Tuesday, 16 July 2013
Private Members' Business - Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2013 [Private Members]: Second Stage
I wish to share my time with Deputies Clare Daly, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and Catherine Murphy.
I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Shatter, is not here. I did not think he would flunk this debate.
I would like to start by thanking those who have helped to bring the Bill to this point, namely, Leah O'Leary and Alison Spillane, who work in our Dáil office. I would like to acknowledge pieces of work by different people and organisations, whose words and ideas we have built into this legislation, namely, Professor Dermot Walsh, Dr. Vicky Conway, Fr. Peter McVerry, Dr. Shane Kilcommins, the UN, the Council of Europe, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Combat Poverty, Transparency International Ireland, the Patten report, and the Morris tribunal.
In 2008, the Morris tribunal completed its extensive work cataloguing corruption, systemic failures in senior Garda management and working practices, and the failure of accountability systems. The Garda Síochána Act 2005 was then posited as the panacea to the many deep-rooted issues uncovered by Mr. Justice Morris. However, it is that Act which this Bill amends. I strongly believe that the recommendations of the Morris tribunal have never been fully addressed by the State, and that the 2005 Act does not provide the tools and structures needed to overcome the embedded cultural problems underpinning discipline, and the blue wall of silence so bleakly exposed by Mr. Justice Morris. The many people across the country who have contacted me and other Deputies can testify to this failure through the sorry telling of their own experiences at the hands of some members of An Garda Síochána.
In this Bill, we have proposed the establishment of the Garda Síochána independent board with monitoring, supervisory, and oversight functions over An Garda Síochána. We consider this to be an important step in strengthening the democratic accountability of An Garda Síochána, which is necessary to promote public confidence and trust in the force. The board's objectives would include the promotion of respect for human rights within the Garda Síochána, and the board's functions would include the human rights proofing of all Garda policies, procedures and practices, and the publication of all codes and operational policies of the Garda Síochána.
Some human rights requirements are partly provided for by existing arrangements, but they have only an indirect effect with respect to human rights compliances. A police organisation should be focused on keeping human rights central to everything it does, in its dealings with members of the public, whatever their background or social standing, and in its management of its own members.
As far back as 2006, Dermot Walsh and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties expressed concern that the new formal structures of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 ran the risk of over-centralising as well as politicising the Garda, which would ultimately undermine its independence. The police must be the people's police service, and not a tool of government. By allowing the Minister for Justice and Equality to set priorities for the Garda Síochána, to issue directives to the Commissioner and require the production of documents, by making the Commissioner directly accountable to the Minister, and utilising the vague term "Government policy", the Garda's protection from political interference is potentially diminished within the present structure.
What is missing from current Garda oversight structures is civic oversight in the form of an independent policing board, similar to the Northern Ireland Policing Board which was considered a central plank of reform in the Patten report. An independent Garda board could also have an oversight role in issues such as the allocation of Garda contracts, management performance, the setting of clear performance goals to which the Commissioner would be accountable on an annual basis, and the appointment of senior Garda officers up to and including the Commissioner, as well as members of the Ombudsman Commission.
There has never in the history of the State been a root and branch independent review of the workings of the Garda Síochána. One of the board's new functions would be to conduct a five yearly review of Garda Síochána working practices, accountability, operational management and governance. The board would also hold monthly meetings with the Garda Commissioner regarding the performance of An Garda Síochána.
The board would see to it that human rights would be incorporated into every aspect; it would become a fundamental part of policing, rather than a token gesture. Human rights proofing is not possible currently because the Garda force do not do it internally, and because it does not publish the Garda code it is not possible to assess whether it meets human rights standards. Although there is provision in the Garda Act 2005 for the adoption of a code of ethics to set out the standards of conduct expected from each garda, the missing Minister has not seen fit to produce or adopt one. The need for greater transparency would be much helped by the requirement to publish all relevant codes, operational policies and procedures. The new independent board would also be involved in the training and education of gardaí in human rights.
The independent board would do much to improve democratic accountability by the very civic nature of the board's make-up but also by greater community engagement and consultation. There would be quarterly meetings of the joint policing committees, JPCs, which are made up of local authority, community members and a senior garda. The JPCs would have an input into the annual policing plan, and through communication with the board, in setting priorities of the police force and the strategy statement. Policing by consent must be a primary aim of the Garda Síochána, and for this to happen the people must have some say in how they are policed. A young adult in Darndale should be able to express his views as to how he thinks he should be policed, he should be able to go to a local Garda station and discuss the matter.
The independent board would be involved in policing unlike the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, which is on the outside looking in, but the board would not be a police body. Giving power to the board would be a diffusion of power and a depoliticisation of the police force - it would no longer be in the hands of one person, one political grouping. With the present structure, for the Minister to criticise the Garda would be a bit like him criticising himself, not something he is prone to do. The Garda is currently accountable to the Dáil, via the Minister - elected members may challenge the behaviour or workings of the police force through questions to the Minister, whose answers will vary from the interesting to the non-informative - which is a poor system of accountability by any measure. Furthermore, the then Minister for Justice explicitly stated in this House in 1987, that the government of the day should never criticise the Garda Síochána. This overly deferential treatment of the organisation and management of the Garda Síochána was identified by Dr. Vicky Conway as having prevented the absorption of Mr. Justice Morris's most over-reaching findings, and has allowed the acceptance of the fact that wrongs had occurred, but also the denial of a need for ongoing concerns regarding the workings of the Garda Síochána. Challenging the workings of An Garda Síochána would be unlikely to garner favour for a Deputy, be it on the street, in the media or at the ballot box. The Morris tribunal did not just identify malpractice and corruption on the part of individuals, but was also at pains to stress that many of the problems were institutional; the tribunal highlighted the existence of a culture that needs to be challenged if we are to have a police force that operates to the best international standards.
A recurrent theme at the heart of the accountability deficit in the Garda Síochána is the unwillingness of some gardaí to submit to and co-operate with the disciplinary authority. It is one of the features of Garda practice that the Morris tribunal found most shocking. As Dermot Walsh said, "Sometimes discipline within the force is frustrated by members deliberately seeking to derail criminal or disciplinary inquiries against colleagues, or combining to maintain a blanket denial of any wrongdoing on their part - the Blue Wall of Silence".
The Bill also provides for the reform of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, to strengthen its independence and impartiality. Much of this reform has been requested by the commission. Its powers and functions are broadened, recognising that the commission's remit was always intended to be investigatory, rather than one of review and oversight.
The admissibility criteria for complaints are widened, first, in regard to time limits by extending the six-month time limit to one year, or two in cases where there is an alleged criminal offence. Second, the definition of Garda is expanded to include former members of the Garda Síochána.
A third ground of admissibility is introduced which relates to a newly-created code of service. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has admitted that serious failure of service or inefficiency currently fall into something of a grey area of inadmissibility, for which this new code of service would provide. The 2011 and 2012 figures show that GSOC receives an average of six complaints per day regarding Garda misconduct, but the most recent inadmissibility figures show that approximately 40% of all complaints received by GSOC are deemed inadmissible.
This is wholly unsatisfactory from an accountability perspective. The Bill addresses that situation.
