knows, the Policing Authority was incepted on 1 January this year and is still in the first nine months of operation, but is very welcome. Along with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, it provides a framework of oversight and accountability, including oversight of the performance of the Garda Síochána, which, along with the JPCs, which I will come back to, provides, I hope, more transparency and accountability.
The public meetings with the authority are both searching - as with this committee - and robust in nature. That is really good as it allows us to challenge some of our own assumptions about the delivery of a policing service. It allows us to hear the different perspectives and opinions of the chairman and eight members of the committee. All the authority members come with their individual experience and expertise. We are eager and willing to learn from that.
I will jump to the joint policing committees, JPCs. The Senator stated that the chair of the authority recently organised a meeting and my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Nolan, and other members represented An Garda Síochána. We certainly will take on board the comment about having meetings with the JPCs. I share the Senator's view that the joint policing committees have a key role to play in ensuring local accountability and in making sure the delivery of a policing service is tailored to meet local needs. In other words, we can hear from local representatives what the priorities for the community are and we can ensure our assistant commissioners and chief superintendents are delivering that service with support at headquarters level. Assistant Commissioner Nolan can give an overview of that interaction with the JPCs if that is helpful. We welcome the authority and it is very much part of the future of An Garda Síochána in terms of that level of oversight that allows us to be there.
The Senator asked about our plan for change and how it compares internationally. As I stated, we were very fortunate that we have all 11 reports of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate. We have brought a copy of the plan for all the members and we will make that available. I would also like to extend an invitation to the committee to come to Garda headquarters and see our programme of work and the transformation office. We got very valuable insights from the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, which brings international policing experience. We did not just stop at that. All the challenges we face in An Garda Síochána are being faced by police services the world over. We looked at other change programmes in New Zealand, Scotland and other police forces in the UK and right across the world. We looked at the International Association of Chiefs of Police and all the police forces in America and benchmarked ourselves against all of those.
We take stock of what is happening right across the world and we consider if we are doing the right things in the right sequence. An interesting international debate currently comes back to the point about trust. It concerns police legitimacy and whether the police are engaged in the community in the way they should be. It gives me great pride to say that many representatives of police forces are coming here to look at exactly what we are doing with police training and how we go about our engagement with the community, as they did in Kilkenny last week. My experience is that we benchmark well internationally but our programme office monitors that very closely.
I extend the invitation to the committee to come to Garda headquarters. I will ask my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Nolan, to deal with the JPCs and Text Alert scheme asked about by Senator Conway in more detail.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
The JPCs were established under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, allowing a forum for meetings between An Garda Síochána, local authorities, elected and community representatives. This enables a joint understanding of the challenges associated with policing at a local level. A chief superintendent or superintendent attends all JPC meetings. I attend the Dublin city JPC every month, which includes elected and community representatives, along with other representatives from non-governmental organisations etc. At those meetings, local problems and particular issues of the day are discussed.
In early September the Policing Authority held a forum for all chairs of JPCs. An Garda Síochána was represented at that meeting and although we did not have a direct role in the consultation process on the day, we attended as observers. We have a central monitoring office for the JPCs across the organisation and that unit is based in our community engagement section in Harcourt Square in Dublin. Our representatives monitor the annual reports from the JPCs.
In effect, the JPCs allow an understanding, awareness and joint action in many areas associated with problems relating to crime or other social or anti-social issues that emerge at a local level. It is a very effective partnership arrangement between the JPCs and An Garda Síochána. It has been pretty good for the past ten years and it was reviewed a couple of years ago, with a revision from 121 JPCs to 31 committees now. That streamlined attendances, processes and procedures. It also required each JPC to create a strategic plan for that JPC over a number of years. It is a very good engagement forum between communities, local government and authorities and An Garda Síochána.
The Commissioner asked me to address the Text Alert scheme. As Senator Conway stated, this again has been an innovative development in community engagement, safety and policing. It emerged both from An Garda Síochána and the communities themselves. Technology had caught up on communications forums and mechanisms and An Garda Síochána was happy to harness that. At that time I had responsibility for the sections that developed the process, and they worked in close partnership with Muintir na Tíre, a wonderful organisation operating in every part of the country. At the same time, the Irish Farmers Association sought to be involved in the process and we were able to develop it with a tripartite approach. It is a text alert system with almost 1,000 units or neighbourhoods attached. I attended meetings in all parts of the country when I was in that role in the south-eastern region. There have been millions of text messages issued. An Garda Síochána has had some substantial successes as a result of the community engagement in various parts of the country as a result.
I am conscious the Irish Farmers Association is currently developing another version of it entirely for the farming association. We have a phenomenon of rural crime and it will probably be addressed later. This is response mechanism by An Garda Síochána, working in close collaboration with our partner agencies. There will be other partner agencies that will engage over time.
Other developments in the area, which we may deal with from a crime prevention aspect, include the TheftStop initiative, which was again developed through collaboration of An Garda Síochána and the Irish Farmers Association. It is designed to enable property items in farming and rural areas to be easily identifiable. The amount of property stolen that has been marked with a specific and unique identifying number is minimal. At every forum I attend, I encourage people to engage with the initiative. It is relatively cheap but there is a slight charge. Everything costs money nowadays. The Senator mentioned the cost of the Text Alert scheme, which is primarily associated with insurance so that any person passing on a text alert message is indemnified if there is fall-out from it. I have always been very keen to emphasise engagement with Text Alert schemes through Muintir na Tíre, which has the structure to set it up and the facilities for insurance covering all participants. I have no doubt there will be further development in the area of Text Alert, TheftStop and other initiatives that we are progressing with partner agencies across the country at this point.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Yes. On another issue that may not have been covered, as well as the contingencies, my colleague, Deputy Commissioner Ó Cualáin, is the liaison person with the Policing Authority. If it is helpful for the committee and it wants a high-level overview of the programme of work we are undertaking with the Policing Authority, it might be useful for him to give a flavour of that.
In terms of the proposed industrial action, as the committee is aware, there are mechanisms with which all staff associations are engaged. As Commissioner and with all the policing and security challenges we have, I would not like to see anything happen that would do anything to disrupt the policing service or in any way compromise our protection of communities.
We are very focused at the moment on ensuring that people are encouraged and stay engaged with existing processes. We await the outcome of them and I am confident they will bring a suitable resolution.
Would the Chairman like my colleague, Mr. Ó Cualáin, to comment?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
Yes. I know that the Policing Authority has met the committee and given an account of its busy work programme. The authority has honed in on a number of areas it was statutorily obliged to look at. The first was a strategy statement for An Garda Síochána and that has been prepared. We have been meeting the authority on a weekly basis, at committee level or whatever, to ensure we get the best possible output from that particular investment of time. We have agreed a strategy statement that will bring us to the end of 2018. Out of the strategy statement will come our policing plans for the same period. We are at an advanced stage, with the authority, in agreeing what the policing plan will look like for 2017.
Deputy Brophy mentioned civilianisation. It forms a big chunk of the work carried out by the Policing Authority. My colleague, Mr. Joe Nugent, has been in regular contact with the authority to ensure civilianisation happens as quickly as possible, as well as with other relevant Departments. We are very happy to be in this busy space because we have got a lot of ideas. There has been a challenging of the assumptions, as the Commissioner called it a while ago, as to how we do our work. We have had a very useful nine months. The policing plan will be approved soon and it will show what we hope to achieve over the next 12 months. It will give the authority a template and framework to measure our performance against what we hope to achieve.
I welcome the Commissioner and her colleagues here this morning. I also want to associate myself with the comments made by Deputy Brophy at the outset.
I want to ask the Commissioner about the O'Higgins report that was published on 25 April of this year. Does the Garda Síochána regard this report as an important and useful document?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Yes. I thank the Deputy for associating himself with earlier comments. The O'Higgins report, along with the other reports into An Garda Síochána, are very important reports. They highlight a number of failures on behalf of An Garda Síochána. They highlight areas we are determined to address. Yes, it is a very important report.
On pages 16 and 17 of the report, Mr. Justice O'Higgins made a number of observations on whistleblowers. One of them was that the purpose of the 2007 regulations and the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 is to enable gardaí to make complaints about relevant wrongdoings without fear of adverse repercussions happening to them. Does the Commissioner agree that is the purpose of those regulations and the 2014 Act?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
From the outset, I have always made it clear that a member of An Garda Síochána or any employee of An Garda Síochána has not only the right but the entitlement to come forward to raise an issue of concern or matter he or she wishes to bring to our attention. I also have said that when people raise issues they may not always be right but they must be listened to, and they must have the confidence that all of their issues will be addressed. We have made our stance most clear recently in terms of the policy we introduced. We sent a notice of both the policy and what I have just said to all employees of An Garda Síochána. We have also put in place dedicated structures to ensure that takes place.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to deal with individuals; there must be a tailored plan put in place to deal with everybody. In that regard, we are reviewing our policy, which we only recently introduced. We very much welcome the fact that the authority has also been requested to review it. We are in the process of retaining a professional independent expert to help us look at the experiences of the implementation of the policy to date. Even though we are dealing with single-figure numbers, we recognise the individual experience is different in every single case. We want to learn from those experiences and make sure we improve our system.
