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He hasn't gone away you know: Michael McDowell at MacGill tonight. Screengrab/Donegal County Council

Michael McDowell doesn't think much of the government's plans to reform the guards

The former justice minister has been speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties tonight.

Updated 22.25pm 

FORMER JUSTICE MINISTER Michael McDowell has hit out at the government’s planned reforms to An Garda Síochána, saying that control of the force should remain in the hands of the government. 

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties tonight, McDowell made clear his opposition to the idea of an independent policing authority as has been proposed by the government in recent months.

In her speech, justice minister Frances Fitzgerald outlined her plans to restore the public’s confidence in the gardaí and said that McDowell’s concerns were relevant and that he had raised “serious questions” that would be examined in drafting the reforms.

In his address, McDowell also said the circumstances surrounding Fitzgerald’s appointment were “murky at best”.

McDowell said the failure of the Taoiseach to explain events surrounding former garda commissioner Martin Callinan’s departure to the Dáil was an “abdication from one of the cornerstones of our democratic system”.

‘Distance from blame’

He also criticised planned garda reforms and questioned the wisdom of removing oversight of the gardaí from the government and giving it to an independent policing authority comparing such a body to the HSE or the RTÉ board.

McDowell said such a situation would allow the government to distance themselves from any blame when things go wrong in the force.

“I don’t believe it’s a good idea for that State to divest itself of responsibility and distance themselves from blame,” he told an audience at the Highlands Hotel in the Donegal village.

He maintained that the executive should retain the power to hire and fire the garda commissioner and control budgets.

During a question and answer session, McDowell also said that “there is a disease in An Garda Síochána… of indifference and cynicism” though he added that the “great majority” of the force do not suffer from the disease.

He said that he was “sickened” by the abuse of the garda disciplinary system which in some cases sees guards “being hammered for tiny things” but bigger issues are let go.

Fitzgerald’s response

In her speech, Fitzgerald said that McDowell had raised “relevant questions”.

“There are serious questions about the security issues and how they are managed in the context of establishing the garda authority,” she said.

Of the reforms brought in 2005 under Michael McDowell, Fitzgerald said that while they were “excellent reforms” they were a missed opportunity in that they did not address “root and branch issues of basic policing” that arose after the Morris Tribunal into garda corruption in Donegal.

In her prepared remarks Fitzgerald said she sees it as her duty to stand back from the gardaí. Her predecessor Alan Shatter was widely perceived to have been too close to the former commissioner Callinan.

Fitzgerald said it was “not the right to do” to intervene directly in the affairs of An Garda Síochána, saying: ”I also see my duty as standing back from An Garda Síochána.  It is a curious thing: when a state agency hits a major problem, boundaries erode.

She added: “The right thing for the Minister for Justice to do is to lay down the non-negotiables: the standards, the directions, the absolute requirements of An Garda Síochána.

“The wrong thing for the Minister for Justice to do is to make the decisions Garda management should make, informed by the input of every member of the force and – just as important – by the input and expectations of the public.”

While the minister said that the totality of what the gardaí do is “professional, good and necessary” the “pockets of misconduct and cover up” should not be ignored.

‘An elected dictatorship’

Former Irish Times editor and Garda Ombudsman commissioner Conor Brady said that government reforms to the garda force had been introduced on an “ad-hoc basis” and had often been “too little and too late”.

He said the Department of Justice has been unwilling to cede its control over the gardaí and questioned whether planned reforms would work.

“I have a doubt that the Department of Justice will cede the authority that it had over the commissioner. Authority that was broadened and put under a statutory footing [in 2005],” Brady said.

Professor Dermot Walsh said that the concentration of garda powers in central government is not the norm in common law countries. He called for the establishment of a Patten-style commission.

He said that Ireland is heading down the road of “an elected dictatorship” with the powers gardaí have been given in recent years.

He said reforms introduced after the Morris Tribunal into garda corruption on Donegal offer “merely the appearance of accountability”.

Acting garda commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan is due to address the MacGill Summer School tomorrow evening.

  • will be bringing you rolling coverage from the Glenties all this week and you can follow @oconnellhugh for updates.

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