Speech by Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD
Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors Annual Conference, 11th April 2022
I want to thank you for the invitation to attend your annual conference.
It really is a pleasure to be here with you in person today.
I was very pleased to meet your President, General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary a couple of weeks ago, and my remarks today will touch upon some of the issues they raised with me.
To begin with though, I have to note that the last two years have been extraordinary.
At the time of your last Conference in November, it looked like we were returning to some sort of post-Covid normality.
Unfortunately, we almost immediately faced into the arrival of the Omicron variant, and then the outbreak of Russia’s illegal and immoral war in Ukraine.
In extraordinary times, it is more important than ever to acknowledge extraordinary efforts.
And over the last two years, the efforts of members of An Garda Síochána really have been extraordinary.
From the careful policing of the pandemic, protest and public order - with good humour and full respect for people and their human rights;
To supporting the most vulnerable people in our communities during the pandemic;
And giving help to those experiencing domestic abuse;
When we needed An Garda Síochána, you stood up.
Your leadership as sergeants and inspectors was a central reason for that.
In the time I have available to me today, I want to touch upon three themes: the proud history of the Gardaí, the reason and rationale for further reform, and the practical help Government is providing to support you in your work.
Decade of centenaries
This year, we celebrate one hundred years since the establishment of An Garda Síochána.
That deserves some reflection.
A largely unarmed service for 100 years has protected people in their moments of greatest need, relying centrally on the principle of consent.
That is a significant achievement.
It is not for me to comment on how other democratic states police themselves.
What I can say, is that I am proud that we have, through often difficult times, held fast to the principle of an unarmed police service.
Here, Gardaí rely on their trust in and connections to their communities.
You don’t just police our communities; you are part of our communities.
I know how much you value that and rely on it every day - we have a responsibility to ensure that Gardai represent every community. For 100 years you have kept us safe and secure.
Members have risen to every challenge.
It started with establishing the trust of the people following years of unrest and war.
Then we moved to policing the Emergency, and in turn the Troubles.
And then the growth of organised crime, and the arrival of drugs in our society.
More recently, COVID-19 was a particular challenge.
But these examples are just that.
100 years of service cannot be reduced to a paragraph.
But I thank each and every one of you for the sacrifices you and your families make for us each and every day.
Your history deserves to be celebrated and commemorated.
I am grateful to An Garda Síochána for the comprehensive programme of events which has been prepared to mark your centenary.
With restrictions easing, I intend to be at as many of the centenary events as possible.
To be with you, and your communities, as you reflect on the past and prepare for the future.
Reform of policing
Your history is a proud one.
Your future can and should be even more so.
But the challenges have changed since 1922.
And so An Garda Síochána will need to continue to change also.
Evolution, improvement, reform – these are not new to you.
But each set of changes over the decades has improved policing in Ireland.
That is why the public continue to trust you.
Of course, that trust cannot be taken for granted.
At times over the last decade that confidence in you, and indeed in my Department, has been dented.
We all understand nowadays that the extraordinary powers granted to members of An Garda Síochána – the strongest coercive powers conferred upon any institution or public servant in this country – must be accompanied by robust, transparent and independent accountability.
In a liberal democracy we must all uphold the importance of human rights as central to everything we do.
The Garda Inspectorate, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission - and the Policing Authority have all made, and continue to make, an enormous contribution to maintaining essential public confidence in policing in Ireland.
The Government is committed to building on what they, and you, have achieved.
I would particularly like to pay tribute to the dedicated leadership of the Garda Commissioner and his management team, including all those of you in leadership roles in An Garda Síochána.
You have made the case for, and delivered, enormous change in recent years.
At the heart of that change is the vision mapped out by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in 2018.
They set the direction for a police service that is a model of policing excellence; of a world class policing service.
With the necessary powers, resources and effective technology to keep Ireland safe;
Balanced by a strong and effective system of governance and accountability.
As you know, a central plank of implementing that vision is the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill.
I am grateful for the engagement of your Association with the Oireachtas Committee hearings on the Bill.
It will be the largest overhaul of policing legislation in a generation.
But today I want to speak about one particular aspect that is of concern to both you and I.
That is the overhaul of the system for the investigation of allegations of wrong doing by members of An Garda Síochána.
I know that you have called for the rights of your members to fair procedures and natural justice to be respected.
I can assure you that they will be.
I understand your concerns in relation to how the complaints system works.
I know that the vast majority of the members of An Garda Síochána are committed to providing the best service they can to the public.
I also know that the vast majority have signed up to the Code of Ethics and are committed to a human rights based approach to policing.
But, as public servants, our own standards of behaviour and ethics means that more is expected of all of us than that.
It demands that we can demonstrate, every day, that we are adhering to the highest standards and that there is independent assurance of that.
It also demands that where people do not meet those standards that they are identified, their behaviour called out and dealt with.
That is in the interest of everyone – members of An Garda Síochána; complainants; and the important work of GSOC itself.
I have held constructive conversations with GSOC – I have obviously spoken to your leadership - and I confident we will reach a solution which satisfies everyone.
Perhaps understandably, the debate on this Bill has focussed to a great degree on this and related points.
As it progresses, I hope that other aspects such as the new community safety partnership model, and the overhaul of security oversight, will also feature in public debate.
