Policing in Ireland has changed. Like many things, it has been the subject of many changes, changes which are predominantly positive. These changes and examples of their impact might be summarised under a few headings.
An urban country
Ireland was once made of of villages and townlands where people lived and worked. Now it is concentrated in towns and cities, with a commuting population. This has changed the nature of communities and it has changed the nature of policing and the nature of crime. This has many consequences. It is no longer possible for everybody to simply know the local Garda. The Garda does not have the same deep connections with local community figures that he or she might once have had. Crime is no longer typically confined to or investigated within a local area. It typically spreads itself over a larger geographical area.
A peaceful country
Ireland’s policing is no longer dominated by the national security agenda resulting from the Northern Ireland Troubles. The Garda adopted to national security policing in a particular way. National security very properly became a priority and the force equipped itself to cope with the extraordinary demands that it threw up. It resulted in a situation where individuals in the force might have felt that they could take any action they needed to take to protect what they perceived in national security. National security is a matter of politics as much as policing, and barriers blurred as a result. Perhaps the lowest point of this system were the facts that are narrated in Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh’s book ‘The Boss’, in which a former justice minister who had also served in the Garda appeared to use the force as his own personal gopher service. This eventually concluded with the Kennedy and Arnold scandal.
There were also high points. Much heroism was shown in fighting terrorists. Great sacrifices were made to keep Irish people safe, at great personal cost and with little reward.
But now Ireland is largely at peace. Now we need steady, independent, even-handed policing.
A prosperous country
Ireland is now in general terms a wealthy country. Just 30 years ago, within the memory of all the managers of today’s police service, the situation was very different, and Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. This rapid change must have many consequences in terms of the types of crime that are committed and the people who commit them. But perhaps a more serious consequence is the change for recruitment. Whereas before a career in the Garda Siochana was a great career with good opportunities good pay and perquisites like a special healthcare scheme, that is now no longer the case. There are many alternative careers available to talented young people, and many of them are less stressful and require less moving around than the role of a Garda. At every level, there is an opportunity for skilled people to look outside the service to further their career. But the service is very limited in how it can recruit and induct experienced people from the greater workforce, even if these people have skills that are highly relevant.
A global country
Ireland used to be a genuine island, with limited enough links to the outside world. There were few immigrants. Now Ireland is part of a bigger global picture. The concept of Irishness itself has been broadened. This has many negative consequences in terms of the types of crime that may be committed, but it also has positive consequences. There is new talent available for instance, and new technology which can be applied to the job of policing. We can learn about what has been tried and what has worked in other countries.
A digital country
Like everywhere else, there is a whole world of online behaviour that is separate from the geographical realm. Practically every serious crime now has some sort of online element, whether that be phone records or emails and online purchases. New skills are needed to deal with this. These skills are needed across the organization, not just in some specialised unit.
The style of policing in Ireland
Ireland has a particular ‘style’ of policing which historians might say evolved in response to the situation after the civil war. Irish policing, in its dealing with the gneral public is cooperative where possible, corrective where necessary, and as much as feasible, non-punitive. An optimistic view (though one that some would dispute) is that the focus is on the spirit of the law rather than the letter of regulations.
It required great skill and experience to deploy the style effectively, to ensure that making allowance and exercising discretion did not degenerate into turning a blind eye or selective enforcement. It depended on the local Garda knowing the people he policed personally. We need to look seriously at this style and see how it can be moved forward and into the new world.
A new vision for Policing in Ireland
Policing in Ireland needs a new vision to meet the needs of a changing Ireland. I would suggest that the service be oriented as folows:
– a human rights service
Garda Siochana is the primary enforcer and protector of human rights in this country. We are all dependent on the Garda to protect our rights. ‘Rights’ are a complicated area, but at the most basic level the Garda’s job is to make sure people are left alone and that their lawful wishes are respected. The Garda’s planning should be oriented on this objective of protecting human rights. It needs to find practical ways to protect those who for whatever reason (legal, economic, physical or otherwise) cannot protect their own basic rights.
It is only tenable to act to protect human rights on the basis of a strong ethical foundation. The way it polices is as important as the results it delivers in terms of enforcement and crime rates.
It must treat people (victims, suspects, criminals and the members of the force themselves) with dignity and respect.
It must be honest, with the public and with itself.
It must not behave in an underhand manner.
It should put ethics at its core. Ethics is not just about acting within the law. It means acting properly and justly. As an example of an approach elsewhere, in the United Kingdom, an ethics system has been put in place to consider issues that arise in policing that prompt ethical concerns and to put forward practical solutions.
