I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on yet another Garda Bill and to express a familiar story of disappointment that the Government has once again not just failed, but refused, to reform An Garda Síochána in any radical manner.
I suppose it is no coincidence that I and other Independent Deputies, in particular Deputies Wallace and Daly, have been hammering away at this problem for a long time. Indeed, we have brought it successfully to public awareness and we have achieved a great deal in the sense that many of those who were responsible for the debacle represented by the Garda and the Department of Justice and Equality are no longer in their positions. The response of the Government was to throw bodies into the river. This may have political advantages but we had expected a radical reform of these areas, which are so politically sensitive that they should be taken out of the political arena. It seems that the opposite has been the case in the Government's response to the crisis in the Garda and the difficulties in the Judiciary. Successive governments have acted irresponsibly in addressing these fragile issues, which are so sensitive that the public is beginning to lose confidence not only in the Judiciary or the semi-State bodies, in respect of which it lost confidence many years ago, but also in those entrusted with keeping and enforcing law and order impartially.
I would have thought that a reforming government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party or anyone else would have seen the opportunities that have arisen from the debacle represented by the Garda Síochána to take the axe to the force and clean it up. However, that is not what has happened. Instead, we have seen the same response that we always see from this Government when it finds disasters and hand-grenades inherent in these institutions. The Government seeks to solve the problems that have exploded but all it brings to the issues are little bits of sticking plaster.
The first criteria or demand of a Bill of this nature, which attacks the Judiciary and other areas where the Government has such powers of patronage, should be to ensure that the word "Minister" never appears in the Bill at all. That should be the first demand if the Government is really interested in reform, because the root problem of the matters I have addressed is the fact that successive Ministers have had almost ultimate power within the Garda, the Judiciary and semi-State organisations.
Another common theme is that all Ministers have in effect abused that power. Therefore, to see provision in this Bill to the effect that the Minister for Justice and Equality - this is no reflection on any particular individual, it is a reflection on the ability and capacity for abuse down the road - has the power to veto an investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission into the Garda Commissioner or any future Commissioner is totally unacceptable. Why is that necessary? Why should a Minister be allowed to obstruct an investigation into a Commissioner? The only reason I can think of is the need for that good old tradition of political favouritism and political interference. That clause in the Bill is an abomination. It is symptomatic of the fact that this Government, for reasons known only to itself, is incapable of releasing the power of patronage, the power to make appointments to the Garda, the administration of the Garda and the power to protect people in high places. These should be taken completely out of the political arena but this has not been done.
I believe there are good intentions and that the current Minister for Justice and Equality has good intentions and has intended to make some sort of break with the past. However, we have seen in the case not only of this Bill but in other Bills of this sort an approach so piecemeal and cosmetic that the abuses will continue.
I am afraid this has been a characteristic of the Government in the area of patronage. I am not only referring to appointments to Seanad Éireann but to the guidelines issued by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform early in November. He made some gestures in the light of a rather scandalous attempt to appoint someone to the Seanad that could not be justified. The Minister stated that the guidelines included new procedures for appointments to semi-State bodies, but they are not really worth the paper they are written on because ultimately any appointment can be either vetoed or made by the Minister.
As everyone knows, the same applies to the Judiciary. The Judicial Appointments Advisory Board is stuffed with political appointees in case anyone has failed to remember. The board makes recommendations to the Minister, who can either listen to them or not. A wonderful old fig-leaf is in place to protect whoever the Minister making the appointments happens to be. If he does not get those he wants, that is, people who normally have had identifiable political affiliations in the past, then he can appoint one of his chums to the Bench in any event.
This trend or disease is noticeable in the appointments to inquiries or investigations in areas like the Garda and elsewhere. Why, in the name of God, do we always fall back on a member of the Judiciary or a retired member? These people, many of whom are honourable and of great integrity, have all been political appointees. They have all gone through the same diseased process that top gardaí have to go through. This means extraordinarily embedded establishment people appointed by a Minister for justice are called on to investigate people who have also been appointed by a Minister for justice. What conclusions can we expect them to reach? We cannot blame them, but they are so embedded in the system and so compromised by their initial appointments that they are not of necessity from the pool to which the Government should go when seeking someone to carry out an independent investigation of extraordinary political sensitivities.
The whole business of politicians with various agendas being able to appoint to positions people who are sympathetic to their political points of view should end now. Those in the Government had an opportunity to act when this shambles represented by the Garda - it is in danger of threatening the Judiciary as well - broke out. The Government had the opportunity to take a radical step and by deciding not to involve itself in the kind of activity I have outlined. It did do one or two things but it promised a good deal more. For example, yet again we have been waiting four years for something on judicial appointments to materialise. We will wait and see what happens. In the meantime I can predict that any Bill in this whole area will ensure the last word comes from the Minister. Nothing will be done without ministerial approval or appointment.
What will be called an independent Garda authority will be set up shortly.
Who will make the appointments to that authority? I do not know but I suspect that it will be the Minister. We have already got a chairperson for the authority. What process was implemented in that regard? Did we have a long process of advertising and interviews for this, the most sensitive post in the history of the State? No, we did not. We had a bit of advertising, we may even have had a few interviews but then we had a parachute and lo and behold, landing there in the plum position of chairman of the authority was the person who had been chair of the Revenue Commissioners. I am not saying for one second that she is a bad person. I happen to think that she was a particularly good chair of the Revenue Commissioners. I have come across her time and again at the Committee of Public Accounts and her competence, ability and integrity are undoubted but her suitability for the position of chairman of the new independent Garda authority is questionable to say the least. At the very least, there should have been a public process so that we could have confidence that the person appointed was impartial, independent and well-versed in Garda matters, which must be open to challenge. The problem is that the parachute was provided by the Minister. That is the problem and will continue to be the problem. The other members of the Garda authority will also be appointed by the Minister. There will be a process but at the end of the day, these will be political appointments. There is very little doubt that whatever cosmetic umbrella or structure is put in place to recommend three or four people, as long as the ultimate decision and the ultimate veto rests with the Minister, appointments to the top of An Garda Síochána will be flawed and confidence in the Garda Síochána will be tainted.
I am sure the Minister knows - and I have heard of no plans to change it - the staggering fact that the top 200 appointments in the Garda Síochána are political. I asked a question about that recently, either of the Garda press office or the Department, I cannot recall which. It took a long time for them to respond to that because, I presume, they did not want to. The top 200 positions are political appointments. Why on earth does this Government not say, "We are going to make a clean break with the abuses of the past. We are not going to have Cabinet Ministers interfering in appointments in the Garda"? If one talks to members of An Garda Síochána one will hear them say that they have to be on the right side of the political divide to get promotion. It is not always the case but it is an advantage. That is what still exists in An Garda Síochána today. I see no sign that this Government has any intention of reforming that because all Governments want control of the Garda. I can understand those who say that it is necessary for a Government to have good relations with An Garda Síochána and an overlap in certain areas where the security of the State or of individuals is paramount or is in danger. That is fine, but there is a huge difference between that and political control, political favouritism and protecting those who are in positions of power. What ought to be done here is the introduction of a totally new system which removes the Government, and Ministers in particular, from the picture. I am not referring to any Minister in the current Government when I say that there have been cases of very obvious and indefensible abuses by Ministers for Justice in this country. Those Ministers had powers which they abused, for which they were not accountable at the time. We must not put Governments or Ministers in the way of temptation, which some have seemed unable to resist.