Appointment of Chairperson of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann, noting that, in order to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Mr. Simon O'Brien as the chairperson of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, the Government on 30th June, 2015 nominated Judge Mary Ellen Ring for appointment by the President to be a member of the Ombudsman Commission and to be its chairperson, recommends, pursuant to section 65(1)(b) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, that she be appointed by the President to be a member and to be chairperson of the Ombudsman Commission.

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, plays an important role in developing and maintaining public confidence in An Garda Síochána. An Garda Síochána provides an excellent policing service for the people. As a society, we look to it to create and maintain an environment in which we can go about our daily lives free from threats of criminality. Where such criminality arises, we look to An Garda Síochána to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice. To this end, the Garda has been given certain powers. These must be exercised in a lawful and proportionate manner. Where there is a question about whether it has used those powers properly, it must be held to account. This is a fundamental principle of the exercise of any power, namely, accountability.

It is vital we fully address any allegation of Garda misconduct or wrongdoing in the interests of maintaining public confidence in the Garda and protecting the professional standards of the overwhelming majority of dedicated and conscientious members of the force. To ensure the public can have full confidence in the Garda, a system of oversight is provided by GSOC. This commission is a vital part of our policing infrastructure. It was set up under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to provide an independent system for receiving complaints and dealing with allegations of Garda misconduct. Its purpose is to promote public confidence in the process for resolving these complaints or allegations.

Deputies will be aware that I recently laid the 2014 annual report of GSOC before the Houses. It was a challenging year for GSOC and the subject of a great deal of political and media commentary and some controversy. Notwithstanding that, the year was a busy one for GSOC. It received 11% more complaints and concluded 8% more cases than in 2013. The report stated there was a marked improvement in efficiency and in dialogue and co-operation with the Garda. This suggests the protocols that were put in place in 2013 have been helpful in terms of the working relationship between GSOC and the Garda Commissioner and Garda.

Reform in the criminal justice area is a priority for the Government. The Garda Síochána (Amendment) Act 2015 has expanded the remit and powers of GSOC, including by bringing the Garda Commissioner within the scope of its investigative powers. The Act also expanded the time within which persons can bring complaints to the commission. Further changes are contained in the Bill to establish the policing authority, which has passed all Stages in the Seanad and will be before the Dáil as soon as I can get some time in the House.

Turning to the Government's nominee for chairperson of GSOC, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring was appointed a judge of the High Court by the President on 9 July 2015. Her swearing-in ceremony before the Supreme Court took place on 13 July. Ms Justice Ring's extensive experience as a practising barrister and a judge of the Circuit Court make her well qualified for the position of chairperson of the ombudsman commission. She has also served in positions on the National Crime Council, was chair of the Irish Women Lawyers Association, IWLA, and has been a member of the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL. Ms Justice Ring will work alongside the other members of the ombudsman commission, Ms Carmel Foley and Mr. Kieran Fitzgerald, and GSOC's professional and administrative staff. The combination of skills and experience the three commissioners have will ensure strong and effective leadership within GSOC and Ms Justice Ring will make an excellent chairperson.

I thank the committee for its work yesterday on this matter. I explained to it that Ms Justice Ring would serve out the remainder of Mr. Simon O'Brien's term until December of next year, at which point the position will be advertised again. Of course, she would be eligible. I commend the motion to the House.

I apologise that I could not attend the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality yesterday. I was attending an excellent round-table event concerning the hope the State would recognise Traveller ethnicity, which was organised by the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Yes. I understand.

The Minister will be aware that the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality was tasked with examining the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and considering ways of strengthening GSOC, having a policing authority, ensuring the accountability of the Garda and setting up new structures. One of our recommendations was to replace the current three-person commission with one ombudsman, as is the case in the North and other jurisdictions. We need to move to such a structure where the buck would stop with one person.

In a number of controversies in recent years, there was speculation about how the system of three people making a collective decision worked. Consider the various ombudsmen we have, from the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, to the sectoral ombudsmen. Each comprises just one person and the buck stops with him or her, although each has senior advisers. I am disappointed the Minister has not accepted this model. I have no issue with the ability of Ms Justice Ring. I am sure she will make an excellent chairperson. My issue is that I would like one person to be the ombudsman and to speak on behalf of that organisation.

The other issue I wish to raise is the powers given to the ombudsman. The House saw some amendments to the legislation earlier this year that strengthened the ombudsman's powers, but I would like to see them strengthened further. Something about which I am concerned and which I will revisit when we deal with the Garda authority legislation is the matter of the independent adjudicator.