– a digital service
Pen and paper policing is over. This has many consequences. In particular, there are many functions that Garda personnel are performing that could and should be done online. It is totally unreasonable for instance that Gardai should have to manage the distribution of passport forms and driving licence forms. It is questionable whether they need to be involved in the endorsement of such forms, especially when the people involved are totally unknown to them (one of the consequences of urbanization). Checking driving licence and insurance details are also functions that do not really need to be confined to the local Garda station anymore.
Equally, the core functions need to be carried out in a ‘digital’ manner. Crime and investigation needs to be accounted for in a way that will lend itself to analysis and improvement. Investigation itself needs to use the tools available to the full. And again, this is not about setting up specialised units. It is about increasing the general capability level.
– a process-driven service
Rather than being based alone on the skills of an experienced Garda who knows his community in depth, policing needs to be process-based. There needs to be a process for dealing with the various eventualities that arise. The process needs to be applied appropriately, but it needs to be followed. The process should reflect the positive ethos of Irish policing.
An example of how this might be done is policing enforcement. Garda stop motorists are stopped for offences like driving through a bus gate at a time that is not permitted. Drivers are ‘spoken to’ and are often not financially penalised for their behaviour. There are many advantages to this lenient system for the motorist and for enforcement generally. But it is hard work for the Garda involved and it is a sink on Garda resources. A streamlined process which provided for written warnings to motorists and the owners of vehicles involved in first-time occurrences of these offences would have much the same effect but would greatly reduce the time burden for Gardai.
– a measured and managed service
Measurement and management are critical. The failure to adequately measure crime has led to controversy before with the CSO refusing to publish statistics. How can anyone manage a service as large and diverse as the policing for Ireland without statistics that show what is working and what is not? The foundation for policing action and investment has to be a firm grip of what is actually happening on the ground, not supposition or anecdote. Honesty and transparency have to be the basis for measurement, not ‘making the numbers’ or ‘form-filling’.
The numbers have to be the basis for the management of the service. There has to be a focus on getting value for money and on delivering a better service which provides better results. This is a difficult thing to do in a large organization. The expertise to do this to a high level is not necessarily available within the force today.
– an accountable service
There needs to be accountability. The first step to this is information, so the stakeholders know what is actually happening. It is all too easy to condemn generally good policing because of one particular incident. On the other hand, it is all too easy to praise poor policing, because of a few good stories or some positive PR.
There have been failures of accountability in the past. When things went wrong, no one at management level seemed to be found responsible. Sometimes this was an accident of management, a result of being too busy to concentrate on the development of proper structures and procedures. But sometimes the lack of accountability seemed to be by design. The ‘car tyre’ controversy was one example. The findings of various Tribunals present other examples. A current example of a lack of accountability is the operation of CCTV systems in rural areas which are paid for through local community intiatives. These systems are supposed to be operated under the auspices of the Garda Siochana, but it is not clear at all how the Garda Siochana is accountable for how they are used or whether they are appropriate to local policing needs, and indeed for how they are to be financed over the long term. Equally, surveillance systems like data retention (the retention of private data for the purposes of investigating crime) and ANPR (automatic number plate recognition, a system for collecting registration details of passing vehicles using video cameras) have been implemented with little accountability.
But how to make a police service accountable is a difficult problem. Police forces are in principle accountable to their communities, certainly, but the question is one of how the custodes are made accountable. Who is in charge of making the service accountable, what resources are available to do so, and how is this person him- or herself accountable for their behaviour? Is this person truly independent from the force which it is supposed to keep accountable? Are its arrangements really practical?
Somewhat similarly, it is difficult for management within a policing service to keep others accountable. For example, the exercising of discretion is ultimately part of the policing role, but how does management, which may be operating from a far remove, actually ensure that that discretion is being applied appropriately? The controversies about penalty points and random testing illustrated this. The information was at hand to demonstrate the abuse, but there was no will, and perhaps no means to enforce authority in relation to unacceptable practices. Ultimately this will involve major changes in the form that policing takes, to make it more process-oriented and more measurable, but great management skill is also needed to ensure this multi-level accountability.
Solving this problem needs to be ‘baked in’ to our policing system. Accountability has to be considered at every level of policing. Considerations of confidentiality or bias cannot ultimately be allowed to stand in the way of ensuring that those who police us (and others involved in policing) can be held properly to account.
Conclusion and Next Steps.
Policing in Ireland has a difficult road ahead. The challenges are very large, perhaps much larger than they appear. The level of change is not just technical or even strategic. A fundamental shift in the service at a fundamental level is required. The first step is honesty and frankness. There has to be an end to lip service. Everyone needs to start telling things the way they are. Accountability has to be something that happens at every level, not just something that happens in a board room once a year. Making people accountable, and being accountable is not easy, but it is essential. Everybody involved in policing has to play a role. We can’t let things ‘slip’ any longer.