At present, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is confined to investigating individual complaints and is not allowed to examine policies or procedures. We propose to amend section 106, as recommended by the UN special rapporteur, Margaret Sekaggya, in her recent report to the UN. This will allow the commission to initiate its own investigations of Garda policies and procedures where it sees fit to do so, rather than relying on the consent of the Minister as is currently the case. There was a controversial incident when the commission was refused permission from the Minister of the day to investigate the Garda management of protests against the Corrib gas project. The Bill would also require mandatory supervision of any investigation referred back to the Garda. At present, one third of investigations arising from admissible complaints are referred back to the Garda for internal unsupervised investigation. This needs to change. In addition, it should not be possible for a complain to be referred back to the Garda without the consent of the complainant.
This Bill proposes the removal of the provision in the 2005 Act which allows serving gardaí to be seconded to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. It also proposes the insertion of a new section to give the commission full and independent access to systems such as PULSE, subject to State security requirements. This would eliminate the need for serving gardaí to be in the commission. It is proposed to expand the definition of "serious harm" to include injuries that would correspond with the definition of "torture, inhuman or degrading treatment" in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and injuries that would amount to rape or sexual assault, an omission that has been highlighted many times by the commission. Importantly, the Bill also provides for a more prompt supply of evidence to the commission. This is a response to the commission's unprecedented move in May of this year to speak publicly about the serious issues it is encountering with regard to information exchange and cooperation with the Garda Commissioner.
Mr. Justice Morris warned in his report that in the absence of substantial long-term efforts to introduce reforms, the activities documented by the Morris tribunal would be repeated elsewhere in Ireland. Recent reports certainly indicate this is the case. I refer to the penalty points controversy, the treatment of whistleblowers, the report on the Garda handling of the Fr. McCabe allegations, the Minister and Garda Commissioner's recent abuse of their powers with an explicit political motivation, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission's unprecedented criticism of the Garda's lack of co-operation and the commission's criticism of Garda handling of the management of informers. The recent comments of Mr. Justice Murray of the Supreme Court, when that court overturned the High Court decision to extradite Ian Bailey to France, were perhaps most damning of all. The Supreme Court referred to a DPP document regarding the Garda investigation as "dramatic and shocking" in its content. The court referred to a former DPP's description of the Garda investigation as "thoroughly flawed and prejudiced", culminating in "a grossly improper attempt to achieve or even force a [prosecution] which accorded with that prejudice". Mr. Justice Murray said that this amounted to conduct in the course of a police investigation which, if true, strikes a blow against the fundamentals of the rule of law on which this State is founded.
Our police force is separated from the rest of our society by the powers afforded to it. Rights to liberty, privacy and property can be superseded by the need for our police to perform their functions - the prevention and investigation of crime - as effectively as they can. To achieve balance with the interference to these rights, police are required to answer for the use of their powers to ensure they are being used in an effort to enhance the rights of the majority. Their power must be limited by obligations to the rights of citizens, such as the right not to be subjected to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment. Accountability is necessary to ensure our police use their powers only when they should and always with respect to the human rights of every individual, regardless of his or her background or station in life. If one gives someone lots of power, one must introduce checks and balances to go with it. The cultural change that is required is unlikely to come from within. We need a Government with the will to make it happen.
It was difficult for Deputy Wallace to introduce this substantial body of work in 15 minutes. On the surface, the Garda Síochána enjoys a high level of public support and confidence. If one scratches the surface, however, a different picture will appear quite quickly. Most citizens will rarely cross the path of a garda - perhaps only to get a passport application signed. If one contacts a garda to deal with a speeding offence, it might not be not as straightforward as it might once have been, following the recent revelations of a ticket-fixing scandal. It is really only when something happens - one becomes a victim of a major crime or some other accidental event causes one's path to cross that of the Garda Síochána - that one really experiences how our police force operates and a different picture emerges.
Along with other Deputies who have highlighted ticket-fixing allegations and revelations, I have been contacted by people the length and breadth of this country. Many of those who contacted me looking for help and justice, particularly following my own arrest earlier this year, are in the Gallery this evening. They have shared horrific and unbelievable stories of how their lives have intersected with the activities of the Garda Síochána. When one hears that some of the events in question happened a long time ago, one realises that the people in question will never get justice. Many lives have been destroyed. The number of stories makes it clear to me that these actions are not exceptional. We have an enormous problem because there is a lack of accountability in the Garda Síochána. The actions to which I refer are undermining the work of honest gardaí, the concerns of victims of crime and the rights of all ordinary citizens. As Deputy Wallace said, the blue wall of silence is as impenetrable as it was when Mr. Justice Morris completed his deliberations, spoke about incidents of negligence, perjury, corruption and mistreatment of vulnerable people and pointed to a total lack of accountability. While that case was shocking, it is more shocking for us that absolutely nothing has been done about it. When people try to do something, they get nowhere and often end up worse off.
I could be here all day dealing with specific cases of people who innocently crossed the paths of those who might be referred to as "connected persons", but we do not have time for that. I can say, however, that there are people in the Visitors Gallery whose lives have been absolutely destroyed by their interactions with the Garda Síochána. I could mention the case of a man in my own area who employed 12 people. An employee of his, who set up a rival business, was in a relationship with a detective. The detective harassed and intimidated the man out of business and the 12 employees lost their jobs. I could speak about a non-Irish-born taxi driver who refused to give a drunk garda a lift on New Year's Eve. He found himself harassed and intimidated to the extent that he had to give up his licence. I could refer to a couple who are loving grandparents. When they moved down the country, they happened to live beside a woman who was well-connected with a garda. The woman in this couple, who is in the Gallery, was a victim of assault and the case ended up in court. She and her husband became the victims of ongoing Garda persecution. They had to spend of thousands of euro in the courts to vindicate their good name.
While these citizens were falling foul of members of the force, the State organisation charged with protecting their rights and dealing with their complaints - the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission - this year had to take the incredible and unprecedented step of going public about the lack of co-operation it is receiving from the Garda Síochána. What message does that give to the Minister who is sitting here tonight? Two months after the commission published that report, it said it had "grave concerns" about informant handling. These issues were well highlighted by Mr. Justice Morris but they were not implemented. The commission has documented that the level of co-operation it received from the Garda was "highly unsatisfactory". It said that these issues would cause a "significant detrimental" impact on its investigations.
I would say the steps taken by the commission were quite revolutionary, in a quiet way. If this is how the Garda Síochána treats the State body that is charged with investigating complaints, God help the poor members of the public who have to deal with the force. Quite frankly, the Garda has been brazen in its disregard for the commission. It has been blatant in how it has ignored the legal protocols that mean it is supposed to furnish information to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission in a timely manner. It has responded to the commission by asking it why it is asking for certain information. That shows some neck, given that the Garda is obliged to provide it. There has been a move from a position where the commission was automatically entitled to be furnished with all Garda circulars, to the current position where that information is withdrawn. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has been told if it wants a circular to ask for it, but how is the commission supposed to know that a circular has been issued?
This is activity that has been ongoing since the GSOC published its report and our question to the Minister concerns what he is going to do about it. When his party and the Labour Party were in Opposition, they called for an independent police authority to oversee the activities of An Garda Síochána. Now they are power, they have a chance to do something about it. We must go back to brass tacks. If one looks at this situation, one can see there needs to be a culture change starting at the top of An Garda Síochána.
We need only look at the penalty points situation to explain that point. Here we had an honest, decent garda who wanted to make the force better and to fulfil his legal obligation to report malpractice. He went to the confidential recipient who then went to the Minister and the Minister went back to the Garda Commissioner. That garda is now in very vulnerable position. There was an investigation. We believe the practice has now re-emerged because no action has been taken to deal with it. Before the investigation even started, the Commissioner was on record as saying that there was no case to answer. We have been inundated with gardaí around the country telling us to keep raising these issues. If one has a system where a decent Garda inside the pack who tries to expose these issues does not get protected, what hope is there for transparency beyond that? The proposals we are putting forward for a new independent board could be a way of changing the confidential recipient situation by making them answerable to the board to have true independence because it is necessary to protect decent gardaí. Instead, the reality is that not only are those gardaí not being protected, they are being ostracised and demonised.
