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Opinion: 'Public inquiries are not just a diversionary tactic. They're necessary'

We need to recognise public enquiries as a means to achieve real changes, writes Dr Fiona Donson.

Dr Fiona Donson Law lecturer

LAST WEEK, THE Garda Commissioner appeared at the Oireachtas Justice Committee and apologised “for the grave mistakes and wrongdoing during the last decade”.

She went on to state that the current problems faced by the force could not be attributed to an individual, but that the force was collectively responsible.

The apology, combined with an acknowledgement of system failure, does little to remedy the problems faced by An Garda Síochána regarding both their operational and trust problems.

An abundance of inquiries

An Garda Síochána can hardly be seen as a body that has been free from scrutiny in recent years.

Going back a decade, the force was scrutinised in the Morris Inquiry. Its report, published in 2008, made wide ranging recommendations for change. However, despite effecting some reform many of the recommendations were either ignored or watered down.

In the aftermath of the Morris Inquiry, Dr Vicky Conway noted in her book, The Blue Wall of Silence, that a “cultural shift” was needed in relation to how An Garda Síochána and the country more generally thinks about policing, and that reforms should take place in a manner that is underpinned by a clear vision of policing.

She correctly cautioned that without such a change we were destined to continue on a “well-worn path of police scandal – police reform – lessening attention – police scandal.”

Policing scandals

Nearly ten years later An Garda Síochána are once again the subject of policing scandals. Between 2013 and March 2017 at least 15 inquiries have been established. These many inquiries are primarily focused on fact finding and accountability.

However, their very existence underpins the shortcomings of the “normal” oversight mechanisms such as the Garda Ombudsman.

The inquiries themselves struggle to achieve clear accountability. The Garda Commissioner’s declaration that the current crisis arose out of system failure effectively prevents effective accountability from taking place. This is because no one is identified as being to blame; no one is to be held directly accountable.

In addition, the establishment of multiple inquiries leads to a view that they are simply a diversionary tactic producing nothing of value and costing the taxpayers significant sums of money.

In effect, we have a critical disconnect between the existence of such inquiries and effective reform in our public bodies. It is easy to blame public inquiries for this, but such inquiries are only needed because of a failure in our accountability structures to begin with.

How can effective reform be achieved?

Given the establishment of numerous public inquiries, we are now faced with a likely array of findings and reform recommendations relating to An Garda Síochána.

In the past, such recommendations have tended to be only partially adopted, often watered down and implemented only after significant delays. If real and positive change is to be achieved in the aftermath of the current cluttered field of inquiries it will be necessary to have a clear overview of reform more generally and the potential impact of any such recommendations.

Also needed is a clear political commitment to effect change. A key criticism of public inquiries is that they allow governments to kick the ball down the road. No corrective action is said to be needed until the inquiry reports, yet by the time is does report the crisis has long since been forgotten.

So public inquiries need to commit to implementing real reform based on their work.

The opportunity offered by a “root and branch” review

Last week the government committed itself to establishing an external review of An Garda Síochána.

It is not yet clear what form that inquiry will take but there is talk of it resembling the Patten Commission which led to policing reform in Northern Ireland.

If it follows this model it would be a reform mechanism undertaken by independent policing experts from other jurisdictions. Such an inquiry should also engage directly with the public in a consultative manner holding public hearings.

There is merit in this type of body; it has the potential to deliver a significant reform programme based on an agreed understanding of how we should be policed today.

Developing an overview of reform recommendations

Such a body might also have an important role to play in relation to developing an overview of reform recommendations from previous and ongoing inquiries.

A model for this can be found in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia.

As part of its remit, the Royal Commission published research into previous inquiry recommendations along with the factors which contributed to the successful implementation of recommendations and the barriers which prevented implementation.

It would be extremely constructive if an external review of An Garda Síochána adopted a similar approach. Such research would provide not only a clear picture of the recommendations which have been produced over the last decade but also an essential insight into what recommendations have been implemented and what factors can bring about effective reform in An Garda Síochána.

Public inquiries are often viewed as devices that can deflect criticism until some point in the distant future. Instead we need to recognise them as tools which can achieve both accountability and reform.

Designing into such inquiries mechanisms which will help to achieve real change is therefore critical.

Dr Fiona Donson is a lecturer in the Law School, University College Cork researching in the areas of Administrative Law and Criminal Justice. Fiona’s book, Law and Public Administration in Ireland (with Dr Darren O’Donovan) was published by Clarus Press in 2015. She is currently conducting research into the role and operation of public inquiries and Oireachtas inquiries as accountability mechanisms.

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About the author:

Dr Fiona Donson  / Law lecturer

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