I have one more question on this point. Is the Commissioner aware of efforts, as opposed to examples, being made by members of An Garda Síochána to subject Garda whistleblowers to adverse repercussions?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
In response to some recent public commentary, I issued a statement. I can generalise my statement to include the generality that I am certainly not privy to nor did I approve, nor would I condone, any such action against any individual, let that be a protected discloser, any employee or any individual.
Would the Commissioner agree with me and Mr. Justice O'Higgins that consideration of complaints by members of An Garda Síochána may be of considerable benefit to the Garda if they are properly considered?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Yes. Again, our experience to date is that some of the individuals who have raised issues of concern have made a very valuable contribution. They have allowed us to look at policies and practices that we may not have looked at without them bringing them to our attention. They have made a very valuable contribution.
I want to ask the Commissioner about the recommendations that were made by Mr. Justice O'Higgins. One recommendation was that "detailed and specific information, as to the precise scope of the duties of a sergeant in charge ... should be set out in a written job specification". Has that been done?
Mr. Justice O'Higgins mentioned that "Evidence has been given that a new performance management system is about to be introduced into An Garda Síochána." He said the system should be implemented immediately. Has that been done?
Finally, in respect of the area of management and supervision, one of the main themes to come out of the O'Higgins report was that young probationer gardaí had too much responsibility placed on their shoulders and were not adequately supervised. Has anything been done to address the matter?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Yes, Deputy. Significant inroads have been made in this regard, not just in terms of the new training programme for probationary gardaí, but also the supervisory system that attaches to it. We are making sure that the new probationer gardaí who come from the Garda College go to training stations where they have a dedicated supervisor. We have also implemented, and I can go into more details if the Chairman wishes, technical solutions that allow for the oversight and management of an incident by the supervisor or the manager, and they can look at the workload that is placed on individuals. Significant progress has been made in that regard.
I have a question on civilianisation. One regularly hears criticism that the gardaí should be on the streets and that functions which can be carried out by civilians should be carried out by civilians. What is the state of the Garda at present in terms of trying to increase civilianisation within the force?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
It is something that we have committed to.
In this respect the Garda Inspectorate report No. 11, entitled Changing Policing in Ireland, made very significant recommendations, as did all the Garda Inspectorate reports.
In our modernisation and renewal programme, there is a commitment to civilianisation. We have committed to civilian by default. That means where a vacancy arises or as we restructure, we look at the skillset needed for that position. I will ask my colleague Mr. Nugent to outline what we have done in terms of our workforce plan.
We have been working in the past two years with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Department of Justice and Equality and this year we have been working with the Policing Authority to ensure we prioritise a number of the vacancies. We welcome the announcement in the Budget Statement yesterday, which we are confident will allow us to move on with our plan.
I can ask Mr. Nugent to outline exactly where we are going.
Mr. Joseph Nugent:
The announcement in the Budget Statement provides the framework to allow the Garda Síochána to start on the greater level of deployment of civilian members throughout the organisation.
During the past number of years, no more than any other public sector body, the Garda Síochána has been operating in a controlled framework, whereby the recruitment of civilian members has been restricted. That clearly has changed now and we have the opportunity to identify, address and fill the posts that gardaí would have had to take on that otherwise traditionally would have been undertaken by civilians.
As the Commissioner states we have committed to a principle of civilian by default, which will mean that for non-operational policing roles, the default position is that it would be filled by somebody who is not a sworn member but a civilian member of the organisation. In that regard we have also committed to Government that we would provide the identification of a range of posts that are currently held by uniformed members but will be filled by civilians. That will be completed during the coming months.
I would like to be associated with the comments of members on the great work and dedication of all the men and women in the Garda Síochána. What Mr. Singh has outlined about public confidence is very important. That is heard in a public context.
My first questions relates to the Policing Authority, and is a question I put to Ms Feehily when she appeared before the committee. She has 13 staff who provide an oversight review and monitoring function. Does the senior management team of the Garda Síochána think it is appropriate that there is collaborative co-operation between the Policing Authority and An Garda Síochána on the creation of the policing plan? Does it undermine the autonomy of both organisations? From a governance perspective, is it important or appropriate that the Policing Authority has such an active role in the creation of the policing plan?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I thank Deputy Chambers for associating himself with the comments of members.
On the question of the appropriateness of the Policing Authority having an active role in the creation of the policing plan, not only do I think it is appropriate, I think it is essential. It is essential to ensure that our assumptions are challenged. The policing priorities are determined in collaboration with the Policing Authority, the Minister for Justice and Equality and ourselves. It is absolutely essential that this takes place.
My second question references some of the commentary on statistics that was outlined by the Garda Inspectorate and the CSO. What is being done to address the fact that 17% of calls were not on the PULSE database? I know there have been some improvements recently but does the Commissioner believe we can have full confidence in the statistics in light of the anomalies that have described by the inspectorate and the CSO?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Yes, I am confident that improvements have been put in place. This is one of the challenges that police forces the world over engage in. What we have done, and I can ask Mr. Singh and Assistant Commissioner Nolan who both have various responsibilities in this area to comment. One of the things we are doing, which feeds into civilianisation is the recruitment of a data quality manager, which will greatly assist in the process. We have also implemented new technical changes to our systems. Members will see that in the most recent report from the CSO there is a recognition of the improvements that have been made but there is still a way to go. There is no doubt about that.
As well as technical changes there are the people issues. The people issues are around the increased training, the awareness and the supervisory management that Deputy Jim O'Callaghan raised.
My next question relates to the Garda Inspectorate 2015 report. With the level of gangland violence in the inner city, the visibility of community gardaí disimproved and there was a haemorrhage of community gardaí. I know the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Commissioner have made announcements on overtime, which has resulted in increased visibility. Will there be a permanent improvement in the delivery of community gardaí in the affected communities so that it is not simply a patching up with overtime work? Is there a plan to create permanent posts for community gardaí?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Absolutely, yes. I will ask my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Nolan, who has responsibility for the Dublin metropolitan area to comment.
We are very conscious, particularly in the inner city, of the impact of the feuding. The feuding of its nature is not just an inner city problem but is spreading outside the Dublin area. We are very conscious of the impact that has on local communities. Our approach to tacking the feuding has a number of strands, first the preventive strand and I outlined some of that in my opening address, about the interceptions which means that lives are saved. Second is the investigative strand, which means we are investigating the murders and third, the intelligence strand. A key focus is making sure that the engagement and support is there for the communities. Members will have seen the very iconic picture of our hybrid patrols, by necessity we have had to deploy visibly armed gardaí in certain areas to provide the disruptions that were needed. One will see alongside them, we have ordinary uniformed members of the service, whose purpose is to reassure and provide support to the community. If the Chair wishes, my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Nolan will speak about that in detail.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
As the Commissioner has outlined, when the murders started in the gangland feuding, An Garda Síochána was challenged to respond effectively. The Commissioner has outlined the three strand approach. The preventive strand comes under the auspices of Operation Hybrid. Operation Hybrid performs approximately 90 checkpoints per day, supported by armed personnel at strategic locations across all the districts in Dublin. These locations are selected by local detective sergeants and detective inspectors, based on their local knowledge of suspects who reside in the area, suspected persons who may come to the area and potential targets who live in the area. These checkpoints have had some spectacular results. We have estimated that we have prevented the loss of life of at least ten people in the feuding. We have had numerous captures of firearms, persons intercepted on their way to a potential killings, lots of drugs recovered. I can give significant detail, as I have it with me.
These checkpoints are monitored on a daily basis from a central location in Command and Control in Dublin. The completion rate for these checkpoints is at approximately 80%. The other 20% would be diverted to incidents or to ongoing issues. We have a very viable, robust and successful programme operating to prevent people losing their lives. We would have examples of hybrid patrols, as we call them, dedicated units arriving on the scene of a shooting within 90 seconds to two minutes, recovering vehicles that have been used in shootings. These recovered items that have been used in murders - and I have to be careful what I say around particular investigations - but many of these recovered items will feature in what I expect would be successful prosecutions in the future. At this point eight people have been charged with murder in respect of the feud, 45 people have been arrested.
Approximately 9,000 investigative tasks are either completed or in progress. More than 4,500 statements have been taken from witnesses. That should give the committee a flavour of the scale of the investigation process that is ongoing.
The Commissioner has outlined the international element to this investigation, which is very important. This is being pursued vigorously. People will have seen the visible manifestations of that in recent weeks. That will continue and the intelligence that comes from our international co-operation is vital in these operations. There are many little-known facts that would not get into the public domain associated with that intelligence. This allows operations to be run to disrupt the criminal activities of individuals associated with these gangs at the highest levels, at mid-level and at the lowest level. Indeed, the establishment of the serious crime task force is aimed at targeting the mid-level operators, those who are managing the distribution of drugs and using the proceeds of the sale of those drugs for illicit purposes. This is being significantly progressed daily. My people and those of my colleagues around the table who are working in these areas get a weekly briefing on progress, the setting of targets and the revision of targets that have to be met.
