THE GUARDS have got themselves into a right mess. A controversy a day has resulted in the loss of two chief of police within a short time. The amount of commentary and advice coming from all quarters has ensured that there is probably less public clarity now than there ever was. As one of the advice givers, I need to confess to some niggling guilt.
I get asked to comment on the affairs of An Garda Síochána because I was on the first Policing Board for the PSNI. I have written a few articles and done some media about what should happen to the Guards and I think that my views are straightforward. To bring change and efficiency to as big and as powerful an organization as An Garda Síochána, it needs to be clear in law and in the public understanding as to who is responsible for what. That there should be clear operational responsibility and clear policy responsibility. That a strong oversight body (with political represention) is best placed to oversee the necessary change and bring about as much transparency and accountability as possible.
It was the same argument and recommendation as in the Patten Report that established the PSNI and the Policing Board here. The niggle is that every time I made the argument the question popped up in my head as to how well (or badly) the Policing Board here is doing. I am always slow to comment on something of which I was a part but it was so long ago (ten years) that I am long relegated to another Joe Soap who has no inside information but has a continuing interest in the subject. The niggle was that I was out arguing its role and merits and all the time there is a voice in the back of my head saying that I am far from sure how the Policing Board here is doing.
When, out of interest, I make the odd inquiry from other Joe Soaps as to who is on the board and what it does, there is an increasing number of vacant stares and shoulders.
Then I open this newspaper during the week to learn that the board is in limbo and can’t reappoint its human rights lawyer. It is reported as another example of the result of the present political impasse up at Stormont. But the truth is that the board has been in limbo long before the impasse. When, out of interest, I make the odd inquiry from other Joe Soaps as to who is on the board and what it does, there is an increasing number of vacant stares and shrugs of shoulders. It doesn’t appear to have a presence. I seldom hear of it except as an aside to something happening in the polcing world. I know it publishes annual reports. I know it sets targets and reports on the achievements and failures of the police and I presume that if I took the bother to go looking I would find such reports. But being Joe Soap, I am sometimes too lazy and sometimes too busy to be going looking. I would appreciate some of it in my face.
The board has many responsibilities, the primary one to hold the chief constable (the police) to account for their performance. It does that job on behalf of the public and so it is important that it keeps the public informed and interested. I don’t expect it and I don’t want it to be in the news every day but policing is never a completed, done job. There are so many issues that need ongoing analysis, debate, scrutiny; issues such as drugs, paramilitaries, domestic violence, community policing, to name just a few. And then, of course, is the question of the quality of the service that is being delivered, something that needs constant monitoring. I hear the police view on many matters but I can’t remember the last time I heard the board’s view. I there is a public meeting every month or so, but that is the board asking asking questions of the police – it is not the view of the board. I don’t know who the spokesperson is. I know how difficult or impossible it is to get a consensus view on anything and the present political impasse makes it even more difficult. But all the more reason for a strong, authoritative, challenging voice that gives the public some sense of comfort and security. I think the Policing Board had established that authority and had been given a lot of trust from the public. That trust is easily lost and extremely difficult to reestablish.
With many thanks to: Denis Bradley and The Irish News.