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Prof Donncha O’Connell We need a calm and measured assessment of policing after the riots

As the dust settles on the riots, the professor of law says oversight of An Garda Síochána must not be sacrificed.

NO AMOUNT OF punditry can avoid the near certainty that the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, will survive because if she does not a general election will ensue and a general election must be avoided at all costs.

The Garda Commissioner can thank ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) for his survival prospects. His position may be bolstered, ironically, by the fact that he doesn’t even have a deputy commissioner. But what a mess they are both in right now. And, yet again, the Department of Justice is concomitantly front and centre in a political crisis.

In responding to the fallout from last week’s riots in the North Inner City, both the Minister and Commissioner have been less than convincing. Lashing out the next day at ‘thugs’ and ‘hooligans’ might have satisfied a need for some rhetorical fightback, while also diluting a belated focus on the insidious effectiveness of the Far Right, but it was little more than a calumny on beleaguered communities struggling to cope with alienated young men and other challenges.

Misguided response

Following up with a revived plan to introduce facial recognition technology and extend its use to public order offences, a dangerous gimmick discredited elsewhere, showed just how desperate things were getting in the Department of Justice.

Asking the Policing Authority to delineate with clarity when and how force can be used in public order policing was really taking the biscuit, especially in light of the fact that the Garda Inspectorate published a detailed report on precisely this matter in 2019 and the Policing Authority engaged publicly with the Commissioner and his team on that report in 2020.

Is the Minister for Justice seriously asking the primary oversight body to tell the leadership of the policing service how to conduct public order policing in the abstract, and then hold that policing service to account in concrete situations when controversies arise about excessive or insufficient use of force? This is not what the Policing Authority exists to do, and it is certainly not how things should be done.

It is over five years since the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was published. All of the recommendations of the Commission, bar one relating to the use of Garda ‘presenters’ in the District Court, were accepted by the Government. An ambitious implementation process was commenced under the auspices of the Department of An Taoiseach.

Short memories

It is easy to forget that the series of crises for An Garda Síochána which led to the establishment of the Commission in 2017 were existential. Policing had become politically toxic, as evidenced graphically in various Tribunals and Commissions of Investigation and the resignations or early departures of multiple Ministers for Justice, Secretaries-General of the Department of Justice and Garda Commissioners.

While the governance deficiencies that contributed to these controversies are being addressed in corrective legislation about to be passed by Seanad Éireann, it is abundantly clear that cultural problems within An Garda Síochána remain unresolved and the relationship between the Department of Justice and Garda management is still dysfunctional.

The Covid pandemic delayed the implementation process for the reform programme adopted in 2018, but it also provided an opportunity for community policing to be showcased at its best and individual members of An Garda Síochána deserve and have been given huge credit for the way in which they interacted with communities during various lockdowns.

Sadly, the industrial relations issues that erupted when the Covid roster had to be abandoned have led to a crisis of authority within the policing service.

Balloting for a motion of no confidence in the Commissioner might have been eye-catching but it was a deeply retrograde move on the part of the Garda Representative Association and served only to personalise matters in an unfair manner. Low morale is, of course, the legitimate business of any staff association but the manner in which this has been amplified has, undoubtedly, contributed to recruitment difficulties for An Garda Síochána at a time of full employment. Complaints about delays in disciplinary processes might have some validity when those delays are not caused by those under investigation, but when this becomes a general denunciation of ‘excessive oversight’ it begins to sound like special pleading.

Oversight matters

Given what we know from the Morris, Barr and Charleton tribunals, to name but three inquiries, no one could seriously argue for a weakening of oversight of An Garda Síochána. Anyone who does make such a case, even obliquely, should be viewed with deep scepticism.

There is a degree of studied helplessness when professional police bemoan their inability to deal with riots and public order situations because ‘their hands are tied behind their backs’ or they’re ‘looking over their shoulders’.

Anyone who pursues a vocation in policing must understand that the extraordinary powers vested in police come with a necessary requirement of openness to scrutiny.

Scrutiny does not mean justifying yourself to a sympathetic boss from within your tribe, it means being accountable to the tribunes of the people you police, bodies like Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and the Policing Authority. That is a non-negotiable clause in the social contract of policing and being policed, not a bargaining chip to be leveraged when the actions of the police are, with ample justification, being scrutinised.

Donncha O’Connell is an Established Professor in the School of Law, University of Galway. He was a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

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Donncha O’Connell