herald

Sunday 21 September 2014

Politics-free policing may be a step too far for Justice Minister

Should An Garda Siochana become a politics-free zone?

After all the policing scandals of recent months, it is hardly surprising that some people want to take this radical step.

Now the Oireachtas Justice Committee has put it in black and white - but there are sound reasons for suspecting that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will leave its report to quietly gather dust on a shelf.

Garda morale is widely believed to be at an all-time low. The force's reputation has been tarnished by a series of controversies, including the cancellation of penalty points, the treatment of whistleblowers and allegations of bugging at the Garda Ombudsman Commission.

After unwisely adopting a "nothing to see here" attitude, both Commissioner Martin Callinan and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter were eventually forced to clear their desks.

To get things back on track, the cross-party Justice Committee has presented Fitzgerald with a series of groundbreaking proposals. It wants to create a new independent organisation that would oversee the entire justice system without any interference from Government Buildings.

Most importantly, this all-powerful body would appoint senior gardai above the rank of chief superintendent - a privilege that until now has traditionally been enjoyed by the Cabinet.

In other words, the Justice Committee wants to more or less do Frances Fitzgerald out of part of her job. This is hardly an attractive prospect for the new minister, particularly as she has only just got her feet under the table.

More to the point, it sounds like a dangerously woolly idea that could actually make our gardai less accountable to the people they serve.

Politicians, for all their faults, are elected by the public and have to re-apply for their jobs every few years.

A new justice authority might be just another quango, headed up by faceless officials and adding yet another layer of bureaucracy to the system.

Anybody who thinks this is the answer must have an extremely short memory.

When the HSE was first set up a decade ago, we were promised that it would "take the politics out of health".

The result was a Frankenstein's Monster, incompetent and unaccountable - even to the Department of Health.

misconduct

Instead of rushing off to construct the HSE Mark II, Fitzgerald seems to be adopting a much more sensible approach. The draft heads of a bill she unveiled yesterday will give extra powers to the Garda Ombudsman and create an independent process for reviewing allegations of police misconduct.

These reforms might not be as attention-grabbing as the Justice Committee's report - but they should be given a chance to work before we dismantle a system that has served the country pretty well for over 90 years.

Politics and policing must not become complete strangers to each other.

Nobody wants to go back to the days when a minister caught drinking after hours could ask, "Do you want a pint or a transfer?". On the other hand, it is perfectly valid for the government to take a hands-on role in its police force - especially when there are issues of national security involved.

An Garda Siochana certainly needs some surgery to repair its image. Frances Fitzgerald, however, should approach the operation with a scalpel rather than an axe.

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