This is a big operation. It has been a big operation since early February and it will continue to be a big operation throughout the rest of this year and into next year. As I have said in other public fora, I am confident we will see other people charged with these crimes and brought before the courts of justice. Many of the investigation files are moving towards completion stage. This is not easy to do. They are complex, time consuming and labour intensive, but we are progressing many of these investigations. I confidently expect further charges to emanate in the not-too-distant future.
Mr. Joseph Nugent:
Deputy Chambers asked about visibility, Garda presence in the community and so on. The Government decision on increased numbers of Garda members and civilian members who will be available to us in 2017 and beyond provides us with the opportunity to do what we referred to earlier. The civilian by default aspect provides us with the space to allow us to move people involved in specialised or back office roles and to make them more available for operational policing. Equally, we are providing for the extra gardaí coming along as well as the release of gardaí involved in non-operational roles in future as well.
I am close to concluding. I have tabled parliamentary questions on this matter. I understand an appeal is being made by the Garda to the High Court on the number of gardaí in each Garda station after a decision by the Information Commissioner. Will the Commissioner outline the logic of that appeal? Would it not be more transparent to detail the number of gardaí in each Garda station?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Mr. Ruane, our head of legal affairs, is behind my back in case I say anything here. We have some cases before the courts at the moment. I am sure Mr. Ruane will stop me if I am saying something that I should not say.
It is important for the committee members to understand the rationale behind the decision. There are good reasons. We have nothing to hide in terms of the numbers allocated. However, there are people, criminal elements and different elements who pose a risk. It may be in their interests to know precisely how many gardaí are in a particular area at a particular time. We have a duty of care to our members. A number of members have been threatened. We have seen situations in other jurisdictions. Most recently, committee members will have seen cases in Belgium and France where individuals who wanted to cause harm to police officers targeted police officers who they believed to be accessible or available to them. We are conscious of what is happening not alone in this environment but also in the international environment and what it may mean for individual members. We have a thought-out rationale. If it is helpful, we could brief the committee separately on the matter.
Deputy O'Callaghan made some comments on this but another recommendation from the O'Higgins report relates to the computer crime unit, the resources available and the delays around investigations. Has that been addressed?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Yes, it is being addressed with the allocation of personnel. As Mr. Nugent has said, we have suffered severely from the depletion, in particular, in our supervisory and management ranks. Following recent allocations we were able to appoint a dedicated superintendent to our computer crime investigation unit. With the commitment to civilianisation, we are keen to employ civilian professional experts who can provide us with support in this area. We are working with our international partners and academic partners to provide increased training. We will see improvements.
My next question relates to the divisional drugs units. Two constituencies or areas are relevant in this regard. One happens to be in the constituency of the Chairman, in Cavan-Monaghan. There appears to be no members of the drugs unit there. We have seen a haemorrhaging of numbers. Have there been active attempts in recent months to fill that gap?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I hope I can answer two questions in one go. The issue relating to the divisional drugs units is something we have been reviewing. The whole area of drugs enforcement is part of the review of the national drugs strategy. We are looking at how to provide the best level of service. It is being addressed under a detective superintendent in our drugs and organised crime bureau. The work feeds in to the national drug strategy.
My final question relates to morale in the Garda. Members of the Garda Representative Association, GRA, have outlined how morale is in the gutter. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, maintains the majority of members have said morale is either low or very low, according to a survey.
We know there is interaction with Government on pay and conditions. Is there anything else the Commissioner and her senior management team believe they can do to address that? Does she believe it is simply an industrial relations interaction between Government and the two organisations?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Perhaps I could address the question in terms of what we have done to improve morale. In 2014, we went around and listened to our people. I mentioned that as part of our plan. We have spent the past two years feeding back to our Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the issues we are hearing from our members. My colleague, Mr. Nugent, has touched on the issues. They include the moratorium. We were no different from any other public sector agency. There were no recruits and no new people. Policing is something that requires fresh people all the time and a turnover not only for members but also for the community. Recruitment and investment in the fleet have certainly helped. New cars allow people to be able to get out and do their job. New technology also helps. We are addressing issues around uniforms as well. These are the internal issues. It is important to ensure people feel empowered to do their job.
Deputy Chambers asked what we can do. There is no doubt that the residual issue is pay. That is being addressed in different circumstances. There is another issue which feeds in to the potential to erode public confidence. Our people go about their job every day. As several Deputies have alluded to, members of the force go out every day to do the best job they can do, often in dangerous and hazardous circumstances. They do this with the full knowledge that they have the support of the people in the communities they serve. Anything that would erode confidence in that support is dangerous and has the potential to impact not alone on morale but to erode and impact on public confidence as well.
Dr. Gurchand Singh:
One of the things we will be doing is to put in place a cultural audit. We have done monitoring of people's morale and a range of other issues. We want to put in place an ongoing review of people's morale, how people see their skills and how they view the organisation. The plan is to feed back that information into the modernisation and renewal programme. We are hoping to start that cultural audit next year.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
I wish to comment on our modernisation and renewal programme. It has been very much informed, as the Commissioner has said, by the needs we picked up from the ground in respect of where people were hurting, what they needed, what supports they needed and so on. The prioritisation of the initiatives in the programme is very much informed by the priorities raised at that level.
That is very much informed by the priorities raised at that level. We hope that over the coming months and into the next year or two as this programme starts to roll out fully and we feel the effects of the initiatives as they are implemented that it will fully support that. The whole purpose of that programme is to support the front line. Everything we do is in that space.
I will start where Deputy O'Callaghan left off. The Commissioner said she was not privy to any information about allegations of mistreatment of whistleblowers, that her knowledge was very much based on public commentary and what she heard. Is that statement not contradicted by the fact that counsel for one of the whistleblowers wrote directly to her 14 times over a two-year period outlining a litany of direct experience he had of surveillance, intimidation and the rest?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
As the Deputy is aware, I am precluded from talking about individual cases. In general, as I said earlier, each individual's experience is different. We are dealing with each individual separately, as an individual and with their representatives or their legal teams who raise issues with us. All of those are being addressed. We are in the process of retaining a professional expert to review all of these. These are single figure numbers but nevertheless because each individual's experience is so different, we believe the professional expert can help us review our internal structures, policies and our approach to things. If there are areas we can strengthen, we are very open to strengthening those. Perhaps it is time for consideration to be given to some type of independent entity where all of these issues go and where people can have some reassurance that someone is considering these matters independently and we make sure that the internal structures are there to strengthen and support individual needs.
I have no intention of going into detail on any individual cases but I asked if it was the case that the Commissioner received direct contact on 14 occasions from the counsel for one of the whistleblowers giving very specific information, which I will not give here, outlining his negative experiences as a whistleblower.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I have specific obligations under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, as the employer, to protect the individuals and their identities and I am not in a position to answer any specific questions on any specific individual or any specific correspondence received about an individual, other than to say that every individual's case is being treated individually and that we have structures in place to deal with that.
I am not asking the Commissioner to give any details about an individual case but I am perfectly entitled to put a question, particularly in the context of O'Higgins, of the public assurances we have received from the Commissioner's offices that the Garda Síochána is a safe place for people to come forward with information when that public statement is contradicted by other issues. We have a right to tease that out. Without looking at the specific case, is the Commissioner perfectly happy to reiterate her statement that she is not privy to any specific allegations involving mistreatment of people who have come forward as whistleblowers?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I do not think my answer to Deputy O'Callaghan was in respect of allegations because obviously I have heard the public commentary about allegations that have been made. I do not, however, think it is fair or even just. All one has to do is look at what we have put in place in an effort to support our determination to ensure that people can bring forward facts. The evidence speaks for itself in terms of the structures that have been put in place, in terms of the systems and efforts put in place, without going into individual cases. I cannot go into individual cases. I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that.
Nobody has asked the Commissioner to go into individual cases but there have been a large number of public statements and the Commissioner has made more today, to say that she is not privy to any of these complaints or more specific examples that are in the public domain. It is a yes or no question: can the Commissioner confirm whether or not she is aware? She has said she is not privy to it. My evidence is that she is but if she tells us she is not I will move on. Could she just tell us whether she is or not?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Any issues brought to our attention by any individual are fully addressed. That is the case in respect of all the individuals who have brought matters to attention or any member or any representative of any individual. Those issues are being addressed in the structures and the process we have there. We are in the process of retaining an independent, professional expert to review those processes. It may indeed need to go beyond that but we can only do what we can internally and what we have control of. That is why we have somebody being retained independently, to review areas that can be strengthened, recognising that individual needs are different.
If everything is improving and the Commissioner has said the numbers of whistleblowers are in single figures can she explain why those five at least, if not more, are out sick and have been on protracted sick leave due to work-related stress?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I am conscious that we are speaking of single figure numbers and even by extension that could serve to identify individuals. I am precluded from speaking about individual cases and, as the employer, I have a duty of care to all the individuals and their circumstances. There are systems in place to support and help the individuals concerned.
