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Gardaí self-reflection on failings wouldn't have happened five years ago, Policing Authority chair says

Josephine Feehily said yesterday that An Garda Síochána has evolved as an organisation since 2014.

Policing Authority Chairperson Josephine Feehily
Policing Authority Chairperson Josephine Feehily
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

FIVE YEARS AGO, the gardaí would not have demonstrated the same level of self-reflection it is demonstrating today, according to the person who heads the independent body tasked with pushing reform for An Garda Síochána.

Josephine Feehily will soon step down from her position on the Policing Authority and said yesterday that the force has changed “quite significantly” in that time. 

The Policing Authority was set up on the back of numerous scandals that had plagued An Garda Síochána and, five years on, Feehily said the force is a “growing organisation” and its ability to identify issues and address them has improved considerably. 

She hands the reins over to ex-RTÉ director-general Bob Collins, who spoke alongside Feehily at a press conference in Dublin yesterday.

Feehily did not mince her words when describing the internal garda review which found flaws in 28 homicide investigations

While she said what was highlighted was “inherently worrying”, she did highlight how gardaí in this instance have demonstrated a candour in critically examining its own investigations.

“The gardaí as an institution has evolved in the past five years,” she said. “A senior officer said to me about two years in ‘I think we finally realise when you ask for something you expect to get it’.

And that only took two years. And that’s something they have a greater awareness of – the reality of oversight and the fact that oversight isn’t going away.

Tumultuous times

Feehily was chosen to be the first chairperson of the Policing Authority in November 2014, which wasn’t formally established until 1 January 2016. 

She brought with her over 40 years of experience in large organisations, and her prior role was chairperson of the Revenue Commissioners.

At the time, the government said that the Policing Authority was tasked with holding the garda commissioner to account in relation to all policing services while also developing a key role in the future appointment of senior garda management. 

It’s important to bear in mind what a tumultuous year 2014 was for An Garda Síochána, after a slew of scandals had plagued the police force.

At the beginning of the year, then-Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan used the phrase “quite disgusting” in the context of whistleblowers who were highlighting wrongdoing in An Garda Síochána. 

Sergeant Maurice McCabe had been one of those who came forward to expose issues around penalty points and flaws in investigations. 

Mr Justice Peter Charleton would later say that McCabe was subject to a smear campaign after he began to highlight this wrongdoing, and criticised the culture within An Garda Síochána.

Even before that Tribunal sat for over 100 days and Judge Charleton compiled his report in 2018, what was emerging about the gardaí – penalty points, GSOC bugging controversy and later the “phantom” breath tests – forced the government’s hand in attempting to reform the gardaí.

The Policing Authority was one mechanism by which this reform could be created, as a body to act as an independent oversight for the gardaí.

Then-Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said it was “at the core of the government’s justice reform programme”. 

It was given responsibility for the nominating of people to be appointed to the posts of garda commissioner and deputy garda commissioner, appointing people to the ranks of superintendent, chief superintendent and assistant commissioner.

It was also told it must review the adequacy of garda corporate governance and structures, the recruitment and training of new gardaí and review the adequacy of how gardaí measures its performance and accountability.

And it has pushed the gardaí over the years on numerous areas, and often been outspoken in its criticism.

In 2016, the authority expressed a “deep unease” at garda management culture after the publication of the O’Higgins Commission report. Feehily said the “recurring deficiencies in policing performance” highlighted in that report were “deeply troubling”. 

In February 2017, when the errors Tusla made in the McCabe case came to light and the Disclosures Tribunal was set up, Feehily said that the authority had found some deficiencies in the policy of An Garda Síochana on the issue of protected disclosures,.

“We shared those back with the gardaí,” she said. “They accepted some of our recommendations. Some took a little bit of encouragement for them to accept and others have not been accepted just yet.”

Self-reflection

According to Feehily, this is something that has changed within An Garda Síochána in the past five years. Where it may previously have been reticent to accept change and push through reform, there is more of a self-reflective attitude within the gardaí, according to Feehily.

She cited the words of Judge Charleton in the Disclosures Tribunal report as gardaí needing to look inwards and be able to identify wrongdoing or processes that need improving being necessary before it could change. 

Mr Justice Charleton wrote: “Central to any reform of An Garda Síochána is not any new structure, but that the organisation should be able to look at itself honestly and to identify its own faults.

The police should interrogate their own mistakes objectively. Unconsciously, an internal police inquiry may fail to come to an entirely appropriate conclusion. This may be because of unconscious protection of each other by those under investigation. They should not stand up for each other.
The attitude of our police force, of all of our public service, has to be that of duty to the public, to victims of crime, and to the taxpayer. Duty to Ireland is above group loyalty. That lesson badly needs to be learned by our police force.

In its commentary on the homicide case failings, the Policing Authority was clear that for public confidence in the gardaí to be ensured it must act on the recommendations made “in their totality and quickly”. 

However, it also said there “is a maturing evidence in this report in the Garda Síochána ability and attitude towards self-critique and reflection”. 

Feehily said this ability for self-reflection wasn’t evident when she started her work as Policing Authority chair.

“Oversight isn’t just about your performance,” she said. “It drives change within your organisation. 

I prefer to see it in terms of evolution… so it’s not one thing that has caused it. It’s rather a landscape that has been changing and it has changed quite significantly in five years, driven both by legislation, oversight and some internal dynamics.

She emphasised that the Policing Authority had to repeatedly verify that the gardaí were following through on their commitments to reform. ”But these matters had to be consistently put on agendas.”

Citing the recommendations made in the context of the homicide investigation flaws, Feehily added that it was “quite refreshing” that the gardaí would tell themselves that there are deficits needed to be address and commit to doing so. 

TheJournal.ie asked would such a situation have been possible five years ago, and Feehily responded “it wouldn’t have happened”. 

She steps down as chairperson on 31 December 2019.

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Sean Murray

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