There is an urgent need to reform An Garda Síochána on a basis far more radical than envisaged in Michael McDowell's Garda Bill, now before the Oireachtas. There is a need to deal with the problem of discipline to deal with; the problem of industrial/human relations within the force; to deal with the culture of misplaced loyalty, cover-up and deceit; to deal with rank unprofessionalism at all levels; to revamp the "intelligence" section "Crime and Security"; to reform promotions; to deal with oversight or audit of Garda performance; to introduce change to the promotional procedures; to induct new blood into the force from other police forces; and to introduce a proper, fully-resourced Ombudsman system, not the half-baked, half-compromised mish-mash Michael McDowell is sponsoring.
There are problems with such reforms. Problems with the Garda, problems with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and more especially, problems with Michael McDowell. There are always problems with loyalty to past decisions, more especially with someone whose self-confidence hinges precariously on a conviction he is always right. But perhaps there is a way around that.
A Government decision to vest responsibility for An Garda Síochána with an independent authority, at a stroke, would open the way towards the other necessary reforms. There is an obvious chairperson for such an authority, Maurice Hayes, the chairman of the Forum on Europe, who was a member of the Patton Commission on policing in Northern Ireland. An authority under Maurice Hayes would be likely to steer through those other reforms now urgently needed but this had better happen soon, otherwise the force may be unreformable. (Alternatively, the chairman of such authority could be Frederick Morris, chairman of the Tribunal that bears his name, someone who by now has a sharp insight into the workings of An Garda Síochana.)
It is not that the majority of gardaí are corrupt or otherwise bad people. We all know from our individual experience this is not so. But the problem with the force is not a problem of a few bad apples. The problems relate to the practices and a culture that have emerged within the force over the last 80 years. These will not be changed easily or quickly but a start must be made.
The culture of misplaced loyalty and concealment – a view that it's the gardaí versus a hostile outside world – will be difficult to uproot. But a start should/must be made by changing the manner, or rather the location, of Garda training. That misplaced loyalty is inculcated in the fields of Templemore, the Garda training college, where apprentice gardaí are herded together, largely away from outside human contact. This is the only means of entry to the force. Were training to take place at universities around the country, supplemented by occasional weeks or weekends at Templemore, it would be very different. The normal associations would not be exclusively with other Garda recruits but with a wide cross section of society. A change in the culture requires further changes as well. First, an opening of opportunities for experts from outside the force to join An Garda Síochána at senior levels. Secondly, a positive campaign of recruitment of police members from other police forces from the EU and elsewhere, for instance, Canada, which has developed a fine policing tradition and culture.
There is also an urgent necessity for a change to the Garda disciplinary code. The practice whereby a garda can refuse to account for their performance to their superiors is cancerous. It should be a disciplinary issue where such refusals take place, with the sanction of dismissal available for persistent or egregious refusal.
A proper oversight mechanism is also necessary whereby a Garda Authority could determine for itself what was happening in any given area, geographical or administrative. And a proper independent complaints commission, with entirely independent and self-executing powers (not, for instance, required to give advance notice to enter police stations and examine documents and records). Such a commission to be properly resourced, at least to the level that pertains with the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland.
It would help if some of all the opposition parties committed themselves to such a reform agenda. Even better if the Government itself did it, whatever the consequences to the Minister.