Ceann Comhairle, the past twelve months have seen public confidence in the administration of justice in Ireland undermined in a most significant manner. Not only have we witnessed some of the most severe cut backs in the provision of services such as the reduction of approximately 1,600 Gardaí from the Garda force, over 139 Garda stations closed, over 30 court houses shut andover 16% of the prison population on temporary release at any time, we have also witnessed a stream of revelations and investigations which have damaged the public perception of An Garda Síochána, the Department of Justice and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
The problems which have manifested themselves in An Garda Síochána and GSOC and were reported to the former Minister for Justice were ignored, dismissed or glossed over in order to save the embarrassment of those in senior positions who decided that not taking responsibility was a key management skill. This approach was a massive disservice to the ordinary members of An Garda Síochána and to the citizens of Ireland. As a result of this dereliction of duty we have seen the resignation of the Garda Confidential Recipient, the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Secretary General of the Department. We have also witnessed the establishment of an unprecedented number of Commissions of Investigation surrounding the Department of Justice and there are still more Commissions to be established. One would hope then that lessons will be learned as to how to deal with issues arising in the Garda force and the Department of Justice from this date forward.
Fianna Fáil has been calling for a strengthening of the Ombudsman’s powers since the maladministration of justice outlined by Sergeant McCabe was revealed. Central to these problems not being addressed was the lack of own initiative investigations and actions which could be taken by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission as a result of the legislation setting out the powers of that Commission.The fact that GSOC were restricted in their actions by either the Minister or the Garda Commissioner or by the fact that those who can make complaints to GSOC was limited fundamentally undermined that Commission’s ability to carry out its statutory functions. The legislation which I am bringing forward today would significantly increase the powers and independence of GSOC and would go a long way in ensuring that future difficulties are addressed well in advance of them becoming major institutional challenges.
This Bill is simple, straight forward and precise and would enhance the work of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and help to end the cycle of superficial reform which we have witnessed so far in Justice. If enacted it would amend the Garda Síochána Act 2005 in order to make the Garda Commissioner responsible to the Garda Ombudsman Commission. It would allow the Garda Ombudsman Commission investigate complaints concerning any conduct of a member of the Garda Síochána made by another member of An Garda Síochána. It would remove the requirement of consent in order for the Garda Ombudsman Commission to reach informal resolution of complaints. It would grant the Garda Ombudsman Commission access to the Garda PULSE computer system and importantly it would permit the Garda Ombudsman Commission to examine any practice, policy or procedure of An Garda Síochána in order to prevent subsequent abuses arising.
The Bill seeks to close the gap which exists between An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and rebalance that relationship. It seeks to give GSOC the powers to act independently and act in a manner not in any way reliant on key figures in either the Department of Justice or An Garda Síochána.We saw how the current system fails when members of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission had to take to the public airwaves to air their concerns about the shortcomings of the legislation which enables them to carry out their functions. This Bill, which was published in February of this year, seeks to address the issues which arose in recent controversies and include the Garda Commissioner, as chief of police, as a position under which the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission will have oversight except with regard to issues of national security. We have been seeking this for a long period. Commentators from outside the world of politics have contributed to the debate, including Nuala O’Loan and Conor Brady, who is a former member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. We have taken their suggestions on board and presented them in this Bill. We agree that it is not logical or consistent to think that the chief of a body such as the Garda Síochána, which is subject to oversight, is not subject to the same degree of oversight. There is a disconnect and this gap needs to be closed. This Bill will close that gap.
There is also the issue of providing GSOC with access to PULSE. This would benefit their investigations greatly. There is much common ground among Deputies on providing GSOC with unfettered access to the Garda PULSE system to allow them do their job. At present they have access to PULSE only under the supervision of a seconded Garda superintendent, which is not in keeping with its status as an independent investigator of malpractice within An Garda Síochána.
The legislation would allow serving members of An Garda Síochána to refer internal complaints to GSOC. This issue crystallised with regard to the whistleblower controversy, the revelations outlined by Sergeant Maurice McCabe and Garda John Wilson and the more recent revelations with regard the penalty points system.
The Guerin Report highlighted the fact that Sergeant Maurice McCabe was correct in his actions to highlight the failure to administrate justice in Bailieboro Garda District. To be frank, the findings were an embarrassment for this Fine Gael Labour government who denied there was ever any issue in Justice and defended former Minister Shatter month after month. He dismissed and belittled the Whistle-blowers and was supported by the Taoiseach while doing this. With thislegislation people like Sergeant McCabe will no longer be frozen out of the system. GSOC must provide an avenue for people like Sergeant McCabe to report misconduct.
