Dáil debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014: Second Stage


7:20 pm

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

Our party has repeatedly called for an independent policing authority. As recently as February this year, I asked the former Minister for Justice and Equality about establishing it and he robustly rejected the notion. An independent policing authority was not included in the programme for Government because it was not considered important enough. Unfortunately it has not been included here either, however, I am assured that it will be established in other new legislation in the coming weeks. I, and my party, will be continuing to push for this as we believe that it is integral to the reform of policing in this State. For example, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, did not have the ability to oversee the Garda Commissioner. I am happy that this Bill will rectify that in section 7. For the first time the Garda Commissioner will be brought within the scope of GSOC investigations. This is a great improvement.

In recent times, we witnessed the limitations of the powers of GSOC when it could not access the PULSE system directly. Unfortunately, it appears that this too is not addressed in the legislation. The inclusion of this was one of the recommendations of the Oireachtas justice committee in its submission to the Department on the reform of policing. Our committee called for the statutory provision of GSOC access to the PULSE system to better equip GSOC staff in their investigations. In May 2013 a GSOC report to the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence clearly stated that there were issues regarding its ability to exercise its oversight function due to a lack of independent access to Garda computerised systems, such as PULSE. The adherence to agreed protocols between the gardaí and GSOC should be made compulsory in legislation. We should legislate to grant direct access to PULSE for GSOC. I will seek to submit amendments on this as I believe it is crucial to the work of GSOC.

Another concern I have with the Bill, which I would like to raise at this Stage, concerns section 9. I note with interest the language used here. It states that the Garda Commissioner is to provide necessary information for investigations by the Ombudsman Commission "as soon as practicable". There is vagueness to this language that worries me. A former GSOC commissioner, Conor Brady, is on the record as stating that an obstacle to GSOC's work when he was a member was how Garda management had an ability to slow things down. The Minister will recall the report from GSOC about the length of time it took to deal with the Kieran Boylan affair - a special investigation took four years to deal with very serious matters. We do not want to see this continuing. I ask the Minister for reassurance that this will not happen. I am also considering an amendment to strengthen the language here.

I also want to make reference to further comments made by Conor Brady more recently at an event both the Minister and I attended with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Law Society. He spoke about how often GSOC would be stopped in its tracks with an investigation by being told certain information was not available to it or would be very delayed on the basis that it was a national security issue.

We need to ensure this is supervised to ensure it is not used as a mechanism to hamper GSOC investigations. I may seek to amend the legislation to reflect this, perhaps with the introduction of an independent adjudicator, as suggested by Mr. Brady, or perhaps a judge, who could decide whether such information should be given out on these grounds. That is important and I believe the Minister and I are in agreement on it. Independent oversight is necessary here.

Consider the issue of accountability concerning questions. It has been brought to my attention by journalist Gemma O’Doherty in recent days that she has reported that former Garda Commissioner Mr. Martin Callinan had penalty points for speeding terminated. He confirmed this in an article in the Irish Independent. Ms O’Doherty asserts she was fired a number of weeks after that story was published, and she is taking a number of legal cases in regard to that. She has advised me she has come into possession of new information. On that basis, she submitted a number of questions to the Acting Garda Commissioner, which the latter has refused to answer, as is evident from the e-mail. The questions, which Ms O'Doherty sent to the Minister also, are as follows. What was the basis for the termination of Mr. Callinan’s speeding fine? There was no indication of the reason on the PULSE printout. Why was Mr. Callinan not using an official Garda car on the day he was caught speeding given that he was on official Garda business? Did he drive to work on the day he incurred his speeding ticket? What time did he start work that day? Was the meeting he was speeding to pre-planned? Was this meeting recorded in his diary? Was he aware of this meeting? Was anyone with Mr. Callanan in his car when he was caught speeding? Was a written report made of his meeting? At what time did the meeting begin and end? What was the location of the meeting? Did Mr. Callanan return to Garda headquarters after the meeting? Did he claim mileage or subsistence allowance for the day in question? Were there any other occasions on which Mr. Callanan used his private car for Garda business? All of these questions are now on the record of the Dáil. Since the Acting Garda Commissioner has not provided the information, I ask that the Minister provide it. It is a very serious matter and there is considerable public interest in it. I hope the Minister can obtain the answers to the questions that the Acting Garda Commissioner has refused to give.