This is supposed to be a public forum to help. This module today is part of a process to deal with oversight and accountability in respect of An Garda Síochána. We have had the oversight bodies in here. They have made observations and have not been as reticent in their answers. Nobody is asking the Commissioner to deal with individual cases but the questions are valid. If the Commissioner wants to comment on that she can. There is nothing wrong with figures. These figures are in the public domain at the end of annual reports and all the rest of it. I do not know why the Commissioner could not tell us how many protected disclosures she has received, as distinct from those which have gone to GSOC.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Perhaps an indication is that the number of disclosures received by An Garda Síochána is in single figures. We have put in place two protected disclosures managers, and a system to support people who wish to come forward and raise issues. I am not aware of the comparison with the numbers that have gone to GSOC. Since the legislation changed and individuals can go to GSOC or others we have put in a separate dedicated structure and points of contact with GSOC to ensure that the welfare and the support mechanisms that need to be in place to support individuals who wish to bring their complaints to GSOC are put in place. There is a structure in place to protect the identities of the individuals who wish to make disclosures and to ensure they are afforded every support from a welfare and a work point of view. Those are the systems we have put in place.
The Commissioner is aware that two weeks ago Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring stated here that the legislation was insufficient and that while it is uneven and some areas are all right, in general co-operation was at best uneven but certainly in the area of protected disclosures and getting relevant information from An Garda Síochána they were not able to do their job properly because of that lack of co-operation. Is the Commissioner aware of that situation? What steps has she taken to address the deficit and what could be viewed as the frustration of GSOC complaints because of lack of Garda co-operation?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
We are certainly aware of the submissions made by Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring to the committee and indeed the GSOC submissions.
We have put in place dedicated structures and single points of contact with the ombudsman commission. In its annual report for 2015, GSOC gives a figure of 93.6% for the compliance rate with requests for information, not just in regard to protected disclosures but generally. We have put mechanisms in place to seek continually to improve that. As of 1 September, Assistant Commissioner Corcoran has taken responsibility for that area. Separately, we have put in dedicated structures to ensure that where GSOC requires any information from us, that information is made available.
In regard to some of the recent commentary, my colleague, Deputy Commissioner Ó Cualáin, has been in contact with the ombudsman commission to ensure there is engagement. I understand a meeting will be held next week to make sure there are no blockages in the system. We are determined that any blockages will be unblocked. The purpose of the systems and the process we have in place is to ensure that happens as smoothly as possible. I will ask my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Corcoran, to comment at this point.
Mr. Eugene Corcoran:
We must distinguish between the information requests received generally from GSOC and those of protected disclosures. They are not in the same category. The commission has, very fairly, acknowledged the high level of response in accordance with the protocols in place, which is in excess of 90% in recent years. The ombudsman commission recognises the improvement that represents. We accept it is appropriate at this time, more than ten years on, that a review should take place of the provisions of the 2005 Act and that any improvements which can be made in the context of the provisions, especially around bureaucratic issues or issues that slow down the process, should be adequately addressed. We would very much support the opportunity to contribute to that review should it take place. A number of issues were raised before this committee in that respect. Certainly, in broad terms, we support such a review and look forward to contributing to it.
I am somewhat at a loss as to why, if all these processes are in place, GSOC and the whistleblowers are not happy. How can there be such a contradiction between the public statements the Garda authorities are making about how everything is grand and things are improving and the direct opposite position that is being set out by GSOC and the whistleblowers? The witnesses have said they were not privy to any of those circumstances. Does that not mean this is going on behind their backs and that their authority is being undermined if what they are saying in public is being contradicted by the reality on the ground and behind the scenes?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
We never said everything is perfect; far from it. This is a relatively new process for everybody, not just for An Garda Síochána. Everybody is learning, which is why we have already engaged in a review of our policy. It is why we very much welcome the authority reviewing our policy, practice and procedures. We look forward to any input from GSOC or from the committee. In listening to the individuals who have come into the process so far, what we are hearing is that different people have different experiences, and those individual experiences need to be reflected on and factored into our considerations. That is why we are in the process of retaining a professional expert to examine where our processes can be strengthened and what further supports we can provide to meet people's individual needs. We have learned that every individual's need is different, as is the case with victims. That is why we need to strengthen our structures and processes. In our experience, it may be appropriate that there is some independent entity which impartially and objectively receives all of these complaints, allowing us to focus on strengthening the structures and processes needed to support individuals.
While I agree everybody is different, the similarities in these cases are striking. In every instance, people have reported bullying and intimidation when they made a protected disclosure. In every case, the individual is out on protracted sick leave. Is that accurate?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Any instance of wrongdoing reported by any individual is fully investigated, either by us or, if there is criminal wrongdoing, by GSOC. A number of the cases to which the Deputy referred are being investigated in a variety of fora and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on them.
The Minister has stated publicly that she contacted Ms O'Sullivan in May of this year seeking an urgent report about some of these allegations of bullying and harassment of whistleblowers. Has the Commissioner responded to that communication from the Minister and, if so, when was her response given?
The communication is a matter of public record.
Moving on, the O'Higgins report deals with allegations that two senior officers were prepared to mislead the ombudsman commission in regard to evidence about the motivation of Sergeant Maurice McCabe. The report has been submitted to the commission. Has Ms O'Sullivan been contacted by GSOC regarding that investigation?
Ms O'Sullivan has commented on the Minister's new initiative relating to the latest protected disclosures. Will she comment further on that process and indicate whether she will co-operate fully with it? Will she say whether all electronic equipment in the hands of An Garda Síochána will be handed over to Mr. Justice O'Neill as part of that inquiry?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Absolutely. In the case of any GSOC investigation or any other investigation, not just the specific one to which the Deputy referred, An Garda Síochána will fully co-operate and assist. In respect of the review being conducted by Mr. Justice O'Neill, I am on record as saying that An Garda Síochána will, of course, fully co-operate and assist in whatever way Mr. Justice O'Neill requires.
Drugs are an appalling blight on our communities. While the report is not specific on this matter, it does get to the heart of how An Garda Síochána deals with drugs. There have been reports in the public domain of Garda collusion in the drugs trade, which was confirmed as part of an internal investigation as a result of whistleblower allegations, and we have had people giving evidence on television that they were fitted up. Without asking the Commissioner the details, we understand from the media that the internal report validated the allegation that Garda involvement in the drugs trade contributed to a worsening of the drugs problem in a midlands town. How did the media get that report when the person who made the original complaint has not been given a full copy of it? Does the Commissioner agree it is unacceptable that people to whom those allegations were made on a number of previous occasions and who took no action on them continue to be at the height of an organisation which is claiming to deal with change? Does it not send a very contradictory signal to people who come forward with an allegation when the people who did nothing when allegations were put to them years ago remain at the very top of the organisation and while the Commissioner's own internal inquiries confirm Garda collusion in the horrendous drug trade that is such a blight on our society?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
As I understand it, those investigations are ongoing. As soon as they are concluded and once due process has taken place, any appropriate action or recommendations will be implemented. As the Deputy is aware, a number of the investigations are being conducted by the ombudsman commission. We await its recommendations in these matters, after which appropriate action will be taken.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
In terms of the media, we have put new structures in place around our new communications strategy, and we have newly appointed people, to make sure that, in the public interest, anything that requires to be addressed with the media is dealt with. I am not aware how that issue came into the media. We have not launched an investigation as yet, but as the investigation progresses, I am sure it will cover those facts as well. If action needs to be taken, it will be taken.
I am talking about the allegations that deal with the internal report on Garda collusion in the drugs trade in and around the Athlone area, and the information that appeared in the public domain about that internal investigation.
That is fine. Obviously, these are incredibly serious issues that are utterly shocking for citizens who are the victims of drugs in our society. From the point of view of the media, Garda leaking in other areas and action being taken against people who are alleged to have leaked information, there seems to be inconsistency. However, I am conscious that other members want to contribute.
My last question, and again it is not specific, is about the problem whistleblowers face, particularly when the complaints they make are against somebody who is in authority over them. That is a very difficult situation to handle. What steps does the Commissioner recommend in those situations whereby somebody against whom a complaint is made is in a position of authority and has access to undermine that person from an employment and disciplinary point of view? Is the Commissioner aware of any such incidents taking place, such as an abuse of authority by somebody, including physical intimidation? Is she aware of any allegations in that regard by whistleblowers?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Abuse of authority is a very serious allegation and as the Deputy stated, there are a number of very serious allegations in the media and in public commentary. We have to allow due process and fair procedure to take place around all of these issues. Any allegations made by any individual will be taken extremely seriously, fully investigated and, where appropriate, will be referred to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC.