The Minister will recall that Conor Brady, formerly GSOC member, at a conference organised by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Law Society of Ireland, suggested that where An Garda Síochána could not give information to the Ombudsman - soon to be the Garda authority - for security reasons, there be an independent adjudicator, a member of the Judiciary rather than the Minister, to decide if the grounds for withholding information are legitimate. Perhaps we might revisit this through the Garda authority legislation as it makes its way through the Houses.

Resources for GSOC will be critical. It has been tasked with looking at the area of penalty points and will have more and more responsibilities. There are over 300 cases alleging Garda malpractice and I imagine more work will fall on GSOC. One of the concerns the public has is the length of time GSOC can take to carry out investigations, which impacts on its credibility and the confidence of the public. It needs the requisite resources and the Minister should engage with the commissioners around this issue to make sure they have the resources required to deliver investigations within a reasonable period of time.

I ask the Minister to look again at the need for just one Garda ombudsman, similar to the ombudsman for every other sector on these islands. In line with the all-party recommendation of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, I also ask her to look at the issue of resourcing GSOC adequately and to look at the issue of security. She should put in place an independent adjudicator to make it clear to the public that full accountability and oversight exist as required across the whole spectrum.

I will share time. I will speak for four minutes and Deputy Mick Wallace for one.

I am very glad that the appointment to GSOC has finally been made and that we are not going into the recess without it. The gap has been far too long between the retirement of Mr. Simon O'Brien and this appointment and I feel the commissioners have suffered in his absence. The time when he was at the helm of the GSOC was one of the most innovative times for putting that organisation on the map. I do not know much about Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring apart from what is in the public domain. It might be viewed as an unusual choice because she has a high profile but she is renowned for her independence, an incredibly important asset in this cesspit - I could say "challenge" to be more polite. Independence is what is required and I understand from people who know her that she is very able, an independent thinker and more likely to be a watchdog than a lapdog. That is what we need inside this organisation so I wish her well in her new post. In some ways I feel a little bit sorry for her for what she is getting into, as I do for the other commissioners, because I believe GSOC is at a crisis point. It has not been armed with the legislative powers to do the necessary job of exercising oversight over An Garda Síochána.

Ms Justice Ring will benefit from her expertise on both sides of the criminal justice system as she will not need to be educated on what can happen when gardaí take a stance or as to the ways in which gardaí sometimes operate. She is, however, heading up an organisation which is suffering from a lack of resources and power, particularly given the fact that this organisation has also been charged with the function of confidential recipient and is the receiver of complaints about the gardaí, not just from the public but from gardaí themselves about other gardaí. The recently published annual report shows that only four gardaí have gone to GSOC and it has been very tardy in its approach to dealing with those people. This is very regrettable and Ms Justice Ring's first job should be to give her backing and support to those gardaí who have the courage to blow the whistle on the inside.

Looking at the figures in the GSOC annual report, of all the initial contacts with GSOC, only 28% actually became complaints at the end of the day. GSOC states that in 2014 there was only one case out of thousands in respect of which a criminal investigation was concluded and referred to the Director for Public Prosecutions and where the Director for Public Prosecutions recommended a prosecution. This could not possibly be the case and we have a huge problem with these statistics. They show that only 26 files were sent to the Director for Public Prosecutions, while the overwhelming majority of the cases that end up in GSOC are referred back to the gardaí for examination, rather than be independently evaluated by GSOC. These issues will come back to haunt us. We are on the record stressing the necessity to strengthen the legislative powers of GSOC but the new commissioner is going to have to bat hard on those things because she has an uphill battle. I wish her well and if there is anything we can do to assist we will be happy to do so.

I, too, welcome the appointment of the new commissioner. If she carries her independent streak to the new job it will certainly be beneficial. Like Deputy Clare Daly, I am worried about the potential of GSOC to hold gardaí to account and we have not been impressed with the changes made. The body struggles with the task, not necessarily through any fault of its own but because there does not seem to be a massive appetite for serious oversight in the form of a monitoring body with an investigative remit. This is very much required and it would make a significant difference.

I am not sure that bringing the confidential recipient element into GSOC will work despite the fact that the Minister is giving an extra €1 million to make it happen. Many gardaí who have a serious complaint are reluctant to go there and I do not believe GSOC has the wherewithal to deal with it or has been given the necessary resources. The Minister's task is a difficult one as the Department of Justice and Equality is a very powerful, conservative body and I am sure it is not easy to change its stripes. Given everything that has been said and done in the past couple of years, people now expect change and there is an appetite among the public for something different from the police force. A strong, resourceful and fearless GSOC is crucial if we are to have a Garda force that is accountable to the people whom it is supposed to serve and that governs with the consent of the people rather than just as a police force that implements the rule of law.

Question put and agreed to.