At the same time, we have examples of gardaí whose behaviour has been found to be far less appropriate but who have not experienced any disciplinary action at all. Not only is that reprehensible for the individuals at the heart of the malpractice, it costs the State money. Let us remember that the Morris tribunal cost €60 million while claims against the State have cost €34 million. We must say that the lessons are not being learned by the Government. Knowledge regarding these cases is in the public domain but from where we are sitting, very little has been done.
One only has to look at the DPP's report in 2001 into the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in west Cork, to which Deputy Wallace referred. The DPP said that a prosecution of Ian Bailey was not warranted on the basis of the evidence. In the Supreme Court, the activity of the gardaí in the case was categorised as "breathtaking" misbehaviour. The DPP dealt with issues where the investigating Garda, Jim Fitzgerald, gave hash, cash and cigarettes to a drug user with criminal convictions in order to obtain incriminating evidence against Ian Bailey. Not only was no action-----
I was just referring to the DPP's report. Not only was no disciplinary action taken against that garda, the State actually sent him to France to assist the French authorities with their investigation. The same garda was involved in other cases which resulted in people being incarcerated - incarcerations later found to be unlawful and which will undoubtedly cost the State a huge amount of money. Not only that but we have the revelations in the recent GSOC report where it highlighted in an unprecedented way its grave concerns about the handling of informants. Yet it is our understanding that the chief handler of the informant at the centre of the Kieran Boylan case has recently been appointed assistant commissioner.
We believe the Minister must address these issues. As each day goes by, these problems are being compounded. Mr. Justice Morris said that unless systematic changes were implemented, what happened in County Donegal would happen all over again. Let us remember what happened in County Donegal - people being framed for murders that never happened, drugs being planted, bombs being found and false arrests. In our opinion and based on our experience, what happened there is happening again. It is happening in the midlands and parts of Limerick and west Cork, with which other Deputies will deal. The challenge to this Government in the interests of all citizens, decent gardaí and making our society a civilised place is whether it will listen to the body of evidence from the GSOC, all human rights organisations and others, and implement legislative changes that can make this situation better for all.
I wish to put on the record that I believe the vast majority of members of An Garda Síochána are hardworking, decent, honourable people in the same way as I think the vast majority of greengrocers are hardworking and straight people. However, the reality is that if a greengrocer did not have a till and weighing scale, he would inevitably come under suspicion regardless of how honest and decent he might be.
The following individuals approached us with their own experiences of An Garda Síochána and their subsequent efforts to seek remedies and resolution. They came to Buswells Hotel today to share their experiences as, unfortunately, it appear this is the only remaining forum for them. These experiences demonstrate incidents that provisions in the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2013 would now address, both in specific ways and in a general way by improving general mechanisms of oversight and monitoring within An Garda Síochána.
I will now talk about the first case - that of Shane Tuohey whose family has given us permission to talk about it. Some 11 years ago, Shane Tuohey from Clara in County Offaly died a violent death. He was socialising with friends on the night that he died. He was in his late teens. There was a physical altercation outside a certain nightclub which continued on throughout the night. Shane was assaulted and there is independent evidence from two American forensic experts indicating that he was dead prior to his body being placed in the canal. His remains were found some days later by friends and family from the area - not by the authorities. Shane's family vehemently discounts the possibility of suicide and believe that the people who assaulted Shane are well known and very well connected to various high profile, well-respected and well-known people in the Offaly area.
The Garda investigation does not appear to have been up to the standards required by the State under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and a letter received from former Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy admits that normal Garda procedures were not followed in this case. The inquest into Shane's death returned a verdict of "death through drowning" and it is the family's contention that the main witness for the Garda was collected by four members of An Garda Síochána on the morning of the inquest and was clearly intoxicated while giving evidence resulting in the coroner disregarding her evidence. There was a subsequent inquiry by assistant commissioner Jennings in 2007 and the DPP concluded that no gardaí should face prosecution regarding the shortcomings of the Garda conduct alleged by the family. The family have contacted the GSOC on several occasions and have been told that the complaint was inadmissible. The admissibility criteria under the new Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill have been widened in respect of time limits, which they would extend to two years for incidents which, if proved, would include criminal offences.
The second case concerns Dr. Richard O'Flaherty from Caherdavin in County Limerick. He is an eminent GP and a gentleman who has practised in Limerick city for the past 40 years. During the course of his career, he was frequently called to different Garda stations in Limerick city to attend to patients. Dr. O'Flaherty's experience is that he has been subjected to the most serious, degrading and intimidating treatment by certain members of the gardaí in Limerick city which he feels has intensified over the past 12 years. He believes that many of his patients have been brutalised while in Garda custody and that his refusal to remain silent about this has led to Garda intimidation. His health has been seriously affected by this but Dr. O'Flaherty continues to practice his profession at his private home. Dr. O'Flaherty is still awaiting a response from the GSOC relating to complaints made. However, under the new Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2013, his treatment would now come under the amended section 102 definition of "serious harm", which has been expanded to include the European Convention on Human Rights Article 3 definition of injuries from "torture, inhumane or degrading treatment". The definition has also been expanded to include rape or sexual assault, something which has long been called for by GSOC itself. Section 102 requires mandatory referral by the Garda Commissioner to GSOC. Alternatively, harassment by gardaí, which the GSOC previously admitted was something of a grey area in terms of admissibility, would now fall under the newly created code of service which forms a third ground of admissibility under this Bill.
The third case is that of Mr. James Goonan from Birr, Co. Offaly, who died in February 2002 at his home in Crinkle. He was confirmed dead by his elderly mother at the bottom of the stairs at his home which he shared with his wife, who was in the house when he died. He had 38 marks on his body and a 10 cm gash at the back of his head and his family suspect foul play. Despite many appeals from the family to this effect the family believe the gardaí in Birr were unprofessional in their approach and failed to carry out a meaningful and thorough investigation into the cause of James's violent death.
As the Goonan family were not considered immediate next of kin, they were compelled to go to the Supreme Court to gain access to the Garda case file. In November 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that James's family was entitled to detail collected regarding when, where and how James met his death. The family say they were forced to seek access through the courts as the coroner had refused to engage with them.
Mr. Cyril Goonan and Mrs. Nuala Ramseyer, James's brother and sister, contacted the GSOC on several occasions about their brother and were told on each occasion they were out of time. The new Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill extends admissibility criteria in terms of time limits, strengthens the requirement on the Garda Commissioner to provide evidence promptly and requires him or her to gather and preserve this evidence before informing any relevant gardaí of any impending GSOC investigation. The new Bill also requires the GSOC to consider re-opening a discontinued investigation when previously unconsidered evidence is provided.
The fourth case is that of William Ryan and Margaret Delaney from Tullamore, Co. Offaly. They feel they have been subjected to repeated Garda harassment through inappropriate searches, false accusations and seizure of mobile telephones over the past year. They also allege an assault by a garda during one of these searches. Mr. Ryan's children were witness to some of this intimidation. During periods of detention, Mr. Ryan's requirements due to a medical condition were ignored. Mr. Ryan's complaint to the GSOC was deemed inadmissibly on the grounds the behaviour alleged is not such that it would, if proved, amount to a breach of Garda discipline. One could hardly make this up. The new Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2013 would improve this situation by extending the grounds of admissibility by introducing a new third ground to cover a breach of the newly created code of service. The GSOC itself admits that Garda harassment is a grey area in terms of admissibility.
