Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
An Garda Síochána
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 13, inclusive, together.
A Policing Service for our Future is the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. As recommended in the commission's report, implementation of the plan is being overseen by a dedicated programme office in the Department of the Taoiseach. The policing reform implementation programme office monitors progress on the strategy, supports the work of the implementation group on policing reform and keeps the high-level steering board on policing reform and the Government apprised of the progress being made. The programme office has been resourced with appropriate expertise in the areas of project management, policing, justice and public service reform.
A Policing Service for our Future is a living document which is reviewed and updated by the policing reform implementation programme office, as required, to maintain ambitious but realistic commitments, timeframes and milestones. A Policing Service for our Future is broken down into four stages of implementation: the building blocks phase, which is of six months duration; the launching phase, which is of six months duration; the scaling phase, which is of 18 months duration; and the consolidation phase, which is of 12 to 18 months duration as currently envisaged. The first two phases of A Policing Service for our Future - the building blocks and launching phases - have been completed and much has already been achieved. For example, there has been roll-out of a new operating model for An Garda Síochána, designed to streamline Garda administration and to provide a more visible, responsive and localised policing service to communities nationwide. An Garda Síochána has established and strengthened resourcing of a human rights unit and re-established the strategic human rights advisory committee. The National Security Analysis Centre has been established. We have seen the roll-out of over 3,250 mobile data stations, which have been deployed as part of An Garda Síochána's mobility project.
It also includes the development by An Garda Síochána of an equality, diversity and inclusion strategy statement and action plan 2020-2021 and, recently, An Garda Síochána launched its three-year Garda health and well-being strategy, which will see the introduction of additional health and well-being supports.
There has also been progress on legislative reform. The Government has recently published the general scheme of the landmark policing, security and community safety Bill which provides for the most wide-ranging and coherent reform of policing in a generation and the general scheme of the Garda Síochána (digital recordings) Bill, which concerns the use of recording devices, including body-worn cameras. Progress continues to be made also in relation to the codification of legislation defining police powers of arrest, search and detention.
These measures and achievements represent only some of the wide range of actions being progressed under the strategy and further detailed information on the implementation of the reform programme is available on gov.ie.
Progress since early 2020 has been impacted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The third phase of the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the scaling phase, was originally scheduled to commence in early 2020. However, as the scaling phase was being finalised, Covid-19 and the response required became a factor to be considered. I have been encouraged to see the responsiveness and flexibility shown by An Garda Síochána in dealing with the demands of this unprecedented situation. The third phase of A Policing Service for our Future, the scaling phase, commenced in October 2020 and is published on gov.ie. This is the critical phase of the programme of reform, during which the programme gains momentum. The delivery of the majority of the actions will be started or executed during the scaling phase. The Implementation Group on Policing Reform and Policing Reform Implementation Programme Office have been, and continue to be, actively engaged with key stakeholders to ensure continued momentum on reform, insofar as possible, in the current circumstances.
The Taoiseach will be aware the last Dáil and Seanad voted on four motions calling for a public inquiry into the circumstances that led to the death of Shane O'Farrell in August 2011. Rather than implement the will of the Dáil and Seanad, the then-Government introduced a scoping exercise led by Judge Haughton. That was to have been completed by May 2020, then September, then December, then this March and then this April. I am sure the Taoiseach will appreciate the delay is causing ongoing distress to Shane's family. It has been protracted and it is unjustifiable at this stage. Will the Taoiseach assure the family that it will be completed as soon as possible and a decision on a public inquiry will not be delayed any further after that?
An Garda Síochána has undergone massive reform in recent years, which was badly needed. One reform was moving the promotions and appointments system of the Garda to the remit of an independent oversight agency which we believe was essential. The Labour Party set up the Policing Authority. It demanded it was set up in order to remove these appointments from the Commissioner. An independent body making senior appointments is something we really fought for. The Commission on Policing has recommended this be reversed. We believe that is a fundamental mistake and we will oppose it passionately. My colleague, Deputy Howlin, has been to the fore on this. Our main concern is the removal of the appointment of senior garda officers from the Policing Authority and restoring it to the Commissioner. We know where this has got us before. I note the programme for Government has taken on some of the commission's report but I urge the Taoiseach to reconsider this. We believe the current appointments system for senior people in An Garda Síochána works much better and is more transparent and focused when it lies with an independent body rather than at the discretion of one person, namely, the Commissioner of the day.
The Taoiseach's statement looked very much at the policing service of the future but in order to make reforms for the future we must also look at the past, and at the record of GSOC in particular. Sinn Féin has already referred to the inquiry on behalf of the family of Shane O'Farrell. I want to talk about two other outstanding issues on behalf of families. When someone dies either in police custody or directly at the hands of the police, invariably they are from a working class background. That has been notable throughout the history of the State. Terence Wheelock died in 2005 in police custody. GSOC's investigation and report was completely unsatisfactory to the family. Similarly, George Nkencho's family have been very dissatisfied and frustrated and disappointed with GSOC's behaviour since new year's eve. Is it sufficient that gardaí investigate gardaí, particularly in cases where working class people such as Terence Wheelock and George Nkencho have died at the hands of gardaí?