While some of the recent submissions to the Oireachtas committee recommended the abolition of the inspectorate and the effective merging of its role and that of GSOC, Sinn Féin believes a different approach would be more effective. We advocate the broadening of the role of the inspectorate to that of a criminal justice inspectorate. In a similar fashion to the way in which the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, conducts inspections of various institutions within the health sector, we believe the criminal justice inspectorate should have a similar role within the justice sector. It would be primarily responsible for the effectiveness and efficiency of the workings of organisations within the criminal justice sector. That would include both inspection and reporting of its examination of policies, operational practices and procedures across the sectoral organisations specified in any new legislation and work to ensure public confidence is maintained. It should also have responsibility for laying its reports before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The bodies we want to see under the remit of the proposed criminal justice inspectorate include An Garda Síochána, GSOC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Probation Service, the Courts Service and the Irish Youth Justice Service. The Oireachtas justice committee made the same call. The model in the North is working very well and I am sure the Minister can establish that with her ministerial colleague, Mr. David Ford, MLA.

I want to move on to the membership of the commission. Section 13 sets out that "'member of the Ombudsman Commission' means a member of the Ombudsman Commission appointed under section 65 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005". This legislation sets out that the commission is to consist of three members. I do not agree with this. I firmly believe there should be only one ombudsman. Again, the Oireachtas justice committee recommended changing the structure of GSOC so as to have one ombudsman rather than three commissioners, stating a single ombudsman would ensure greater accountability and no possibility of dissenting opinions or divergence in the ombudsman's findings. Consequent to the committee’s initiative, we went to the North and Scotland to look at the models there. We were impressed with the approach in those jurisdictions.

I will seek to submit an amendment regarding section 65(1) of the 2005 Act to change the structure of the commission so that, instead of having three commissioners, there will be a single Garda ombudsman. Earlier this year, my party launched its contribution based on its experiences of all the submissions made in this State and the experiences of our team who negotiated the changes to policing in the North. We do not have all the wisdom and I do not contend the former RUC is in any way comparable to An Garda Síochána but there are lessons in the North to be learnt in the context of the new beginning there, the policing board, the police ombudsman and the criminal justice inspectorate that could comprise a useful contribution to reforms in this State. Our document was circulated to all Oireachtas Members, and I invite those who have not had an opportunity to take a look through it. It is our considered contribution but it is not definitive.

We in Sinn Féin believe in a new beginning to policing similar to what happened in the Six Counties. The Morris tribunal happened owing to the failure and abuse of the power of some police officers in my county at the time in question. That was to be the new beginning. We had the Garda Síochána Act and GSOC was established, in addition to the Garda Inspectorate, etc. These matters are in evolution. We now have an opportunity to consider best practice internationally and ensure we really give the ombudsman the teeth and powers it requires. One of the big criticisms of the ombudsman is the demoralising length of time it takes to deal with a complaint. While the Minister has allocated some additional resources, she will probably need to allocate more in terms of the new powers and responsibilities it will have, and of course the existing investigations with which the office is already being asked to deal.

I feel very strongly about and ask the Minister to consider seriously the formation of a criminal justice inspectorate that would examine the overall picture within the justice system. There is the recommendation from the Oireachtas justice committee and a model in the North. While I commend Mr. Bob Olson, Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate, and his predecessors, I believe they need more teeth. We need bigger-picture analysis and to consider the full picture of what is happening in the justice system. The Minister has received the submission on that. We want to see a new dispensation in order to achieve more strengthened and sustainable reform that can deliver a modern 21st-century policing service now and in the future. We need to see freedom from partisan political control or influence, operational independence and policing with the community to develop maximum confidence in the policing service and maximise co-operation between citizens and An Garda Síochána.

As I said at the outset, I welcome this Bill and am happy with the majority of its content. However, as I have outlined, there are a number of ways in which it can be strengthened, and I will seek to do this on Committee Stage. I look forward to working with the Minister in this regard.

The Minister should not underestimate the anger of some of the families who contacted me today and whom I am sure have been in contact with the Minister also. They have made profound allegations, substantiated by considerable documentation, and submitted them to the Minister’s office. They have been referred to the independent panel of senior counsel and may end up being subject to independent inquiries. The families believe the Minister has not commented on their cases. She has made no comment whatsoever. She has not agreed to meet the families, nor has the Taoiseach. The Minister should be very clear that the precedent she has set today is the one that will have to be honoured in terms of consistency. She will be held to account on her approach to all cases because the one she referred to today is subject to considerable review by the ombudsman and to an independent review of the DPP. There is a very clear process under way, as the Minister knows. She has chosen to comment on it, as is her absolute right, but I will hold her to account to ensure consistency. If the Minister decides to refer this matter to the Oireachtas justice committee, I will ensure all the families who are waiting to be heard get the same treatment.


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