Fianna Fáil fully supports the call for a Commission of Investigation as recommended by the Guerin Report and believes this Commission should be kept separate to any other commission which has been already established by the Government investigating matters relating to An Garda Síochána.
The alleged malpractice in Bailieboro undermines the foundations of our criminal justice system. It also undermines the morale of all members of An Garda Síochána. In order for public confidence to be restored in An Garda Síochána it is necessary to establish fully and frankly how the situation surrounding the malpractice in Cavan was allowed to occur, continue and be covered up over such a long period of time.
The final piece of our Bill would empower and enable GSOC to inquire into the policies, procedures and practices adopted by An Garda Síochána and allow it to review and comment on them and recommend changes to improve the policies and procedures and try to prevent complaints from arising in the first instance. This would, we hope, prevent a situation like Bailieboro arising again.
I acknowledge the fact that Minister Fitzgerald has published a bill which reflects much of what is contained in the legislation which I have brought forward; however, I believe our Bill goes further and would have a greater impact. I would suggest to the Minister that she could support or amend the Fianna Fáil bill as set out in order to speed the process or reform. After all, the reform of GSOC and the restoration of public confidence in the that institution and that of An Garda Síochána is an issue which is above party politics when much of what is proposed has been agreed to by all sides whether in debate or in legislation published.
There is much agreement throughout the House and outside it on the provisions set out in the Bill. We should process this legislation as quickly as possible to be seen to support the work of GSOC and An Garda Síochána. Part of the public concern since the controversy surrounding GSOC arose is the perception that GSOC is not being supported by Government. This concern appears to be backed up by the fact that since Fine Gael and Labourcame to office the budget allocation to GSOC has been reduced by over €1 million and its staff numbers have been cut. Nonetheless the four main provisions I have outlined in the Bill are absolutely agreed among all the parties. Therefore I would suggest that the Government should take this legislation and vote to support it.
The Government’s Record
It must be stated that when Minister Fitzgerald was appointed as Minister for Justice and Equality there was a general sense that the reform agenda in Justice would be taken in a much more urgent, sensible and certainly a more approachable way. However, there is now a fear that the Minister has been held back by a Government that doesn’t know how to reform the institutions of state without making significant blunders along the way.
Overall, this Government’s credibility with regard to the proper functioning of the justice system in Ireland has been deeply damaged. They have undermined the administration of justice by firstly, refusing to listen to whistle-blowers; by still refusing to answer questions surrounding the Taoiseach’s involvement in the resignation of the Garda Commissioner; by closing Garda stations leaving rural Ireland without police protection and by undermining the judiciary through a series of measures to reduce their independence.
Their approach to resolving the current matters of concern undermining public confidence in the administration of justice is to establish commissions of investigation and not follow through on their recommendations. We are still awaiting significant Government action on the Guerin Report which called into question the significant deficiencies in Garda Management and the Department of Justice.
We are still awaiting the appointment of a new Garda Commissioner despite the fact Martin Callinan resigned on March 25th, a full six months ago. We are still waiting on the Minister for Justice to appoint a new Secretary General and we are still awaiting the Taoiseach’s clarification of his involvement in the former Commissioners resignation.
Other worrying developments include the massive number of bench warrants and summons which remain outstanding, the fact that over 600 prisoners are on temporary release at any one time and the dramatic decrease in Garda numbers from a peak of 14,500 in 2010 to approximately 12,900 today. Interim Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan issued a warning about Garda numbers in July 2014 to the Oireachtas Committee on Public Accounts stating that the force number levels were now “very close” to a critical level. She stated: “We’re very close to the point below which we shouldn’t go”.
This comment on Garda numbers followed a similar warning by her predecessor Martin Callinan, also made to PAC in 2012. Mr Callinan set a minimum floor of 13,000, but numbers reached 12,954 by the end of May 2014 and I believe they have dipped further since. The recruitment of 100 new Gardaí while welcome will not restore the force to the level required.
Minister, to conclude it’s time to restore the pride the Irish people had in their police force.
It’s time to restore their confidence in this country’s justice system.
It’s time to act on the goodwill and faith people have shown in you since you came to office.
It’s time to pass this legislation and give GSOC the power to do the job that needs to be done.
I commend this Bill to the House.