The Commissioner said that everything might not be perfect, but in her opening address she painted a pretty picture as if everything was excellent and that we should not be worried about too much. However, Garda indiscipline and underperformance at management levels and senior rank were identified by both the Guerin report and the Garda Inspectorate report last year. The O'Higgins report did not look great for the force either. Does the Commissioner not believe that things are not quite as rosy as she has painted them?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I certainly did not intend to paint a pretty picture because the position is far from a pretty picture. We have put together a plan which is courageous, ambitious and requires gritty determination to deliver and achieve. What I did say was that we have achieved a considerable amount over the past two years, but it is a journey of work that has to be done. Cultural change in any organisation is not easy. It means changing and challenging attitudes and behaviours in a robust way on occasion and in a way that sometimes people may not necessarily like. However, the job of leadership is to make sure that decisions are taken and actioned, and that there is a direction in which the organisation, and in our case the service, is going. That is what we are doing. That was the frame in terms of my opening address. We are on a journey of cultural renewal, change, modernisation and professionalism, which will make the organisation a better service for the communities we serve. In terms of painting a pretty picture, it is not all pretty in the garden yet, nor did we suggest that was the case. We have a lot of work to do. We have some work done, but I can tell the Deputy it has taken some determination to get even to where we are now. The number of reforms that have been implemented in the past two and a half years have not taken place without a good deal of gritty determination.
The Commissioner talks about cultural change. There was much talk about cultural change when the former Commissioner, Martin Callinan, and the former Minister, Alan Shatter, went, but many people in the Commissioner's organisation, and we communicate with many of them, would argue that not only has the culture not changed but, if anything, it has deteriorated. What does the Commissioner say to the comments many would have put to us that she has promoted many people about whom complaints have been made, that she promoted her husband and her bridesmaid, and that she surrounded herself with her supporters rather than concentrating on promoting quality personnel? When the PSNI was formed, the Patten report recommended that if it was serious and wanted to change the culture in terms of how policing was done in Northern Ireland, it would have to get rid of the existing hierarchy. Since the Commissioner replaced the former Commissioner Callinan, there has not been a serious change to the hierarchy. Processes are much as they were. What does the Commissioner think of that?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
The first thing I would like to say is that there are many factual inaccuracies in the public domain. Lest one of them remain, namely, that I promoted my bridesmaid, that certainly was not the case. I was going to say "because I did not have a bridesmaid" but besides that, it is important that we deal with accuracies. That is certainly not the case. I want to get that one out of the way.
I will speak my mind. If a member of An Garda Síochána, or a member of any organisation, is defined by the person they just happen to be associated with, be it through marriage or otherwise, I do not believe that is appropriate.
I will talk about the generalities of promotion within An Garda Síochána. In April 2014, when I took over from my predecessor, I took over in an interim acting capacity as acting interim Commissioner. That remained the position for nine months while there was an international head hunt competition. It was the first time ever in the history of the State that a Commissioner was selected from an international head hunt competition. It was conducted independently. There were a number of international people on the panel. There were a number of international competitors. I am very lucky in so far as I was the person chosen through that competition. Getting this job was not easy, nor would I have expected that to be the case. It reinforces my confidence in my own ability but also in the fact that I was chosen by an independent panel as being the person best suited for the job.
That is an important factor to bear in mind. In terms of internal promotion competitions, they are also done under very strict guidelines. For the information of the committee, the chair and the board members are independently chosen from a panel prepared by the Department of Justice and Equality. Members of An Garda Síochána are represented on it and any competitions are done in accordance with fair procedure and due diligence under the authority of the chair of the board. People who come through those promotion competitions are selected on the basis of their proven ability when they present for interview. It is a very important aspect that the committee needs to be aware of. There is no such thing as me or any member of An Garda Síochána appointing and anointing an individual member.
The Deputy also mentioned the cultural change. Cultural change does not happen overnight. It takes time and it is about attitudes and behaviours both internally and externally. It is about making sure we have the support to make those cultural changes real. We have started that with the training of our new students, with training for all of our people right throughout the organisation and by introducing civilianisation and new perspectives into the dynamic of An Garda Síochána. The Deputy is welcome to come to Garda headquarters. He is welcome, as is the committee, to go any place he wishes throughout the organisation and see at first hand the changes that are happening.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Allegations such as those in the public domain at the moment are allegations until such time as they are proven. They will be properly investigated. Fair procedure and due process has to be afforded to every individual. It is a matter of record that I, as Commissioner, do not make appointments or promotions. The board recommends people as suitable on a panel of promotion and the appointments at senior level are made.
The Commissioner has said publicly on a number of occasions that she totally supports whistleblowers, that she encourages them to come forward, they are very welcome and it is good they exist. Has she ever met any of the whistleblowers who have made complaints during her tenure? Has she ever talked to any of them?
The Commissioner has said the number of disclosures by whistleblowers that have come her way are in single figures. Does she not think that in a healthy environment, we would have a lot more than single figures in terms of people complaining? Is it possible there is a fear element involved and that people are afraid to put their heads above the parapet, given that those who do usually pay a heavy price?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Every individual employee has a right and duty to raise any issues or concerns they wish to raise. They do not always have to raise them as protected disclosures. A number of people raise issues which they do not make under protected disclosures. A healthy environment creates an atmosphere where people can raise issues with their local management or local supervisors and those issues are addressed to their satisfaction. We sent notification of our protected disclosures policy to every single employee in An Garda Síochána reinforcing to people the right and entitlement to do so if they wish. We want to create an atmosphere where people can raise issues without fear, knowing they will be fully supported and listened to and that any issue they raise will be addressed.
Most of us here have read the complete O'Higgins report. What does the Commissioner say to the independent commentary that she made a strong effort to undermine the credibility of Maurice McCabe in that process?
Does the Commissioner know if the phone of anyone who has made a complaint against her has ever been tapped? Does she know if the phones of any Deputies who made a criticism on the floor of the Dáil have ever been tapped? Does she know whether phones were tapped or not?
It has been brought to our attention over a number of years by a lot of gardaí of different rank that traditionally, it has been difficult for a lot of good gardaí to work their way up through the ranks and that quality has never really been as successful in reaching high rank as it should be. People would still argue that that culture has not changed yet. Does the Commissioner think it has changed?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
Perhaps I am evidence of people working hard and working their way up through the ranks. I am very aware of people who worked hard and worked their way up through the ranks. The processes that have been put in place, not only in the last two years but before that, were put in place with a view to identifying the right and suitable people who need to be in place at a particular time. The Policing Authority will have a huge role to play in promotion processes from now on. I am satisfied the processes that are in place, and which have been in place through the years, identify the right people. I also am aware of people who have worked their way up through the ranks.
Speaking of the Policing Authority and promotions, does the Commissioner realise that when Josephine Feehily, the chairman of the Policing Authority, appeared before the committee, she expressed her disappointment that she had no role in the latest round of promotions that took place?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
The chairperson also indicated that I had raised the critical gaps that we had and continue to have in senior management ranks with the Policing Authority. I raised it both in public and private at the Policing Authority meetings so at all times the authority was aware and will continue to be aware of the critical gaps we have in management structures at all levels throughout the organisation.
I would also like to be associated with the remarks made by Deputy Brophy at the outset. I will follow up on the questions asked by Deputies Clare Daly and Wallace. Is Ms O'Sullivan aware of any whistleblowers being put under surveillance?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I can certainly ask but I must state categorically, bearing in mind that protected disclosures are a relatively new phenomenon, that we do not keep intelligence files. As I hope the Deputy has heard from my colleagues today, we have enough activities to keep us very busy, such as creating intelligence files on people who are causing harm to communities.
Has Ms O'Sullivan considered temporarily stepping aside as Commissioner while Mr. Justice O’Neill carries out his review, given that there are a number of allegations that she had knowledge of a campaign to discredit a whistleblower?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I reiterate my statement that I was not privy to, I did not approve of and I would not condone any campaign against any individual. My job, as I have outlined it to the committee today, is to lead An Garda Síochána through a time of very significant change. At the same time, I am working to provide strategic leadership in delivering a policing and security service that protects our communities. That is where my focus remains.
If Ms O'Sullivan is not aware of any intelligence files, or of whistleblowers being put under surveillance, does that mean she is not aware of whistleblowers being put under surveillance using PULSE?
Like my colleagues, I wish to be associated with Deputy Brophy's opening remarks. My question relates to the policing of domestic violence. Can Ms O'Sullivan outline to the committee what kind of training is provided to members of the force to enable them to deal with victims of domestic violence? Does the force require further training or resources to enable it to deal with domestic violence?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for his association with Deputy Brophy's remarks. As we know, domestic violence is a very insidious crime that causes a great deal of trauma, stress and harm for individuals. We established the protected services bureau last year as part of our modernisation and renewal programme, which focuses on where services need to be prioritised. This specially dedicated unit, which is staffed by Garda and civilian members, exists to ensure our most vulnerable victims are protected. We will commence the regionalisation of that unit later this year. In other words, there will be a protected services bureau in every Garda region. We are mindful of the need for An Garda Síochána to be in a position to play its part in the full implementation of the second strategy on domestic and gender-based violence. We have provided for a number of training interventions. We have worked with a number of non-governmental organisations and other groups to ensure appropriate training is provided. One of the key priorities for the protected services bureau is the implementation of a risk identification tool that will facilitate the early identification of individuals who may be at risk following previous incidents. That will be a priority. Training will be provided to all our members in that respect.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
We are very focused on this issue. The roll-out will be completed by the middle of next year. We are starting it in three of the regions and it will be rolled out in the other three by the middle of next year. The training will be rolled out in conjunction with that. As part of our student probationer training programme, we have created a risk assessment tool that highlights where appropriate referrals need to be made. Training is being provided to student probationers and all the way up. We will also be including it in our continuous professional development programmes.