It is reported that yesterday the Cabinet agreed to seek to extend the sweeping Garda emergency powers to November with a possible extension all the way to February 2022. Shamefully, while political parties have been exempted from the ban on gatherings, workers' pickets and socially distanced protests have been effectively banned for over a year. Recently, taxi drivers were threatened with criminal action if they went ahead with their planned car cavalcade even though every protester would have been inside their own car. On Monday night, the gardaí were used yet again against the Debenhams protesters. We saw the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign being threatened with prosecution if it went ahead with last Saturday's protest in solidarity with Palestine. Right now, 60 people can sit together on a bus, hundreds are gathered in factories, shopping centres and beyond but if they are holding a placard rather than a shopping bag, they face criminal action. That is shameful. My question is very simple: will the Government scrap this draconian imposition and ban on the right to protest?
Twenty years ago, Amnesty Ireland carried out what might have been the first large-scale survey of Ireland's black and ethnic minority communities. Some 54% polled said that they did not feel confident to report a racist incident to a garda. Twenty years on, how much has changed? The recent survey by Youth Against Racism and Inequality interviewed people of colour and Travellers. Some 35% said they had the experience of being stopped by a garda for no apparent reason and 45% reported feeling humiliation and 42% reported feeling fearful after such an incident. What steps are the Government prepared to take to address this? Has there been any change in thinking whatever around the repeated call from the Nkencho family that rather than an inquiry by GSOC, there should be a full independent public inquiry into the killing of that young man?
On Deputy Mac Lochlainn's question, I want the scoping review completed as soon as possible. It has been a very traumatic journey for the family of Shane O'Farrell. I have been in touch with them on an ongoing basis. Deputy McGuinness and others have raised this consistently in the House. Scoping reviews can be effective in terms of subsequent inquiries. I do not know if Covid is a factor in the delay in completing the review but I have spoken to the Minister for Justice on this. Obviously, once the review starts we cannot interfere but we understand the need to bring this to a conclusion and take decisions on it.
Deputy Kelly raised something that has been the subject of ongoing political debate. The Labour Party-Fine Gael Government brought in the Policing Authority, particularly its role in the appointment of senior positions, whereas the Commission on the Future of Policing took a different view and put forward an alternative view. I had discussions with the commission, as have many others, when it was doing its work. It was of the view that there was a multiplicity of bodies to which the Garda had become accountable, including the Oireachtas, and there needed to be some streamlining, which is part of the issue.
I am of the view that if we establish a commission to carry out a wide-ranging examination of An Garda Síochána, with a view to preparing it for the future, there will always be a difficulty associated with picking the pieces one likes oneself as opposed to accounting for the overall coherence of the recommendations of the commission. We should afford an opportunity to drive through the commission's recommendations and have them implemented.
Deputy Bríd Smith raised GSOC and the Terence Wheelock and Nkencho family cases. As I said last week, we have to create proper, independent processes of investigation. GSOC involves one such process. Everything cannot become a public inquiry either because we know how long public inquiries can take. They can take years.
Yes. We all need to reflect on this a little. Ultimately, we have to have faith in our services and strengthen their capacity to serve in accordance with the principles and policies we lay down here in the Oireachtas. That means constant interaction with the authorities and management bodies. It also means proper internal and external accountability structures. There is a challenge here for all of us. I am a parliamentarian like all Members present and we all call for specific investigations or inquiries but there needs to be a systemic approach that is robust, resilient and independent.
Deputy Paul Murphy surprised me. He seems to have a very anti-Garda approach. I do know what it is about but he is constantly negative about An Garda Síochána. I have to disagree with him. I am confused as to what position is. He said there should be large gatherings, although he might call them protests or otherwise, in the middle of Covid but at the same time he calls for zero Covid. That does not tally. The Garda has been put in the unenviable position of having to implement very restrictive public health measures. The Deputy wanted to make them even more restrictive. He wanted to make them more restrictive. He wanted to make travel virtually non-existent. He wanted all shops closed and all hospitality closed. He did not care at all about the rights of people in the hospitality sector. He said this. He accused us of yielding to the lobbyists. He calls them lobbyists, not people. He does not say they are people with human rights who have interests as well and who are legitimately entitled to articulate their view.
That is not a balanced approach. The legislation will be debated in the House. I would have believed the Deputy would support it because it enables us to restrict the journey of the virus. That is the crucial part of it all. It is a matter of keeping the numbers down and trying to achieve some semblance of normality and to reduce severe illness, mortality and the numbers of hospitalisations and admissions to intensive care. That is the purpose of the legislative framework but we do not want that going on forever. The powers are still necessary, however. We just witnessed the effects of the Indian variant in the UK, for example, so we have to be constantly alert to what could become superspreader events, which the Deputy seems to want to encourage now and more generally.
On Deputy Barry's point, the gardaí are rooted in the community. The vast majority of the Irish people trust An Garda Síochána. That has to be said. If one were to listen to the proceedings of the past 20 minutes, one would think An Garda Síochána was an oppressive force out to do down the community. It is not; it is rooted in the community and its policies and procedures are designed to work and engage with people and encourage compliance, particularly regarding public health. Penalties are its last resort. That has always been its position.
More broadly, the objective of the policing reforms is to embed the Garda in the community in a positive way. Deputy Bríd Smith and I have witnessed the Garda leading the way for the past 20 or 30 years in working-class areas, including some very disadvantaged areas. It has done so by developing community buses, for example, and driving kids with challenges to sports occasions. The Garda has done a lot of unsung work quietly in the background for many disadvantaged working-class youths. That needs to be put on the record also and acknowledged.