We always hear about great people such as Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela and the type of people who stand up for themselves. We only hear about them from the establishment when what they have done is acceptable and everyone else is cheering them on. We hear in the Chamber how we are so sorry for the Magdalen laundries, what happened to the women who were tortured by symphysiotomy and numerous other matters. Why do we not get ahead of the game this time and instead of crying crocodile tears when it is too late we listen to the modern heroes who are in the Gallery?
One of my great heroes in life was Dermot Earley who was a great and honest man. I see a smile on the face of another man in the Chamber because he recognises this fact. I put the people I have met in recent months up there with a great man such as him. The reason I do so is because they are taking a risk to do the right thing. If anyone wonders what risk is involved I will state what was said to me after I was on "Tonight with Vincent Browne" and made a badly timed comment about Garda corruption. The first thing said to me when my closest of kin rang me was that we would nearly want to think about getting out of the country. Why would someone immediately react like this? It is because no more than in the greengrocers with no weighing scale or till one cannot trust a system which does not have checks or balances. When one sees what happened in the past and what is going on now, it is a perfectly normal reaction after standing up to it to think one would be safer to leave the country. This should never be the case in a democracy. One should never have such a fear. One should always be able to come out and do the right thing and be encouraged to do so, after which other people can do the same in the future. Everyone in the Gallery is a hero.
I appreciate the work Deputy Wallace and others have put into preparing the Bill and I agree with the principle of the changes they seek to make. Independence from undue political interference, transparency and accountability are extremely important elements in the operation of public life and the institutions of the State. Adherence to these principles are necessary for public confidence and I acknowledge the Bill is framed from this perspective.
Everyone in the House is grateful to the vast majority of gardaí who every day do an extremely good job in ensuring we are not put at risk and assuring our safety. It would be wrong not to acknowledge this work.
This work has been made much more difficult in these times when funding has been cut back and resources have been limited. It is also important to acknowledge there have been isolated and extremely worrying problems in the force with regard to abuse of the powers entrusted to it and some of these have been outlined. The Bill before us seeks to dramatically reduce any possibility that such powers can be abused while also not impeding the ability of the force to do its job. The establishment of the Garda Síochána independent board under the Bill is an idea I hope the Government will take on board. I understand such independent oversight bodies operate in many other countries. It is sensible and would only serve to enhance public and political confidence in the force.
The changes proposed to the powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission are also welcome. The Bill expands its investigative remit to a few crucial areas which I was very surprised to learn are not covered in existing legislation, namely, rape, sexual assault and torture. The proposed independent board would also take on a key role in the operation of the Ombudsman Commission, therefore introducing a further degree of separation from the Government. I would also like to see promotion on the basis of merit.
One of the aims of the Bill is to enhance the concept of policing by consent and encourage a greater role for community feedback in policing. This is crucial for the future growth and success of the force. I have tried for the past two and a half years to engage with the Garda Commissioner to try and understand the logic behind how Garda resources are deployed throughout the State. My research has shown an extreme variance in the ratio of gardaí to population, with Kildare at one end of the spectrum, having 666 persons per garda, while the Sligo Leitrim area has 319 persons per Garda and the national average is 391. To my repeated disappointment I have not been able to find answers. The Commissioner would not agree to meet me and the other Deputies from Kildare. I was not attempting to interfere politically in the vital operations of the force, which obviously would not be the thing to do. I was trying to understand the processes at work. Had there been a channel for elected representatives, such as the independent board suggested, it would have gone a long way towards addressing the issue, which is incredibly important for our safety.
The public is being put at risk by having thin numbers of gardaí on the ground. Not only is the public at risk, but also gardaí themselves, as an incident may have to be attended by a garda on his or her own because, with such thin resources on the ground, only one garda is available.
I believe that variation in the crime rates is due to under-estimation in certain locations. There is much to be welcomed in the Bill. I hope the Minister will take on board many of the suggestions and initiatives outlined in the Bill because it would go a considerable way towards improving policing in this country.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the case that has been made for the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2013. The Bill has two main objectives; one is to establish a Garda Síochána independent board, and the other is to strengthen the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. I will deal with each in turn.
The Garda Síochána independent board would have general oversight of the Garda Síochána, in the process taking over many of the existing functions of the Minister and the Government. It would be made up of a chairperson and 15 members, including four Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, two commissioners from the Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Ombudsman for Children, the Data Protection Commissioner, the Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate, and six other members. It is not clear who these six other members would be. The board would very significantly change the law relating to the oversight of the Garda Síochána, as set out in the Garda Síochána Act 2005. The board would take from the Government the power to appoint and dismiss the Garda Commissioner and all of the deputy commissioners, assistant commissioners, chief superintendents and superintendents. In drawing up the annual policing plan and the three-year Garda strategy statement, the Garda Commissioner would have regard to the recommendations of the board, and not, as is currently the case, Government policy. It would also be the board, and not the Minister, which would approve, with or without changes, the annual policing plan, which sets out the proposals each year for policing the country. The Garda Commissioner would also be obliged to consult the board on the manner in which the Garda Síochána is distributed throughout the State, whereas at the moment that is entirely a matter for the Commissioner. The statutory functions of the Garda Commissioner under the 2005 Act would also be changed to require him to have regard to the policies of the board rather than the Government. The Bill would delete the statutory provision that makes the Garda Commissioner accountable to the Minister for Justice and Equality for the performance of his functions and those of the Garda Síochána.
I do not believe the Bill would achieve its stated aim of improving the democratic accountability of the Garda Síochána. The 2005 Act provides that the Commissioner is accountable to the Minister for the performance of his functions and those of the force. In turn, as Minister I am accountable to this House. As Members will know, I frequently answer questions, take part in debates and generally respond to concerns raised in this House relating to the Garda Síochána, and that has always been the case with my predecessors. I simply cannot accept that the case has been made that transferring key oversight functions to a separate statutory body - such as the appointment and dismissal of senior Garda management and the approval of policing policy - would enhance democratic accountability.
In terms of accountability, it is worthwhile recalling that, in addition to the Minister of the day being answerable in this House for the Garda Síochána, the Garda Commissioner is, under the 2005 Act, the Accounting Officer for the Garda Síochána. In that capacity he is liable to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts. In addition, the 2005 Act established the independent Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, which is empowered to carry out independent investigations into Garda conduct. That Act also established the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, which provides expert advice on achieving the highest levels of efficiency and effectiveness in the operation and administration of the force. The accountability of the Garda Síochána has, through all these measures, been significantly strengthened.
Turning to the concept of a police authority, and that is what the Garda Síochána independent board would essentially be, the main argument normally made is that it interposes an additional layer of independent accountability between the political process and the management of a police force. There are examples elsewhere of police authorities, but it is worthwhile looking more carefully at those examples to see what parallels, if any, there may be between those jurisdictions and ours. They can be found, for example, in jurisdictions where there are regional police forces, and where regional rather than central accountability is thought desirable. Probably the best known example of that, and one of the most relevant, is the jurisdiction of England and Wales. In England and Wales there are 43 different police forces, and until recently each was answerable to its own police authority, except for the London Metropolitan Police who are answerable to the directly-elected mayor of London. However, in England and Wales police authorities were abolished and replaced last November by directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners, precisely on the ground that the police authorities were not sufficiently democratically accountable.