I thank the Chair and the Commissioner. When the Minister was here last week, she said that her Department and the Department of Justice in the North were carrying out impact assessments in relation to the whole Brexit situation. What is the Garda Síochána's level of input or participation in that process? What bespoke, individual and unique preparations are being taken on board by the Garda to deal with the fallout from Brexit? It is fair to say that with the best will in the world, none of us wants to see any kind of manifestation of a hard or negative Border. Issues like cross-Border crime and agricultural crime have been alluded to in the Commissioner's report. Can the Commissioner offer a rationale for the visible upsurge in Garda checkpoints along the Border in more recent times? Is that a routine situation or is it something that has resulted directly from the recent Brexit vote?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
We have a number of bilateral arrangements in place, both North-South and east-west, in terms of the proposed Brexit situation. It is important to state at the outset that along with our colleagues in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the UK police and in the intelligence services in the UK and Northern Ireland, we have a resolve and a determination to maintain the existing levels of co-operation, which have been heralded as being at an all-time high. We will continue our shared focus on ensuring we protect communities on the island of Ireland and along the east-west axis. We make an input into the institutional arrangements and we are consulted on a number of the arrangements that need to be put in place.
It is important to remember that we had strong bilateral relationships before the EU institutions were put in place. We also have the experience of our strong bilateral relationships with other countries that are outside the EU arrangements. The important thing is the commitment of our colleagues in the police and intelligence services to ensuring the service provided to communities is in no way diminished. We have increased patrols in Border areas as part of Operation Thor and in response to the murders of two of our colleagues, Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe and Garda Tony Golden, whose anniversary occurred yesterday. We have to respond to the threat faced by our members and to the criminality of those who are exploiting the Border for rural crime. That is why there is increased visibility. Of course those patrols will be very useful in the case of any change in the arrangements at the Border.
I am cautious in my words here because none of us quite knows what is ahead of us in this regard. In terms of that reinforcement of the Border, it has been made clear from any number of Ministers and indeed from the Taoiseach down that the final decision on the Border may not even rest with that North-South or east-west axis and that it may rest entirely elsewhere. I presume the Commissioner will then need to look and prepare, in terms of the additional resources that will be required for any re-manifestation of a EU-UK border. In terms of resource allocation, how does that look to the Commissioner at this stage? Given the sheer amount of Border crossings on this island, I presume that would present quite a difficulty for the Commissioner in the future in terms of allocating both personnel and current and capital resource.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
As the Deputy said, as the arrangements become clearer, we will be monitoring the situation closely. We have input into a number of the various committees that are under way and we will feed all that information into our workforce plan to ensure the appropriate allocation of resources is deployed as required. It is something we have to monitor closely. We have to wait until such time as the arrangements are finalised.
It is important as well that we had already started our focus on the common travel area with colleagues. That will continue, ensuring that the adequate arrangements are in place to enforce whatever arrangements will be put in place.
It is perhaps slightly unfair to ask the Commissioner whether the arrangement would remain the same post Article 50 being concluded, but is she, from an organisational and corporate perspective, arguing with the relevant Ministers and in terms of input into those negotiations that the policing arrangements, which have been much more fruitful, harmonised and positive in recent times, be sustained and that the Commissioner and her organisation, as with the PSNI, would be at a distinct disadvantage operationally if the currents arrangements were to be jeopardised or undermined?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
We are regularly in contact with officials, both in the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in the Northern Ireland Office. As recently as two weeks ago, we had an organised crime cross-Border conference involving our Minister, the Minister for Justice, Ms Claire Sugden MLA, from Northern Ireland, me, the Chief Constable and a number of practitioners, not only from policing services but also from, for example, customs services and other agencies. The focus on continuing those fruitful relationships that have developed, and I thank the Senator for recognising them, and our joint resolve and commitment to do that along with my colleague, Mr. George Hamilton, in Northern Ireland and with colleagues in the UK remain resolute.
I thank the Senator. The Commissioner twice made a welcome promotion here. Never mind the earlier questioning, Senator Ó Donnghaile was delighted to be referred to as Deputy and my party thanks the Commissioner for that.
The Senator's electorate would be most happy with it.
It comes to me to ask a number of short questions, if I may. In her address to us here, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring spoke about the delay in responding to requests for reports and other information. GSOC makes requests but there is an inordinate delay, in her own words, and an untimeliness, in responding that makes the work of GSOC difficult. I will call it, as we see it, an unco-operative pattern. I believe it will not only prompt but necessitate legislative change compelling full and timely co-operation whereas voluntary co-operation and presentation might not necessitate such a change. Would the Commissioner like to comment on it? I note there is an upcoming meeting that Deputy Commissioner Ó Cualáin will attend. It would be the universal view of members here that we would wish to see full co-operation in a timely manner with GSOC requests.
Allied to that, Ms Justice Ring also stated that many complaints presenting to GSOC would be more appropriately dealt with by Garda management locally, and she estimated that this amounted to 20% of the traffic presenting to GSOC over its almost decade in being. She instanced that verbal abuse by gardaí should be dealt with at a service level in a resolution focused approach rather than one that was seeking retribution and that the ethos of resolution-seeking with an apology would likely, as we would all recognise, satisfy the complainant rather than take up so much time at a senior level and encroach on already limited time on the address of the traffic of complaints. Those are both elements relating to the GSOC presentation.
We had questions earlier on promotions. Ms Josephine Feehily, the chairperson of the Policing Authority, indicated that at present the Policing Authority has responsibility for Commissioner and perhaps deputy commissioner level but expects that the power of appointment would come down the ranks over the period ahead. Ms Feehily articulated the view that such would be a welcome development. I would like to know the Commissioner's commentary on those two sets of respective points made by the previous presenters.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I will deal with them, so to speak, back to front. I will deal with the authority issue first and then I may ask my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Eugene Corcoran, to come in on the detail of the GSOC issues, which he has.
We very much welcome that the authority, as I understand will become more involved in the promotion process towards the end of the year. From An Garda Síochána's point of view, that is a very welcome development. My understanding is that the regulations will be enacted and that the authority will be in a position to start the process, it is hoped from some time around the year's end. That is useful.
In that regard, I must also say that even in the current situation, until such time as those arrangements are put in place, we continue to have a number of critical gaps at both Garda and civilian levels, and my colleague, Mr. Nugent, is working with the authority in that regard. However, we very much welcome that the authority will be taking over those appointments and we will support it in whatever way we can to do that.
In terms of GSOC, our objective always is to engage constructively with GSOC and to ensure anything that is required by GSOC is provided in a timely fashion. Without repeating myself, in the 2015 report GSOC itself recognised that in the provision of information required, there is a 93.6% compliance rate, which is a very significant improvement on where it was. There is still home for further improvement. I will let my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Corcoran, talk about the complexities that are involved in the residual 6%, because some of the requests require further supplementary requests and requests can be ongoing outside of the 30 days.
We have no issue whatsoever with compellability but my objective is that at no stage should GSOC have to go to the courts to request compellability in anything. I would absolutely share with Ms Justice Ring the voluntary part in terms of that being where we should be getting to and that being the purpose of the engagement at the various levels. It is also important that this committee understands that structures have been put in place and that it happens at various levels - operational, tactical and strategic - with GSOC to ensure there is the provision of requests and an understanding of what is required. Some of the requests, by their nature, are both complex and difficult to get from the areas that are required because sometimes the data require time to collate and retrieve, but that is something that we are working on.
We made a submission to the Oireachtas committee in 2014 where we very much concurred with the submission made by Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring to the committee recently, particularly on the issue of informal resolution and the category of service level complaints.
We feel that, as our culture changes, we want to move from a blame to a learning culture and we have articulated that in our plan. We want to allow management to make the interventions required if somebody has a service level issue in terms of behaviour or attitude. That needs to be addressed, whether through training, intervention or whatever. We are very encouraged by Ms Justice Ring's submission in that regard and very much look forward to working with her.
As my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Corcoran, said earlier, we also welcome the review of the legislation. After ten years in operation, its practical application has identified several lessons for us all and it is probably very timely. Assistant Commissioner Corcoran can go into some detail on that.
Mr. Eugene Corcoran:
To put the matter in context, we noted the remarks of the commission and, in particular, the very fair remarks in its most recent annual report which set out that we had almost 94% compliance with the requests within the agreed protocol. There is a protocol in place between GSOC and the Garda on the time limits within which responses with information are expected. In 2015, the year of the report referred to, there were 335 such complaints. These represent the almost 94% compliance rate with the protocol. The remaining 6% represented some 21 cases. It is not the position that the 6% represented requests in respect of which nothing was done. There was partial compliance. They were not completed but they were substantially completed. We do, however, acknowledge that the timely provision of information is essential for GSOC and that continue to have a monthly dialogue in an attempt to improve that. I expect that with the dialogue, and in the future, we will have a greater understanding of what causes delays. Occasionally, the material sought can take a considerable time to gather. It may not be readily accessible. There may be other agencies, such as the Director of the Public Prosecutions, that require to be consulted on aspects of the complaint or it could be that the sheer volume of material sought requires time to gather. These are logistical issues that arise from time to time. In balancing those remarks, I accept the obvious advantage in any investigation of having the material sought at the earliest possible time and that is and remains a priority for the Garda.
