Policing in 2014: Annus Horribilis?

shattergateThere is no doubt that 2014 was a difficult year for policing in Ireland. By policing, I refer not just to an Garda Síochána but to all the agencies of the state involved in policing. Not a month has gone by without some new headline revealing more inappropriate activities and responses. A quick look at the website of the Garda Review reveals the extent of disquiet felt within the service.

The whistleblower scandal had begun back in 2012 when Maurice McCabe and others had approached the confidential recipient about concerns he held. While initially centring on promotion, the scale of allegations expanded later to include the wiping of penalty points and the handling of serious criminal investigations in the Ballieboro district. Early in 2014 the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan described the whistleblowing by the gardaí involved as ‘disgusting’ at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee. There could be no more stark a revelation of the senior management attitude towards whistleblowing and accountability. A system to enable whisteblowers had been central to Justice Morris’ recommendations and for those who are brave enough to speak out against wrongdoing to be labelled in this way by the most senior garda indicated just how engrained the cultural resistance to accountability was (Listen to a documentary on John Wilson’s experiences here).

Over the coming months this scandal lead to the dismissal of the confidential recipient, Oliver Connolly, the establishment of the Guerin review, a report from the Garda Inspectorate which supported the claims made about wiping penalty points and once Guerin’s report is submitted the Minister for Justice resigned in early May. More recently we’ve seen the appointment of Mr Justice Kevin O’Higgins to conduct an inquiry into the allegations concerning the investigation of serious crimes. The ‘parochial focus’ on this commission was rightly criticised by the ICCL.

At the same time as this resignation it emerged that over 2500 tapes existed for phone calls that had been recorded in garda stations between the 1980s up until 2013. After comments that we had entered GUBU territory a Commission of Investigation was established to examine what had occurred. Chaired by Mr Justice Niall Fennelly, the Commission is due to report to government in 2015 after an extension of its work was approved (terms of reference available here) and the findings will undoubtedly have serious implications for many cases and convictions. If found to be true, that such invasions of privacy were occurring throughout the country until 13 months ago should be of enormous concern to all. That was so pervasive, endemic and unchallenged indicates cultural acceptance of this practice.

Perhaps overshadowed by these events a monumental change occurred in May of this year. For the first time suspects in custody were permitted to have solicitors present during interrogations. This followed the combined Supreme Court cases of Gormley and White, which Liz blogged about here. This change brings Irish policing in line with human rights requirements but its implementation has not been without failings. I’ve heard anecdotally from both criminal defence solicitors and gardaí that there have been serious difficulties in implementation, as the practical ramifications struggle to be accommodated. Further, it should not be underestimated how much of a cultural shift this change is for investigating gardaí. Securing confessions is how most convictions are secured and so interrogations are the fulcrum of investigations. Proper guidelines and instruction on how to adapt to this change in the interrogation dynamic is needed badly.

In June the Cooke Report into allegations of bugging at GSOC’s offices was published. The report concluded that GSOC had overstepped the mark in how it responded to its concerns and that it should have communicated its concerns with government and senior garda management. The methods adopted in compiling the report were seriously criticised (see ICCL’s critique here) but Cooke refused to appear before a number of government committees to answer questions on this. There are two important comments to make on this report: 1. While Cooke does not conclude that bugging took place he also does not conclude that it does not. As explained in detail here by Phillip Boucher-Hayes, Cooke is unable to explain a number of events which did occur. 2. We should be very concerned at GSOC’s failure to discuss this with the Justice Dept and Garda HQ. We should be concerned at why GSOC felt they could not do this and what that indicates about the relationship that exists between this triumvirate. It does not appear to be functional or productive and that has serious ramifications for policing and police accountability.

New legislation is going through the Oireachtas aiming to amend the powers of GSOC and many of these changes will be positive. But, as I’ve argued extensively, the problem with GSOC is not primarily about the powers on paper, but on how these have been implemented and the cultural clash that occurs with an Garda Síochána. In July Ireland was examined by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva (see some of our coverage here and here), and while issues like abortion and symphysiotomy rightly appeared to dominate, the Committee did call for greater independence in GSOC investigations. Indeed, just one third of GSOC investigations are independently investigated (i.e. with no garda involvement). On paper, GSOC could do most investigations independently but, for a variety of reasons, it chooses not to.

Also in July, the Children’s Ombudsman, Emily Logan, found that gardaí had engaged in ethnic profiling in the removal of two Roma children from their families in late 2013. The Minister for Justice apologised to the families involved. Racism in Irish policing is an under-analysed area (some work has been done by James Carr and Amanda Hynes in UL) but these findings present some evidence of issues of racism existing within an Garda Síochána.

Respite did not come later in the year. In the autumn we saw allegations being made in all directions concerning the use of force at water protests. Some alarming footage was posted online at the treatment of peaceful protestors by gardaí. My understanding is that no complaints have been made to GSOC as yet, which raises further questions as to confidence in that body to effectively investigate such allegations.

In positive terms we’ve seen a government commitment to establish a Policing Authority. This may assist in achieving the desperately needed depoliticisation of Irish policing. The announcement was followed by a consultation process which culminated in a consultation day hosted by the Minister for Justice (presentations by myself and Baroness Nuala O’Loan given on the day can be accessed here). The initial draft of the legislation was published in November (see my commentary here) and as we know the Chair Designate was appointed that same month. The process of that appointment was heavily criticised: the post was advertised for just 10 days and it was not a fully independent appointments process.

A new Commissioner, Noirin O’Sullivan, was appointed in December. For the first time the post was open to international candidates. It is disappointing to me that government decided not to wait until the Policing Authority was operational so that this appointment could be removed from political considerations. There have been criticisms of O’Sullivan’s appointment, that an internal candidate cannot be detached from the scandals and concerns which shrouded the departure of the last Commissioner. Interestingly the term ‘Old Boys Club’ has been applied to describe her appointment: interesting given that in many people’s eyes the appointment of the first female Commissioner establishes with some certainty the demise of that old boys club. The significance of a female leader of any police force should not be underestimated as police are notoriously macho organisations.

But the most significant event of all, in my eyes, and that which perhaps has received far less attention than it deserves is the publication in November of the Garda Inspectorate Report into Criminal Investigations. Rather than any individual case or scandal, this report looks broadly at how an Garda Síochána investigate crime. Even for me, who has read all the reports and cases I can find, the findings documented here are shocking and distressing. The treatment of victims of crime is appalling. The reclassification of crimes is sickening. The failures to follow procedure are unacceptable. The deficiencies in technology are indefensible. I live-tweeted as I read the report and you can read that collection of tweets here. I don’t think it’s possible to read that report and not come to the conclusion that the investigation of crime is in crisis in Ireland. The problems pervade every aspect of the process. The whole system needs rebuilding and the elements of police culture that have been documented above need to be recognised as impact on this. The scale of change and reform required is monumental, no exaggeration. It’s alarming that this report faded into insignificance as quickly as it did. It should be the priority for 2015. We should be greatly concerned that every day victims of crime are brought within that failing system.

It’s hard not to conclude that this has been an Annus Horribilis for policing in Ireland. To find the bright note, we have a new Minister, a new Commissioner, the promise of a police authority, the possibility of a new Secretary General in the Department of Justice and documented evidence of what needs to change. We must hope, optimistically, that if ever there was an opportunity to change policing, we have that opportunity now.

Policing in 2014: Annus Horribilis?

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