It is true that Northern Ireland retains a police authority, namely the Policing Board. I believe we would all agree that this does a very good job in sometimes difficult circumstances. However, I believe that everyone would also acknowledge that the need for the Policing Board in Northern Ireland arises in large measure from the unique circumstances of the North, in particular the need for confidence-building in a cross-community environment.
Another important point often overlooked by those who advocate a police authority is that the Garda Síochána is not only the police service in this jurisdiction but also the security and intelligence service, as well as the border control authority of the State. I find it hard to imagine circumstances where control of such critical national functions could be transferred to an unelected, unaccountable body. I certainly cannot easily think of an example in another jurisdiction where responsibility for oversight of these functions has been devolved from Government.
While I have made it clear that I have substantial difficulties of principle with the proposal in this Bill for a Garda Síochána independent board, there are also practical issues which proponents of the Bill must address. It is reasonable to ask, for example, whether a board made up of no fewer than16 persons could operate effectively, especially given the wide range of functions it would have.
It must also be asked whether it would be appropriate for officeholders such as the Ombudsman for Children or the Data Protection Commissioner to have direct responsibility for the management of the Garda Síochána, including the appointment and dismissal of senior Garda management and the approval of operational policing policies. The Ombudsman for Children and the Data Protection Commissioner are independent officeholders who, within their areas of responsibility, have important oversight functions relating to the Garda Síochána and the public service in general. To impose on them direct responsibility for the management and oversight of the Garda Síochána would not be building on their existing functions, but would represent entirely new functions. Their position on the proposed board would not simply enable them to have more direct oversight of the Garda Síochána in relation to children's rights or data protection. They could not limit themselves to that perspective. They would have a common responsibility to oversee and in important ways to manage the entire force. They, along with the other board members, would be responsible for appointing and possibly dismissing the entire cadre of senior Garda management. They, along with the other board members, would be responsible for a wide range of Garda policy. I question whether that could be right. Even in relation to children's rights and data protection issues, they would be responsible for Garda policy, which in their main roles they would be responsible for overseeing. One could ask whether that is sensible and if it would undermine and diminish the independence of their current roles. Surely it would risk confusing their separate and independent oversight roles with a completely different, and potentially incompatible, management role. I do not think it is unreasonable of me to ask whether this has been properly thought through.
There are also other more detailed aspects of the composition of the board that would benefit from more thought. For example, as we have seen, the Bill specifically provides that officeholders such as the Ombudsman for Children and the Data Protection Commissioner - as well as the chief inspector of the Garda Inspectorate, by the way, to take another example of potential role conflict - would be members of the board. However, it also provides that the special committee which nominates a person to be a member of the board must be satisfied that the person has the appropriate experience, qualifications, training or expertise for appointment to such a board. What would happen if one of the designated officeholders who was not approved by the special committee was to be appointed to the board. That is clearly an outcome contemplated by the Bill, or is it simply a meaningless condition? What would happen if a decision was taken that it was not appropriate for the Data Protection Commissioner or the Ombudsman for Children to be a member of the board? That has clearly not been worked through.
Let me also make a few brief comments on two other aspects of this part of the Bill, namely the role of joint policing committees, JPCs, and human rights. The role of JPCs is to advise and make recommendations to the Garda authorities and the local authority, as appropriate, in relation to local policing and crime prevention issues. JPCs are an important forum for developing co-operative approaches and enhancing co-operation between the Garda, local authorities, other relevant agencies as required, and local community interests. JPCs have never been intended to supplant the core policing functions of the Garda Síochána or the statutory functions of local authorities.
The Garda Síochána is an essential and proactive participant in each of the 114 existing joint policing committees, JPCs, and this participation is strongly supported by the Commissioner and his management team.
The circumstances applying locally will not be the same in each area and it is clearly incumbent on the Commissioner to take an overall national view in framing his annual policing plan. While the Commissioner and I are supportive of the idea of enhancing the role of JPCs, clearly this cannot be done in a way that dilutes or impedes the Commissioner's responsibility to frame a national policing plan. I am of the view that the present structures allow for full communication of JPC views to the Commissioner, and to myself, through the requirement for JPCs to furnish annual reports under the Act. These are sensible and appropriate arrangements to facilitate the input of JPC views while upholding the essential role of the Commissioner and his statutory responsibilities under the Garda Síochána Act.
I should also point out that the Garda authorities have established a national JPC monitoring office to support effective Garda involvement in the JPC process. In addition, the Garda authorities have participated with my Department and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in a review of the operation of JPCs, which has been ongoing over the last year or so. I am hopeful that, arising from this review process, we will be able to put in place improved operating guidelines for JPCs and enhance the overall communication in relation to their work, both at local level and national level.
On the question of human rights, I recognise that one objective of the board, as envisaged by the Bill, would be the human rights proofing of all Garda policies, procedures and practices, the monitoring of their implementation and the development of a human rights-based code of service for all Garda operational policies and procedures. No one could disagree with the intention behind this aspect of the proposal. We all agree that human rights are central to policing. The Garda Commissioner is fully conscious of the absolute requirement for all members of the Garda Síochána to respect and vindicate the rights of individuals. It is worth noting that all operational Garda directives make reference to relevant human rights principles to remind all members of the force of their obligations in this regard.
It is also the case that a strategic human rights committee was established in 2005 as a result of a recommendation made in a Garda human rights audit that year. The purpose of this committee is to advise the Garda Commissioner and Garda senior management on how to promote human rights policies and procedures internally and externally and to ensure that best human rights practice is at the core of the Garda policing service. The House will be interested to know that the committee includes representatives from human rights experts working in a number of outside bodies, such as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, Amnesty International Ireland and the Irish Human Rights Commission, IHRC.
I believe that any fair-minded person would acknowledge the commitment to human rights that this demonstrates, and also the openness on the part of the Garda Commissioner to direct input from leading Irish human rights bodies. I am not saying for a moment that this excellent work could not be built on or that the good progress made so far could not be taken further, but the proposed mechanism for doing this - the Garda Síochána independent board - raises real and substantial difficulties of principle and practicality.
Finally, in respect of the wider case for changes to the structure and management of the Garda Síochána, I remind Members in passing that the Haddington Road agreement of May 2013 provides for a review of the Garda Síochána. This review is to commence in September and to conclude no later than 1 June 2014. The review will encompass all aspects of the operation and administration of the force and is an opportunity for a range of options to be considered.
I now turn to the other main objective of the Bill, namely, the amendment of the provisions of the 2005 Act dealing with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Some changes could usefully be made to the 2005 Act as it applies to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, but again any change needs to be carefully considered. One proposed change in the Bill is that the board, rather than the Government, would nominate persons for appointment to the GSOC. Without going back over the difficulties I have with the concept of the board in the Bill, is it really argued that the fact that the Government nominates persons for appointment to the Garda ombudsman commission somehow compromises the latter's independence? After all, the nominations must be approved by resolutions of both Houses before the successful persons are appointed by the President. Of all the changes one might make to the 2005 Act relating to the GSOC, changing such a robust procedure would not be the first move that would come to mind. Indeed, the independence of the GSOC has been clearly illustrated and demonstrated by some of the matters that Deputy Wallace referred to in his opening remarks.