The matter raised in respect of the service level complaints has been the subject of discussion between the Commission and the Garda for some considerable time. In the fullness of time we will participate in the review that might, and hopefully will, bring about improvements. We are, however, governed by the legislation. Under the current legislation, all complaints must go to GSOC. The appropriate amendments that eventually result from any review or consultation that takes place will bring about improvements in respect of that 20% of complaints to which the Deputy refers.
I thank the assistant commissioner and the Commissioner. It is the case that GSOC is primarily focused on external complaints. It has been recently suggested in media discourse and elsewhere that perhaps we need a Garda ombudsman for the internal complaints process. In other words, an ombudsman to deal with members of the force when they present their issues. Has the Commissioner considered that or would she consider it necessary? Is it a gap in the current arrangements?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I will ask my colleague, Assistant Commissioner Corcoran, to go through the detail of the disciplinary process. The disciplinary regulations were crafted in 2007 and we have identified the need for a review of them to find a more effective and smooth running of them. Part of the disciplinary regulations allows for independent boards chaired by external senior counsel with independent representatives. We are very anxious to review the disciplinary regulations to make them more effective and to reduce the timelines and bureaucracy. Any allegations of wrongdoing or gross misconduct by a member of An Garda Síochána, including, recently, by the Commissioner, must be investigated in the interest of impartiality and objectivity by the Ombudsman Commission. It is also important that a balance be struck on internal discipline issues. Where an internal disciplinary investigation identifies any gross misconduct, deliberate wrong doing or indeed criminality on behalf of a member of An Garda Síochána it is important that those matters are referred to GSOC. That happens in practice with oversight from GSOC.
I thank the Commissioner for her response to Deputy Chambers on the drugs task force. She referred to farm equipment and the relationship with the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, in terms of the Theft Stop initiative. However, there is also, all too sadly, a matter relating to Border communities, namely, the theft of livestock. This has been a huge and very vexing problem for many, especially those directly affected. People are very angry about it. I am not conscious of any major prosecutions in respect of this and there may be a cross-Border dimension to it. While I have no doubt about the level of co-operation, I wonder if this is a particular focus in respect of co-operation with the Garda's counterparts north of the Border?
The Commissioner made the point several times that it takes time to change the culture. I accept and understand that but has she set herself targets? How much time will it take? This will depend on who drives that change. Is the Commissioner hands-on in that respect? Is there absolute leadership and an understanding and clarity about that at all levels within An Garda Síochána that the culture does need to change and that it is not a distant aspiration but that there are targets for delivery?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
In respect of the IFA and livestock rustling, at our recent cross-Border meeting we relaunched our cross-Border policing strategy. The issues particularly around rural crime, including livestock, are kept under constant review by us and our colleagues in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, and we have a specific focus on Border related crime, for people using the Border for plant machinery, farm equipment, cattle or livestock rustling. My colleagues, Assistant Commissioner Nolan or Dr. Singh could give more detail if the Chairman wishes but it is an important focus for our cross-Border policing strategy, particularly at the operational and tactical level with colleagues north and south of the Border. We are aware of several instances involving livestock or foodstuff. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a part to play in that and we liaise with it.
The Chairman is perfectly right about the culture change.
I am not sure there is ever an endgame when it comes to culture. Dr. Singh mentioned our culture audit so we are determined we are going to measure the impact of the cultural changes and the initiatives we are implementing. We have gone to the marketplace and there will be an independent precise assessment of the impact of the cultural change, especially attitudes, behaviours and how the public is responding to those changes. That is a very important part and there is no point in us just changing internally. We must ensure the service changes as well.
I was asked if I am a hands-on Garda Commissioner. Many people might say I am very hands on. The tone from the top and the leadership through the organisation is important. We must change attitudes and behaviours right throughout the organisation from the top down and bottom up. The new recruitment of Garda members and civilian members is very welcome as they, along with reserve members, will bring additional expertise and perspectives that will help change the culture. The reserve members are volunteers coming from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life. That is where our focus rests.
Leadership is always a challenge. It is about making hard decisions. Sometimes one must listen and hear everybody and everybody must have a voice. However, decisions must be made if we are to drive forward and implement real changes and reform. That is where the focus lies. It is important we look back on the past two years and see the tangible reforms and changes that have been achieved, not just internally but externally. We very much base that on our public attitudes survey and how that is demonstrated in all our behaviour as members of An Garda Síochána in serving the community.
Mr. Jack Nolan:
It is important to say that whereas there may be a perception at times that there is a epidemic of rural crime, there will always be periods of peaks and valleys. The majority of crime occurs in urban areas. From a burglary perspective, this time last year there was much community concern and disquiet about the level of burglaries, but 26% of burglaries occur in rural areas. In the 12 months just ended, there has been a 38% reduction in rural burglaries. It is important to put that figure in the public domain.
There was a reference to livestock theft etc. That issue has emerged but it has always been there. I have no doubt that members might know people in their own constituency who have suffered such losses over the years. There have been a number of major investigations in this regard. In Mullingar there was a particularly high-profile theft of farm animals and a high-profile investigation afterwards. In the Portlaoise area recently, in conjunction with gardaí from Kilkenny, a major crime gang was disrupted, arrested and its members are currently before the courts. In the Cahir area a large number of machinery items were recovered. Significant effort is put into fighting the theft of farm animals, goods, machinery etc. Coupled with this are the significant ongoing crime prevention programmes and they will continue. The committee has probably seen the advertisements for Crimestoppers, with the Irish Farmers Association putting up a substantial sum of money as a reward. All these elements help reduce crime.
The Commissioner has very correctly touched on an issue. The theft of livestock causes concern about where the animals go and if they go into the food chain. We are particularly conscious of that and work very closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in this regard. My colleague, Dr. Singh, manages the public attitudes survey and he can outline how levels of concern and fear of crime vary between different areas. Some people consider it a big problem at a national level but not at a local level. The reality is it is not a huge problem at national level.
Dr. Gurchand Singh:
Farm crime is an area we have examined in our research and analysis. It is not just looking at livestock but also at other factors, such as theft of tools. Tools are the main items being stolen from farms, along with diesel. We have been putting together information to support plans in those rural areas. We have also been monitoring TheftStop, which is showing some very positive benefits in the areas where it has been rolled out. The reductions in theft are at a higher level than in other areas where TheftStop has not been rolled out.
Taking a step back, a positive aspect is that looking at farm theft for the first six months of year, there has been a reduction of approximately 40% from the same period last year. That mirrors some of the other reductions that have been occurring in terms of property crime, and it is driven by activities such as Operation Thor. To some extent, this is also mirrored in people's perceptions. We run the public attitudes survey and we ask people about their perceptions of crime. When we ask people about perception of crime in rural areas, they see it as a concern. It is interesting that when we ask them what it is like in their local area, the concern drops. There is no difference in the perceptions of crime in the local area between rural and urban areas. There is some concern but it seems to lie at the national level, so it is a wee bit more nuanced than just general fear of crime. It is almost layered. There are concerns but they are pitched more at the national level.
We will group the comments from Deputies Brophy, Daly and Wallace as time is moving on. We have had a long engagement with the Commissioner and her colleagues and we have a private meeting to follow up.
I have a very specific question relating to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and the delay in responses. Mr. Corcoran specifically outlined a number of reasons there were delays in responding to GSOC. Is GSOC aware of that? I would certainly say the information given by GSOC to this committee gave the impression - I stand open to correction on it - that the primary reason for delay was that the issues were not being actioned at all by An Garda Síochána. They were, effectively, sitting in an in-tray. I am working off recollection so I apologise, but sometimes it was perceived that whoever was responsible for supplying the information was too busy to get around to replying to them.
The witness gave some very specific numbers relating to cases, which is interesting, as I have had great difficulty trying to get complete information from GSOC on the level of compliance. The 94% versus 6% figures seem at odds with the way in which they implied the level of co-operation was taking place with the Garda. Is GSOC aware that the reason for most of the delays are, as outlined by the witnesses, a necessity for further information or where partial information may have been supplied and not complete rather than there is a complete non-response by An Garda Síochána to the requests?
Mr. Eugene Corcoran:
As I stated, we have ongoing dialogue on a bi-monthly basis with GSOC on matters of this nature. I was referring specifically to information requests received under the protocols that are in place between the Garda Síochána and the Commission. I would prefer simply to set out the facts for the committee as opposed to engaging in any particular response to submissions previously made on behalf of GSOC. As I have said, I have fairly acknowledged its report of 2015, which I relied on in terms of my response to this committee.
The matters that give rise to delays are difficult to predict in every single case. In general terms, we are happy to confirm they are in a minority of cases and that every effort is made to comply with the information requests in a timely manner.
