Dr Vicky Conway is a Lecturer-in-Law in Dublin City University and a member of the Policing Authority. Whilst studying in University College Cork, she co-founded the Cork Online Law Review and was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the 1st Edition.
The very same month that the first edition of this Law Review was launched, the then government passed a motion to establish the Morris Tribunal to investigate serious allegations of police malpractice and corruption in the Donegal region. What flowed from that decision irrevocably altered the national discourse on policing. The scale of criticism contained in the reports of the Tribunal was unprecedented, the scale of reform subsequently implemented was substantial. No more could the reality of police misconduct in Ireland be ignored and no more could the need for more independent oversight be denied. Now, as the fifteenth edition of the Cork Online Law Review is launched, the landscape of police oversight is once again being altered.
Perhaps the most immediate focus of reform following the publication of the first report of the Morris Tribunal was enhancing garda accountability. This was achieved primarily through the establishment, under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). GSOC, the body which handles complaints received from the public, replaced the Garda Síochána Complaints Board. Unlike its predecessor, which made recommendations based on investigations conducted by gardaí, it was given the power to conduct independent investigations. And while GSOC has itself been subject to some critique the significance of that departure should not be underestimated.
The 2005 Act also established the Garda Inspectorate, created for a very separate function, to conduct independent investigations into Garda practice and procedure and make recommendations. It has to date produced twelve reports, including examinations on the investigation of serious crimes and the fixed charge penalty notice system. These have at times made for difficult reading but these are supplying us with the information and evaluation that is essential in order to identify where changes need to be made and where energy and resources need to be targeted.
In more recent years, it was recognised that while these reforms could provide redress when wrong was done and assist in improving garda practice, they never could address the fact that in Ireland there was an unusually high level of political control over policing. A number of scandals which resulted in the Minister for Justice, the Garda Commissioner and the Secretary General of the Depart of Justice all resigning their posts contributed to a recognition that policing in Ireland should be depoliticised.
On 1 January 2016, the Policing Authority came into existence. It is provided for by the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015. In effect, the Act transfers a range of functions previously performed by the Minister for Justice to the Authority. These include:
Ensuring that the resources available to the Garda Síochána are used so as to achieve and maintain the highest levels of efficiency and effectiveness;
Nominating persons for appointment by the Government to the posts of Garda Commissioner and Deputy Garda Commissioner, following a selection process undertaken by the Public Appointments Service;
Appointing persons to the ranks of Garda Superintendent, Chief Superintendent and Assistant Commissioner; and removing them for stated reasons relating to policing services;
Setting priorities and performance targets for An Garda Síochána, approving the annual policing plans and the 3 year Garda Strategy statement;
Establishing a Garda Code of Ethics; and
The adequacy of the corporate governance arrangements and structures within the Garda Síochána;
The arrangements for the recruitment, training and development of Garda members and civilian staff;
The adequacy of the mechanisms in place within the Garda Síochána for the measurement of performance and accountability of Garda members and civilian staff.
In addition, the Authority will hold at least four public meetings a year with the Garda Commissioner in public in relation to these functions. The work of the Authority is restricted to policing services, thereby excluding matters concerning state security. The Authority has a chair, Josephine Feehily, and eight ordinary members who were appointed by the government following a recruitment process by the Public Appointments Service. Five of the nine members are female, and, in accordance with the Act, they bring experience of policing services, human rights, public sector administration, board management and working with community groups.
Having lived through all the reforms of the last two decades, and perhaps been dismayed at the continued allegations of police misconduct, it would be easy not to appreciate the significance of what has occurred. As the Act was being debated and passed I was critical that, under the legislation, the government retains a great deal of power over policing. The Act may not have gone as far as myself and other commentators may have liked, but significant powers have been transferred to this independent body, powers which have the potential to shape policing in ways which previous reforms could not. It will take time for the changes to bed in, to be tweaked toward more successful operation and for cultures to adapt. These latest reforms will pose challenges for politicians, government departments, the Garda Síochána and the representative associations. All will have to adjust to and accept that policing in Ireland is now governed differently. And the Authority will have to operate in an open, principled way which earns the trust and confidence of all concerned. It is an enormous challenge, but given the potential it has to contribute to better policing in Ireland, it is a challenge which must be undertaken.
Dr Vicky Conway
Lecturer-in-Law, Dublin City University
Member of Policing Authority
Co-Founder, Cork Online Law Review