The Bill also proposes a number of other amendments, for example, restricting the scope for investigation of complaints under the Garda disciplinary process, removing the requirement for a Garda member to agree to an informal resolution of a complaint, and enabling the Garda ombudsman commission to recommend not only a disciplinary hearing, but also a sanction. I believe that some of these issues, which have been aired publicly before, are worthy of consideration, but again I have to say that we need to work though these issues carefully. Key to this consideration will be the views of the Garda ombudsman commission itself. It has made proposals to me for change, proposals that differ in some significant respects from the provisions of the Bill before the House tonight. It is these proposals that surely must be the starting point in this debate.
It will also be important to take into account the views of the Garda Commissioner. That is the process in which I am now engaged and I want to finalise any proposal for change as quickly as a proper consideration of the issues involved will allow.
I conclude by acknowledging the genuine objectives behind this Bill, but also by asking in the same spirit for an understanding of why, for the reasons of principle and practicality I have outlined, I cannot support it.
I also want to note some of the cases raised by the Deputies with regard to individuals who either believe that matters have not been properly investigated or are making allegations of misconduct against members of An Garda Síochána. If there are particular details of any of these matters that the Deputies wish to submit to me, I will have them looked into and will respond to the Deputies. I cannot comment on allegations about conduct of the nature described or difficulties in the conducting of investigations without being privy to the totality of relevant information.
The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is there to investigate allegations of misbehaviour, but there is a timeframe within which these types of investigation can be undertaken. I cannot, as Minister, supplant the role of the Garda ombudsman commission, but if Deputies have issues of concern that they want to draw to my attention, they are very welcome to do so. I will do my best to respond to them in an appropriate manner.
I conclude by thanking the Deputies for tabling this Bill. I have detailed what I see as the many flaws contained in it but it gives us an opportunity to have a considered debate and discussion. There are some amendments that we need to make to the legislation. In particular, I have made reference to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. It has particular proposals that are being taken seriously.
It is a good thing in this House that we have a debate of this nature but it is also right that we acknowledge that the Garda Síochána in the work that it has been doing has very substantial public support. Members of the force place their lives at risk on a daily basis for the protection of the public. The force has had particular success. We have had a lot of discussion in this House about the closure of Garda stations and the level of resources available but it is only fair to point out that under the leadership of the Garda Commissioner, the force has had considerable success in the context of a focused approach to the tackling of crime. In the context of that approach, we saw that the recent crime statistics showed crime over the 12-month period ending 31 March 2013 to be down overall by 8% and burglaries by 9.1%. As regards the focused Operation Fiacla that is taking place, over 5,000 individuals have been arrested and over 3,000 prosecutions have been brought.
I am very conscious that the Deputies are raising issues, but having genuflected briefly in the area of praising the members of the Garda Síochána they spent most of this evening criticising them. There are brave men and women in our Garda force and I believe it is right that we acknowledge the duty that they do to protect communities across the country.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill. I also welcome the Minister's announcement yesterday that he has received sanction from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to begin the process of recruiting to the full-time Garda Síochána force. This will mean that 2014 will be the first time in almost five years that a new class of students will enter the Garda college. This is a positive development and is a clear indication that despite the difficult economic climate that we are facing, the Government is committed to ensuring that we have adequate staff numbers in the Garda.
Returning to the Bill before us, I note that its main provision is to establish a Garda Síochána independent board, with general oversight of An Garda Síochána, removing existing functions from the Minister and the Government. I understand the objective behind this transfer of functions is to strengthen the democratic accountability of An Garda Síochána which would, in turn, apparently help to promote public confidence in the force.
On that point, I have absolute confidence in our Garda force. I know the vast majority of gardaí work extremely hard for their local community and are held in very high esteem in the areas in which they serve.
Under this Bill, it is proposed that the Garda Commissioner would have regard to the recommendations of the independent board. This would seem to indicate a lack of trust or confidence in the commissioner to do his job. The appointment of the commissioner is based on his or her ability to do the job, not on personalities, and that is how it should be. To be a commissioner one needs to have experience and a strong knowledge of the Garda Síochána in order to do what is an extremely demanding job.
This Bill will not improve the accountability of the Garda Síochána. The Garda Commissioner is accountable to the Minister who, in turn, is accountable to the House.
During the election campaign in 2011 one of the key messages we heard on the doorsteps was that nobody is accountable. I, for one, believe that Ministers should be accountable and the buck should stop with the Minister. We have a Minister who is accountable but this Bill is abdicating and absolving the Minister from his accountability. I do not agree with that. Ministers should be accountable and the current Minister, Deputy Shatter, is a very capable Minister who does not shy away from his responsibilities or hide behind unelected bodies. A perfect example that springs to mind of what we do not want is Mary Harney and the HSE.
On the issue of creating greater accountability in the Garda Síochána, it is important to point out that we have the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. It is empowered to carry out independent investigations into Garda conduct and has far-reaching powers. We also have the Garda Síochána Inspectorate which provides expert advice on achieving best practice in policing services. There is also accountability at local level through the joint policing committees which are made up of elected members and local community representatives. I sit on the County Monaghan JPC and I find it a very effective body. I make every effort to attend those meetings.
At the JPC meetings issues are raised, policing needs of the district are identified and implemented, and policing plans are prepared through consultation with JPC members. This is a practical and accountable way of doing business.
I want to acknowledge the success of Operation Fiacla, which is an intelligence-driven specific burglary initiative implemented at regional level. The fact that over 5,000 people have been arrested and almost 3,000 charged is an indication of its success.
It is important to remember that policing is not just for urban areas; it is also for country areas. Unfortunately, a lot of machinery and cattle have been stolen from farmers in my area of north County Monaghan. While I acknowledge the excellent co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána, our close proximity to the Border presents further difficulties in trying to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The most recent difficulty in this respect is that thieves are stealing copper from telephone lines which causes major problems in rural areas where the telephone is often the only means of communication, particularly for the elderly. I urge the Minister to ensure that increased resources are made available, specifically to tackle problem areas such as north Monaghan, in order to stamp out such activity once and for all.
Since the foundation of the State, the history of the Garda Síochána has been a good one. There are safeguards in place to ensure accountability and, therefore, I will not be supporting this Bill.
I am in favour of a separate Garda authority and of separating the roles of the Garda Commissioner and the Minister. In other words, I am in favour of the Bill in principle. We need more transparency, accountability and openness concerning the Garda Síochána. That also goes for all authorities in all walks of life. Everybody is talking about the need for reform but much of what is called reform has more to do with scalps on a plate, sacrificial lambs and cutbacks. Real reform would be the kind that is envisaged in this Bill, whereby powers would be devolved and thus there would be more democratic accountability.
Labour Party policy was for this kind of model, which is similar to the model adopted in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland model is considered best practice, but in developing it a large amount of consultation took place. They looked at best practice across the globe and, in addition, there was widespread consultation in the community. The idea was proposed that the police is the public and vice versa. The police are there for the public and the community, which is what policing is all about. I am not saying that aspect does not exist in our model, it does, but the idea is to make that the core of the police force. The whole idea is that community policing should be at the centre of policing activity, as well as promoting prevention rather than reaction.
We have adopted some of that model's aspects. In the aftermath of the reforms in the North, the then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, introduced the Garda Síochána Act which brought in some reforms, including the joint policing committees or JPCs. The JPCs, however, did not go as far as the equivalent policing boards in the North. In his speech, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, said he would examine the possibility of enhancing the JPCs, but we need to have a review of how those committees are working in practice. They are good forums, as such, but they do not really have any powers. In addition, the public have not bought into them.
