Estimates for Public Services, 1996. - Garda Síochána Bill, 1996: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The object of this Bill is to provide a mechanism to end the long-standing dispute surrounding the Garda Representative Association. All Deputies will be aware of this dispute which has persisted for some years now and resulted in a situation where a significant number of gardaí are, in effect, without representation in regard to important matters such as pay, pensions and conditions of service. I am sure all Deputies share my view that that situation must be deplored and cannot be allowed to continue.

I have indicated more than once that it is with extreme reluctance I find myself in the position of having to introduce legislation which might be seen by some as interfering in the internal affairs of a staff association and which could, in the last resort, result in the disestablishment of that association as a recognised representative body. It has always been my view since taking office in December 1994 and that of my predecessor, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, that the problem should have been solved by those in dispute by agreement and co-operation, in a spirit of goodwill and mutual interest. Given the failure of the many other initiatives to settle the dispute, I am left with no alternative but to proceed as I am now proposing. We all have a common interest in ensuring that the smooth and efficient working of our national police force is not placed at risk by continued dissension in the garda rank. It is a matter of great regret that the garda leaders in this dispute could not come together to solve the matter. I had even hoped that by announcing the draft heads it would have happened, but alas it did not.

The Garda Representative Association is recognised under Statute as the sole organisation lawfully to represent members of the force at garda rank in matters concerning pay, pensions and conditions of service. Up to recent years it would seem to have filled that role successfully since 1978, but the recent difficulties have meant it cannot, in present circumstances, duly represent all potential members.

The Bill attempts to resolve the dispute by prescribing, in the interest of fairness and equity, certain rules of procedure and organisation which must be observed by any organisation which represents gardaí. These new rules are intended to make good a so-called "democratic deficit" in the constitution of the association which had been identified by disaffected members. Failure by the association to comply with these rules would bring into play the proposed power of the Minister, in effect, to withdraw recognition from the organisation.

The basic structures and operation of all the Garda associations have always been governed by legislation. Section 13 of the Garda Síochána Act, 1924, allows for the establishment of Garda associations. Section 14 of the Police Forces Amalgamation Act, 1925, allows the Minister to make regulations in relation to the formation of such representative associations.

The present structures and organisation of the Garda Representative Association are provided for under four sets of regulations — made in 1978, 1983, 1987 and 1990 — by the Minister for Justice, with the approval of Government, on foot of the statutory provisions I mentioned. Those regulations were made in agreement with the GRA at the relevant times. The changes proposed in this Bill, however, do not have similar agreement. On the contrary, they come about because all efforts to secure agreement over a two year period have failed. In the absence of agreement, legislation is the only option open to me to put an end to this sorry affair.

Before I outline the provisions of this Bill I should like to outline the background to the dissension within the association and the efforts made to achieve a resolution. Disagreements within the association did not become the subject of widespread public knowledge until the association's annual delegate conference in 1994 was disrupted by disaffected members. In March that year four members of the central executive committee, CEC, had taken an action against the GRA in the High Court over the conduct of a ballot concerning a pension agreement reached at the Garda conciliation council. They lost the action and were, subsequently, expelled from the GRA. As a result, a significant number of members of the GRA felt that they could no longer repose their confidence in, or give their allegiance to, the association.

There are now almost 2,500 gardaí, mainly based in the Dublin metropolitan area, DMA, who are not contributing membership subscriptions to the GRA. A sizeable number of the 2,500 have joined a separate organisation — the Garda Federation. A further 1,000 gardaí in four Garda divisions — Louth-Meath, Cavan-Monaghan, Cork West and Tipperary — are, while still members of the association, not fully participating in its activities.

Prior to my appointment as Minister in December 1994, two initiatives to resolve the dispute had failed. The first was an offer by the Garda Commissioner to provide an assistant commissioner to act as a mediator; the offer was not taken up by the GRA. The second involved a very substantial mediation effort, in a personal capacity, by Mr. Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission. His report on the dispute contained a range of recommendations aimed at ending the dispute. As some important recommendations in this report proved unacceptable to the GRA this initiative also failed.

On my appointment in December 1994 as Minister, I held consultations with all three parties to the dispute. Based on those consultations, I prepared a discussion document with suggestions aimed at reconciling differences. The document was circulated to the three groups in March 1995. Among the matters addressed in that document were democratisation of procedures within the GRA, the system of election of officers, the appointment of trustees, the management of standing orders and the need for review of the GRA's disciplinary procedures. The responses from the three groups to the discussion document, however, did not have sufficient common ground to suggest that these ideas could be taken any further with any real hope of success. I was, therefore, forced to abandon that initiative.

At the GRA annual delegate conference on 9 May 1995 I first raised the question of an agreed form of arbitration. In the event, all three parties to the dispute subsequently agreed to arbitration. Mr. John Horgan, a former chairman of the Labour Court, agreed to act as arbitrator. Having had separate discussions with each group, he arranged for a first joint meeting on 5 October 1995. The meeting was not a success and having regard to what was said at it Mr. Horgan reported that he was not satisfied he could expect sufficient co-operation from the GRA to address the issues involved.

A further and final attempt at resolving the dispute was made in January this year when the former General Secretary of the GRA, Mr. Jack Marrinan, tried to bring all three groups together. This attempt also failed, essentially because the GRA was not prepared to accept him as chairman of the process. All through these processes, there was no attempt by all dissenting groups to sit down together to solve their differences.