It is fair to advise the committee that there is no question of matters being deliberately delayed or of there being inactivity or inaction. The engagement we have had over a number of years has reached the point where the level of co-operation is such that this is not in fact the case. If there are reasons for delays, they are set out in the course of the dialogue that takes place in respect of each individual case.
To be helpful, would it be possible for the assistant commissioner, subsequent to today's meeting, to forward us a single paragraph with the detail he shared with us rather than for us to have to go through the entire transcript?
Obviously, some incredibly serious issues were raised here this morning and clarity is critical. The Commissioner said on a number of occasions that she was not privy to, nor aware of, nor approved any campaign to target whistleblowers. I would like her to be concise around some of these issues and preferably give a "Yes" or "No" answer. Is it her assertion that she was never directly made aware of any such allegations in regard to the targeting of whistleblowers?
I note the Commissioner's reluctance not to answer again, so I will help by partly answering for her. I am aware she was directly made aware - I have the correspondence and her replies in my folder - of allegations of precisely such a campaign of targeting in regard to whistleblowers. I would like to know what actions she took on foot of hearing about those allegations.
I did not ask the Commissioner to comment on any individual cases. That would be inappropriate. I was talking about the general processes in the context of the seriousness of what is the case, and those are incredibly fair questions, particularly in light of her comments that the system is changing when, on a fairly regular basis, evidence is being produced to show things are not changing. How can the Commissioner square that circle?
I would like to put on record that I have seen that the Commissioner has seen these allegations and in that sense, I find her response quite upsetting in many ways. She might answer my last question. If the Commissioner is not aware of any of these allegations but yet they exist both in terms of documented proof going back over years and, as she said herself, as the subject of huge conversation in the public domain, is that not a huge problem, particularly as they are continuing in different regions of the country, supposedly without her knowledge? Is the issue then that she has no authority among her members, that they are flagrantly doing the opposite of what she is telling them to do and does that not put her position in jeopardy?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I am not in a position to comment, nor should I comment, and it is impossible to comment on unsubstantiated allegations which are put into the public domain by elected representatives and others. I am very much aware of the unsubstantiated allegations which are in the public domain. I also am aware a process has been established where all these matters can be afforded due process and fair procedure to allow a proper examination of all these matters and I will fully co-operate, as will An Garda Síochána, with that process.
No, it is just to correct the record. I am not making any unsubstantiated claims. I am talking about documents which I know to exist and correspondence, which are matters of fact. I did not mention any specifics or allegations.
I have two brief questions. First, did the Commissioner admit that she gave instructions to challenge the credibility and motivation of Sergeant McCabe with regard to the O'Higgins report? Second, the Commissioner was sitting beside the former Commissioner, Martin Callinan, when he described the whistleblowers as disgusting. I may have missed it but did the Commissioner ever disassociate herself from those remarks?
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
First, on the O'Higgins commission, which was the Deputy's first question, at all times my interactions with my legal advisers were based on legal advice and as he is aware, lawyer-client privilege pertains to every citizen of the State, including the Garda Commissioner. As such, I cannot comment on any interactions between me and my legal advice. That is my legal advice.
Second, with regard to sitting alongside my predecessor, the former Commissioner, Martin Callinan, a lot of play has been made of that issue. Again, that was an interaction in a Dáil committee. I am on record as saying the choice of words was unfortunate. What I wrote to the thenCommissioner Callinan was to withdraw those remarks, because I do not believe they were said in the way that they came across.
I do because I checked something in regard to an answer and I want to ask Mr. Corcoran, the assistant commissioner, again about it. In correspondence, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, has indicated that regarding unsupervised disciplinary investigations in 2015, 600 took place and three out of four were affected by time delays. The judge went on to state there may be understandable reasons, but I will point out that there seems to be a substantial difference between 94% and 6% and his statement that realistically, it is a very small number and the way in which GSOC presented its information to us. That appears to indicate that in GSOC's view, while there are some understandable reasons for delays, there is not a regular process of compliance in regard to some of its investigations.
Mr. Eugene Corcoran:
I was careful to specify that the matters I referred to in respect of the 94% were information requests under the protocols. The matter in respect of unsupervised investigations is an ongoing issue relating to where the record of completion of files is not as positive as we would wish. Historically, that has been associated with the fact that the personnel engaged in the investigations, largely district officers or superintendents throughout the country, have a heavy workload otherwise. While we are addressing the issue of improvements in respect of the section 94 investigations, they are entirely separate from the requests from GSOC to facilitate investigations it undertakes and information it seeks in that regard.
To follow on from Deputy Brophy's searching question, could the assistant commissioner give us the holistic picture in the response he will offer? That would be important. We are seeking to establish the validity of everything coming before us. It is all an influence on what we will ultimately recommend, therefore, it is important that we are dealing with accuracies. I welcome that very much and I believe Deputy Brophy would as well.
Mr. Eugene Corcoran:
I appreciate that. If I may make one brief remark, that certainly was something I had intended to specifically highlight in respect of the requests for information.
On one brief point, the Chairman raised a matter of external complaints and the potential role of GSOC in internal complaints. We simply wish to highlight the requirement that the respective legislation is for entirely different purposes. The 2005 Act and the Garda Síochána disciplinary regulations have entirely separate and distinct functions. However, we appreciate-----
I thank Mr. Corcoran. We are taking no more questions. I will hold my thanks to immediately after this but, at the closure and given that some members concentrated on particular areas of what I emphasise again is public concern while others of us dealt with issues of structural accountability and corporate areas, it is important to reflect that the views expressed and concerns voiced were shared by many as a result of what we know through the media. I have never met - he is my constituent, I understand - Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe. I have never met the man. When I say that I can understand and empathise with colleagues' questioning and their concerns, that is because we are all informed by what we read and what we are hearing through the broadcast media.
I will share with the Commissioner that, even though we are talking about a small number, I am mindful that the reality of the situation is that one of those who now is one of that small number could very well in an earlier situation have been part of her panel here today. That is the truth. I am speaking specifically in respect of the superintendent, Mr. Taylor, who I do not know but who is the former Garda press officer. The report of Mr. John Barrett, who was the head of human resources, was presented to the Tánaiste just a little over a month ago, I understand. These are people in substantial positions. There is unquestionably a huge need to have all of this properly addressed.
I will close by saying that I sincerely hope - I am not across the detail of it personally - that Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill's terms of reference allow him to pursue, to seek and to secure all of the information that is relevant to the task that he has been set and that we get to a resolution of these matters at the earliest possible time. That is in the interest of something that Ms O'Sullivan gave a welcome voice to in her opening remarks. What I believe would be the wish of the overwhelming number of, if not all, serving members of An Garda Síochána is that we have a 21st century police service that is deserving of public confidence and has the full respect necessary for all of its serving members.
I will commend the Garda Commissioner on one last point. Nowhere in her contribution, either written or orally, today did she refer to a "force". I have also commended Ms Josephine Feehily on her choice of language. The people of this State - of this island of Ireland - want to see a policing service and I very much welcome Ms O'Sullivan's commitment to that. On behalf of the committee, I thank her and each of her colleagues - Garda members and civilian members of the team across the board - for appearing before us and wish them all well in their collective responsibility in ensuring that we have a well-served society and that all the matters that they are to address are done so properly.
Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan:
I thank him for his remarks. We have been focused for the past two and a half years or more on ensuring that it is a policing service. It is important to say for the record that I am not aware of the identities of the most recent what I have referred to in the public domain as protected disclosers. I do not know who the individuals are. We take it with the utmost seriousness and encourage it as a right and an entitlement for individuals to raise issues.
Specifically regarding Mr. Barrett, who remains our executive director of HR and people development, PD, it is a matter of record, and there has been a press release on the matter, that Mr. Barrett in his capacity as the executive director of HR and PD was dealing with an individual in terms of the structures that we had in place. He raised certain matters with me that were raised by that individual. In accordance with my duty and the legislation, I informed the Tánaiste of those matters under section 41 of the Garda Síochána Act. That is important in terms of Mr. Barrett's role.
I want it to be noted on the record that I am not aware of the identity, other than in the public domain, of the disclosers. We take any suggestion and any allegation, unsubstantiated or otherwise, extraordinarily seriously. We welcome the review that Mr. Justice O'Neill has been appointed to and An Garda Síochána and every individual member of An Garda Síochána will afford Mr. Justice O'Neill every assistance and co-operation. It is in our interest to ensure that these matters are addressed expeditiously.
We are in total agreement. Again, we thank Ms O'Sullivan and each of her colleagues for their participation. I offer an invitation to the Commissioner and her front-line colleagues. If I invited them all, the camera might not be wide enough to take them all in. I thought that the HSE was entering at the outset of the meeting. I am more than familiar with that from the health committee over a number of years. All of our witnesses were welcome today. We are in the preparation of our report and are compiling a compendium of photographs of the various witnesses who appear before the committee in its deliberations. I invite Ms O'Sullivan, her front bench colleagues and the members of the committee, if they would like to join me outside, for a photograph.