Recently, in my local area, the gardaí have done a lot to try to improve their relationship with the public. They hold local community meetings where they consult through what are effectively policing fora. I obviously welcome that but I still feel that we did not go far enough with the joint policing committees and the Garda Síochána Act. The Bill before us is welcome and I am glad the Minister did not totally write it off. However, we are not the same as other jurisdictions such as England or smaller jurisdictions that may have a similar population to ours and have this kind of model. We are not the same as the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia. We can learn from them and use their models but, like the North, we need to develop our own model that is suitable to our needs. I agree with the principle of this Bill which is the way forward, but there needs to be consultation with all the stakeholders beforehand. That is the direction to take. We should decide that our Garda force should be independent of the Minister and have its own democratic accountable structures.
Many other issues need to be dealt with. The gardaí have huge power and while they do good work, there are problems of accountability and transparency. I raised one issue in this respect recently. The gardaí have major powers to collect information but that information should not be abused. There are also issues concerning the use of data from Pulse. All those matters need to be addressed.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Members of An Garda Síochána must be independent, uphold the law at all times and must not abuse the powers vested in them. We should trust the gardaí. I do not believe that the Bill will improve the democratic accountability of An Garda Síochána. However, I believe it will remove the direct link between the gardaí and the democratically elected representatives of the people. In establishing the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Garda Síochána Inspectorate we have significantly strengthened the accountability of An Garda Síochána.
An Garda Síochána is not just a police force or police service.
It is our security and intelligence service and the Border control authority of this State, which is often overlooked by many. It is imperative that those who carry out these functions remain directly accountable to government and that there is an onus on them to adhere to the policies implemented by the elected Members of the Oireachtas. That is our task as Members of the Legislature. Under the Haddington Road agreement a review of the Garda Síochána will take place within the next three years. This review will encompass all aspects of the operation and administration of the force. It is a necessary and long overdue review, one which it is hoped will bring about change for An Garda Síochána.
The Minister, Deputy Shatter and Deputy Flanagan spoke in their contributions about human rights and heroes. On human rights and heroes, I would like in this part of my speech to single out garda Paul Franey, who founded G-Force and has worked within An Garda Síochána to promote full rights for gay and lesbian members of the force and in the pursuit of human and civic rights for members of the Garda Síochána. It is important to recognise the work he does. Deputy Tuffy spoke about the joint policing committees, JPCs. Community garda John Long in my area does Trojan work, often at the expense of his family time, in creating a bond between local gardaí in Bishopstown and the community. He is a leader within the community, is looked up to and is an inspiration to young and old.
Despite that we are in difficult economic times, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, is committed to the provision of resources to enable gardaí to carry out their duties. He secured an additional €400 million for the Garda plans for 2012, 2013 and 2104. He has also maintained Garda numbers above proposed Fianna Fáil reductions. Only this week, he announced recommencement of recruitment to the Garda Síochána. This means that for the first time since 2009 recruits will enter the Garda college in Templemore. These are positive steps to continue the trend of the commitment of An Garda Síochána to serve the people. Its task is to serve and police. The steps I have mentioned will strengthen the Garda Síochána and provide much needed employment to many young well educated people, including members of the Garda Reserve.
On the joint policing committees, I am a member of the joint policing committees in Cork city, Passage West and Anglesea Street. They are a important fora through which gardaí, communities and businesses can work together to curb and reduce crime. The latest crime statistics from An Garda Síochána in regard to Cork indicate that property crime has decreased by 4%, crime against the person has decreased by 5% and criminal damage and public order offences have decreased by 18%. These are welcome decreases. It is vital we continue to invest in and provide resources for the Garda Síochána.
The decision to recommence recruitment and to invest in the Garda fleet will provide much needed additional resources to allow An Garda Síochána continue its work in helping to reduce crime and work with communities to curb the threat of criminals.
I thank Deputy Wallace for introducing this detailed Bill, the principles of which I broadly welcome. There are just under 13,500 members of An Garda Síochána working to keep the peace across this country. Their hard work and dedication down through the decades has kept the country safe from the scourge of criminality, the threat to usurp the democratic stability and security of this State in the name of republicanism and the forces of violence that would plunge this country into chaos. As a primarily unarmed forced, it has achieved a level of co-operation and respect from the community which, I believe, is envied across the globe.
For me, the force represents a critical institution of the State, committed to protecting citizens and upholding the highest standards of justice. It is at times nauseating to listen to some members of Sinn Féin berate and praise the force, in equal measure, in this House. In this regard, one has only to look to recent history and the impact of the murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe on society and the force. It is without doubt that the vacuum of lawlessness across the Border created by Sinn Féin and some of its supporters allowed such a heinous crime to be committed, with little chance of the perpetrators ever being brought to justice. Members of An Garda Síochána can take immense pride in their accomplishments and their proud historic record. It is a tradition that it has kept even in the midst of severe cutbacks and unprecedented financial and logistical pressures.
During the past two years, the thin blue line has been stretched even thinner by the Government as it systematically dismantled the security infrastructure of this State through the whittling away of Garda numbers and the closure of stations across the country. I am all too familiar with the extent to which both have impacted on people from County Clare, which I represent, to the suburbs of Dublin. The erosion of Garda vehicles and the depletion of the logistical support have all made the task of An Garda Síochána that much more difficult and tougher. They now face an even more complex and complicated criminal mindset. Despite these challenges, the dedication of members of An Garda Síochána remains widely respected as it continues to fulfil its role in our society. The sensitive and special position of the police in any democratic State requires a delicate balancing act to ensure it enjoys public support, is subject to genuine accountability and is capable of carrying out its duties in keeping the peace.
A number of instances during the past few years have illustrated the need to reform the system of accountability in Ireland to ensure that the force continues to enjoy popular respect and the vital support of the public. It is axiomatic that power without accountability corrupts. We have paid the price for this in the country across too many areas. It is vital that An Garda Síochána is fully scrutinised and held to account. I say that in the full belief that any further work in this regard will seek to strengthen the force, ensure its members retain the respect so hard fought for down through the years and ensures the premier role of An Garda Síochána as a police force. I believe that the Government cannot be the sole guardian of this crucial role. The power must be effectively diffused to ensure that the work of the force is fully opened up to the light of transparency.
The expansion of the role, remit and investigatory powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is a welcome measure to copperfasten public faith in the Garda Síochána. The recently unseemly dispute between the Office of the GSOC and the Garda Commissioner illustrated for me the need for a constructive working relationship between the force and that particular body. A breakdown in relations between the GSOC and An Garda Síochána is unsustainable for the maintenance of public trust in the justice system. It is important that the resources of the Garda Síochána are adequate to ensure it is not stifled by the burden of paperwork and administration and is capable of sufficiently dealing with the issues raised by the GSOC.
From a Fianna Fáil perspective, steps towards strengthening the role of the Ombudsman and clarifying its relationship with the force are welcome. Expanding the remit of the Ombudsman to encompass an investigatory role independent of complaints is a measure which I believe will enable it to fulfil its role in upholding the public interest. The public interest is vital in terms of the relationship between it and An Garda Síochána. In my view, the Ombudsman should be empowered to undertake investigatory action to tackle any latent or growing concerns. There is little doubt that some members of An Garda Síochána believe that some of the complaints against them are frivolous, vindictive, unfair and unnecessary. Some of these actions do tarnish the reputation of individual members. It is important there is respect by An Garda Síochána for the Ombudsman and that it can be assured that complaints will be investigated thoroughly and fairly and will not be done in a way that seeks to in any way diminish the work of the Garda Síochána. I know from personal experience the difficult and important work gardaí do and of their concerns in regard to false allegations, in terms of how they react to a particular event, being made against them.
