Blog: Blame game leaves us no closer to resolution

Liam Herrick
Liam Herrick

Liam Herrick, executive director at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, writes at a critical juncture for policing in Ireland.

At its most basic level, policing is about investigating the truth and holding individuals to account.

In the past week, as the political scandal surrounding the handling of whistleblower Maurice McCabe threatened the future of the Government, it seems getting to the truth of the ongoing crises in policing is further away than ever.

The Government is keen to appoint a new Garda commissioner as soon as possible, but it remains bogged down in unresolved scandals from the past.

The Opposition is focusing on who is to blame and who knew what when, but we are no nearer to discussing a vision of the type of police service we want for the future.

How can we not only get to the truth of what has happened, but also guarantee that it doesn’t happen again?

We are now two months out from the deadline for public submissions to the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

The time is ripe for society to think about what it is that we value in our police service, and what values we want our police to reflect.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) believes what is needed now is not a quick-fix solution but a reframing of Irish policing to ground it in principles of human rights.

To get there, we need a deeper understanding of the structural flaws in our policing and political systems that continue to produce the same problems.

The ICCL was set up in 1976 as a direct response to lack of police accountability. The present crisis follows the same pattern as those that preceded it. Successive governments failed to hold garda management to account for their failures, with the result that there is now a deep dysfunction between policing and politics in this country.

By blurring lines of responsibility between operational and policy matters, governments have ensured that there has been no political accountability for failures to modernise or to set clear policy objectives for the organisation.

As a result, An Garda Síochána responds to each crisis by deflection or denial and by attacking the accuser, commentator, or whistleblower.

In recent months, we have seen this culture spill over into public infighting between different levels of the organisation and the representative bodies.

Against this background, recent calls for a return to closer control of the Garda by the Department of Justice, and for politicians to control the Policing Authority are misplaced and even dangerous.

There is a case for co-ordinating and streamlining the oversight bodies that we have, and for extending their remit to cover areas such as surveillance and intelligence, but not for bringing them back under political control.

The North’s situation is quite different from ours in this respect — there, community and political representation was necessary to gain public confidence. In this jurisdiction, political interference in policing has been a large part of the problem.

We also need to recognise that all of the key problems currently facing the force can be defined as failures to respect human rights.

Over 40 years, concerns about policing have been at the heart of ICCL’s work: From resisting the use of emergency powers, to highlighting cases of the mistreatment of suspects, to challenging restrictions on freedoms of association and assembly.

The mismanagement of recorded interviews and the leaking of information to the media are all violations of the right to privacy. The Jobstown trial raises questions about the State’s duty to balance public order and the recognised right to freedom of assembly.

Concerns about the effectiveness of An Garda Síochána in prosecuting sexual and domestic violence engage with issues of victims’ rights.

The value of a human rights framework, as we saw in the Patten reform process in the North, is in the potential of human rights to support a shift from a negative police culture to a positive culture where the police service can support stronger communities.

There is also every reason to hope that gardaí themselves are up for such a radical rethinking of their role.

Over the past decade, several individuals in leadership positions within the force have made significant efforts to extend human rights training and awareness within the organisation, although without support from the top of the organisation or from Government these efforts have been isolated and have not been able to impact on Garda culture.

Under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, all public bodies are now obliged to have regard to human rights standards in their policies and practice. This presents a unique opportunity for reform based on legal obligation.

Over the coming months, ICCL will initiate a research project to identify how human rights standards can inform and shape the structures, policies, and practices of a reformed Garda Síochána.

We will be submitting the outcome of this research to the Commission on the Future of Policing and we will be hosting public events to stimulate a national debate about how a reformed Garda can better respect all of our human rights.

While it is understandable that there should be much focus on who will lead the Garda and when they will begin, the more important question now is what direction he or she will be asked to take policing.

We need to get beyond the perpetual crisis and start to think about values we want to see in our police, and what needs to change in order to make those values a lived reality for every person working in An Garda Síochána and every person with whom An Garda Síochána interacts.

The prize is a revitalised modern police service with well trained, well supported professionals with a clear mandate to vindicate and respect the human rights of their community.

At this crucial moment, we need to look beyond personalities and politics and refocus on the future of policing.

  • This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.
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