It is clear from my discussions with the different groups and the reports of the mediator and arbitrator that the fundamental issues, which the Bill seeks to address, revolve around the following: The process governing the appointment of the president, vice-president and the officials of the association; the voting structure at the central executive committee; disciplinary actions taken against members or former members; appointments of the trustees and treasurer; and adoption of Standing Orders. In addition, the Bill also proposes to remove some legal uncertainties which, I am advised, exist under present legislation. I also note that there are those who maintain the row also has its basis in the acceptance of the pensionability agreement by the GRA.

Section 1 amends section 13 (1) of the Garda Síochána Act, 1924, to provide explicitly that only one association can represent any one rank in the force. It had always been assumed that the existing provision in the Garda Síochána Act, 1924 so provided. I have been advised, however, that that view may not be correct and that the matter should be put beyond doubt by an unambiguous statement as in section 1. The new provision may be thought to be an unusual one but the reason for it is quite simply that — I think Deputies will agree with me on this — it clearly would not be in the public interest to have a number of representative bodies competing with each other in seeking to influence the pay, pensions and conditions of service of any rank of a national police force. A Supreme Court judge has said as much. In the 1988 Aughey case Mr. Justice Walsh stated that if the areas of pay, pensions and conditions of service "became the subject of multi-union or multi-association agitation or industrial action by members of the Garda Síochána, it would be a matter of grave public concern and public interest particularly because of the fact that the Garda Síochána is a unitary national police force". I am not prepared to have two representative bodies for the rank of garda. That option is not available even though I know that is what the federation or some of its leaderships are pressing for.

Section 2 provides that a representative association established pursuant to section 13 (1) of the Garda Síochána Act, 1924 for the garda rank must have the support of such a majority of the garda rank as satisfies me that the association can speak and make agreements on behalf of the rank as a whole. Plainly, the Bill should not quantify the majority required under this section — that depends on circumstances at any particular time.

Section 3 provides for the main purpose of the Bill which is to set out certain structures and procedures aimed at ensuring fairness and equity within the representative organisation. The details are set out in the Schedule which is applied by section 3. The Schedule will replace all statutory regulations applying heretofore to the association with such changes and additions as will meet the purpose of the Bill. It may seem unusual that I am now proposing to do by legislation what has heretofore been done by statutory instrument but the reason is simple. I have been advised that detailed provisions enshrined in legislation which, of course, carries with it the full authority of the Oireachtas, are less open to court challenge. I will deal with the contents of the Schedule later in my remarks.

Section 4 allows the Minister for Justice to make an order specifying that an association established under section 13 of the Garda Síochána Act, 1924 which fails to conform to the requirements of the Garda Síochána Acts, including this Bill, shall cease to be such an established association. Such an order can only be made after I have given the association 30 days' notice that I propose to make such an order. The association to which such a notice has been given will have 30 days to respond to the notice and-or take any action needed to bring it into conformity with the requirements of the Acts. Any order made must be approved by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas before it can take effect, as provided later in section 8. In order to enable me to satisify myself as to whether or not an association is conforming to the requirements of the Acts, I must be able to requisition the up to date rules and constitution of the association. That is the purpose of section 5.

The legal power of disestablishment is a power which no Minister for Justice would lightly contemplate using. However, as I have explained, it would be unavoidable if every alternative means to resolve a dispute outside the legislative sphere has failed.

Disciplinary actions of the GRA over the past two years, whatever about their legal propriety which is the subject of ongoing civil litigation, have caused much of the resentment and personal rancour surrounding this dispute. This factor has been a huge obstacle to a resolution of the dispute. It is necessary that the Bill provide for an independent body which can review disciplinary decisions as appropriate.

Section 6 given the Minister power to establish a committee for the purpose of determining appeals made by members or former members of the association against disciplinary decisions made by the GRA since 1 January 1994. The committee would be composed of a practising barrister or solicitor of not less than seven years standing, who would be chairman, and two other members who would be outsiders. The decision of the committee in each case would be final and binding on the applicant and on the association. I want to clarify that the committee would be made up of an outside chairman and two outside members. In using the word "members", I do not mean members of the Garda Síochána.

The timing of this review has not been stated in the Bill. It has been put to me by the federation and others that this matter is crucial and I will examine the matter again before Committee Stage. One of the considerations I cannot ignore is the current legal proceedings in this matter.

The Schedule to the Bill sets out the detailed rules of procedure and organisation to which the organisation charged with representing gardaí must conform. Most of the provisions in the Schedule simply reproduce the existing regulations which the Schedule will replace, and do not call for comment. I will refer, therefore, only to the changes proposed.

Paragraph 6 of the Schedule deals with the election to and membership of the Central Executive Committee — the CEC. At present, the CEC is made up of 26 members each having been elected by their respective divisional committees. A central problem with this structure is that, although it is sensibly modelled on the operational structure of the force, it does not taken into account the large difference in the number of gardaí in one division compared to another. This is particularly acute in the context of the Dublin Metropolitan Area which, together with Garda Headquarters and the Central and Special Detective Units, has more than 40 per cent of the Garda rank strength but only seven seats on the 26 member CEC.

Debate adjourned.