The challenges facing the Garda Síochána should never be under-estimated. These are no different to those faced by other professionals, be they doctors, firemen, nurses and so on. There are occasions when a garda can make a wrong call. Where this happens the reputation of the garda should not be denigrated. This is what lies at the heart of much of the concern of the police force of this State, whose members seek to do their job in a thorough and professional manner.
All of us accept that we sometimes make a wrong call or take the wrong decision. In light of the events of the past week, this may apply to some Members more than others.
A strong Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission should be empowered to undertake investigative action to tackle any latent or growing concerns. This is the kernel of the issue. Clarifying time limits and enhancing the responsiveness of the Garda is a critical part of creating a fully functioning independent Garda ombudsman in which members of the public will have faith. The recent dispute between the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and Garda Síochána over response timelines cannot be allowed to fester and grow to the detriment of public trust in the system.
I caution that the significant increase in the powers and duties of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission require a corresponding expansion of its resources to ensure it can fully conduct its work. Difficulties arise when organisations are not provided with resources commensurate with their powers. It is also necessary to ensure the Garda Síochána is fully resourced because gardaí are often stretched to an inordinate degree and sometimes work far beyond the call of duty. On occasion, this makes it difficult for individual gardaí to make the correct judgment. For this reason, the police force must be resourced adequately to enable members of the public to expect the outcomes they deserve. A further burden is being placed on the already strained resources of the Garda Síochána.
We cannot reasonably expect bodies to do more with the same resources. In the case of the Garda Síochána, it has fewer resources as a result of the cuts it has endured. If we are undertaking meaningful reform, the Garda must receive sufficient resources to implement required changes. To do otherwise would be to engage in a form of window dressing that would detract from the Garda's fundamental duties to keep the peace, to protect the security of the State and to bring those who deserve to face the rigours of the law before the justice system.
After a false dawn earlier this year, yesterday's announcement that the Minister is reopening Templemore must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless, it is a welcome step towards ensuring we have access to sufficient Garda personnel to carry out the tasks of the force. Regardless of what safeguards and oversight mechanisms are put in place, an underresourced police force struggling to carry out its basic task will not enjoy public support.
The idea of a new independent board to assume much of the responsibility currently exercised by the Minister is a welcome step towards the effective depoliticisation of the police force. Similar to the reinvigorated Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, the creation of an independent board insulates the force from undue political interference, which would critically damage the central role of the concept of policing by consent. It is important that the independence of the board is fully respected. It must not be transformed into a glorified proxy for the Minister. In the past two and a half years, the Government has displayed blatant cronyism in its appointments to the boards under its control. The safety checks inserted in the Bill to ensure a diffusion of power must be maintained if the board is to be truly independent.
The role of the board in joint policing committees is especially important. As other speakers noted, community policing starts in the community and must enjoy the co-operation of local people. A strong link between the Garda and local communities through the forum of local government is important and should be further developed. Accountability, co-operation and responsiveness of the police force to its respective local area should be reviewed by the board and advanced to give a meaningful role to local representatives and organisations. The joint policing committee structure forms the bones of an effective mechanism to engage local communities in one of the most basic duties of the State, namely, to protect its citizens.
At a time when Garda stations are being closed and sold off, elderly people are living in fear of the threat of rural crime and resources are being stretched to breaking point, it is increasingly important that neighbourhoods feed into the Garda Síochána's work to ensure successful outcomes and the prosecution of the perpetrators of many of the crimes that bedevil our communities. At the same time, the Garda must uphold the highest standards of human rights in keeping with the democratic nature of the State it protects. A code of practice that enshrines these rights should be at the heart of the operations of the force. Citizens should know that their police force is based on these guiding principles. A new code that sets out the basic operating principles, one which has been reviewed by the board and Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, will help ensure that public trust in the Garda, which is a key theme of all reforms, is maintained.
The relationship between the Garda Commissioner and Minister is one of the most sensitive in the State. The exchange of confidential information and strategic discussions concerning individual citizens and the broader security situation are a crucial part of their working connection. The recent furore over the Minister's breach of trust with the Commissioner exposed the fragile nature of this relationship. Revelations on air on a television programme targeted the proposer of this Bill, Deputy Mick Wallace, and illustrated a failure by the Minister to uphold the basic integrity of his working role. The Minister's actions were nothing less than a betrayal of his ministerial seal.
Placing the power of appointment with the board marks a departure from the direct ministerial oversight the Minister has shown himself incapable of properly conducting. Diffusing power from the Minister and vesting it in an independent representative board will radically transform this relationship. The Garda will suffer if members of the public perceive that the Garda Commissioner is being exploited for crude political gain by the Minister. This scenario must be avoided.
Recent years have been extremely challenging for the Garda Síochána. However, members of the force have risen to the task with admirable determination despite the significant cuts they have had to endure. As legislators, we have a duty to ensure the Garda is capable of continuing to do so and ordinary gardaí struggling to carry out their duties are given the fullest possible support. One element of this support is the institutional framework of oversight and scrutiny that ensures members of the public have full faith and trust in the Garda Síochána. It is through policing by consent that the peace is kept and the Garda is able to do its job. The Bill proposes a series of measures which will assist in copperfastening public trust and securing the basis for policing by consent.
In light of the controversies into which it has slumped, the Government is obliged to ensure the highest standards apply in its dealings with the Garda Síochána and its crucial and critical role in the State is subjected to full scrutiny.
It is vital that the work of the House, in framing legislation and introducing measures to strengthen the role of the Garda Síochána and addressing important issues of transparency, is done in co-operation with the Garda Síochána and in an understanding of the environment within which many gardaí work. As I noted, many police officers work in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, with limited back-up and resources. On occasion, they work longer hours than they are paid to do. We must frame the relationship between the Garda Síochána and Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission in a manner that takes cognisance of this. I do not know any member of the Garda who does not want wrongdoing in the force weeded out at the earliest opportunity and with the greatest haste. As with any other citizen, the perpetrators of wrongdoing in the Garda must be brought to justice. Those who are found to have been criminally negligent or to have engaged in criminal activity must be removed from the force and subject to the full rigours of the law. This is a fundamental aspect of ensuring that the good men and women of the Garda who work so diligently are protected and supported in their job.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a phrase often used in legal circles and the judicial system. It means "Who will guard the guards themselves?" Simply put, the purpose of the legislation before the House is to answer this question by ensuring gardaí who do wrong in the name of the law are brought to justice. Sinn Féin has long called for greater oversight of the Garda and was among the first to call for an independent Garda ombudsman. In our view, it was necessary to establish an ombudsman's office similar to that which exists in the North. In 2005, for example, at the time of the Morris tribunal, Pat Doherty MP stated the following:
Many questions about serious Garda misconduct in all parts of the State remain unanswered.... This is a systemic problem we have to confront. It is long past the time for the establishment of the fully independent complaints procedure under a single Garda Ombudsman.It is worth remembering in the context of this legislation that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was established for a reason. It came about as a result of considerable campaigning and debate following the revelations of the Morris tribunal. Following much public pressure, it was established with a view to being seen to do something about Garda reform. From the beginning, Sinn Féin's view was that the commission did not have adequate powers or the ability truly to assert its independence.
As early as 2008 Deputy Ó Snodaigh noted that there were delays in responding to and progressing complaints, failure to return calls, failure to adhere to the commission's timeframe commitments and failure to provide reasons for decisions, thereby undermining the credibility of the process.