These changes I absolutely believe will be better for the public, and for those of us who serve them.
The Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill is a central plank of our proposed reforms.
But of course it does not stand alone.
The roll out of the new Garda Operating Model is another key part of the vision for more effective, community-focused policing.
It will lead to more front-line Gardaí backed up by more specialist services, increased Garda visibility, and a wider range of policing services for people in their local area.
The legislation needed to support the new model will be enacted this year.
The structural changes, of course, will take a little longer.
I know you have concerns about how the new organisational model will impact you and your members, but I ask that we all await until it is fully implemented.
Of course, I always encourage ongoing consultation and dialogue throughout organisational change such as this.
The Digital Recording Bill is also an important part of providing Gardaí with the tools you need.
I expect to publish the Bill next month.
This Bill will allow for the introduction of body worn cameras.
This is a key element of my Justice Plan 2022 and of course was a recommendation from the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.
It is also something that members of An Garda Síochána have called for.
Policing services across the world have gained significant benefits from the introduction of these devices.
They can improve front-line capability with the accurate recording of incidents.
They can also help to expedite analysis, enhance situational awareness, and protect police from harm.
This is why this legislation, which will also strengthen provisions around ANPR and CCTV, is a priority for me.
The legislation will need to be supported by codes of practice to ensure that safeguards are in place to ensure the protection of privacy and human rights.
The Commissioner will develop the codes in consultation with various stakeholders.
A data protection impact assessment and a human rights impact assessment will be prepared.
When the Code is finalised, it will be submitted to me for approval and for inclusion in a Statutory Instrument.
An Garda Síochána has commenced an extensive market assessment to ensure you acquire the most modern and effective body worn camera solution.
Underpinning legislation, codes of practice, and the devices themselves are important parts of the solution.
The other critical component is a digital evidence management system.
That is need to ensure that the ever growing volume of digital images are processed efficiently and safely, in support of police investigations.
Garda management has been engaging with other police services to gather digital evidence best practice from Europe and North America.
They will also shortly engage formally with potential vendors through an Request for Information process.
Funding is also needed, and I am engaging with Minister McGrath on that.
There is a lot of work needed on this.
But I am confident we will move to begin piloting this new technology in the next 12 months.
As important as these legislative changes are, I know you also need support from the Government.
That starts with making sure you have the resources you need to carry out your work.
I was happy to make sure that Budget 2022 includes an unprecedented allocation of more than €2 billion to An Garda Síochána.
That increased budget allows for the recruitment of up to 800 Gardaí and 400 Garda staff this year.
I am confident that I speak for all of Government when I say that we were delighted that the recruitment of trainees resumed last year, following the temporary closure of the Garda College.
This means we will reach our target of 15,000 sworn members in the next year or so.
The incredible levels of interest in the recent Garda recruitment campaign are also worth mentioning.
With over 10,000 applications received, the attractiveness of the profession is clear.
And of course it reflects the widespread respect for the important position that Gardaí occupy in our society.
Along with the fundamental sense of purpose that inspires the service you give the people of our country.
Budget 2022 also included an extra €10.5m to support investment in ICT, mobile devices and training supports.
Put simply, this is intended to support you to do your jobs.
Your leadership spoke to me in detail about the importance of ensuring appropriate training is available to you, delivered in the appropriate facilities.
I want to firstly commend the HR and People Development leadership of the service.
To continue to train and educate Gardaí during the pandemic was no mean feat.
I also want to commend AGSI.
I know you worked side by side with Garda Management throughout the pandemic, on this area as on so many others.
And the move to online training allowed new initiatives to continue, and for an increasing number of members to continue to develop yourselves.
But of course as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic, I expect that the training and development opportunities in An Garda Síochána will mirror developments across further and higher education.
In other words, we will move towards a blended approach that is tailored to the particular type of training being delivered.
In some cases, on-line will be best; in others in-person or a mix of both.
I know that the Commissioner is currently reviewing the annual plan for learning and development.
As he does so, he is mindful that so many members of An Garda Síochána have benefitted hugely from having access to training that would never otherwise be available in Ireland.
But I agree with you and your there are some areas of training where in-person or blended approaches will always be preferable.
Some of these are obvious areas of priority – areas like foundation training, firearms, driving, public order, SIO and promotion and retirement training will be prioritised for either in person or blended training.
But there are other areas that need an extra focus, as your leadership made clear when we met.
The Commissioner, throughout his career, has shown a real determination to tackle domestic, sexual and gender based violence.
It is also one of my top priorities.
And so I am particularly pleased to note that he intends to review all DPSU training.
As part of this review, two revised modules, Sexual Crime Investigation and Victims Engagement are rolling out initially, delivered at Templemore.
The remaining modules are Domestic Abuse Intervention and Investigation, Sex offender Management and Online Child Exploitation – it is expected that these will also be rolled out during this year.
I cannot talk about Government support without touching upon public service pay.
Indeed, it was top of the issues raised with me by your leadership.
Last Friday, Antoinette wrote to the WRC on behalf of your National Executive to invoke section 5.7 of the Building Momentum public sector pay deal.
You have joined a number of trade unions who have done so.
This of course represents your response to the really challenging impact of inflation on the cost of living in Ireland.
As you are aware, my colleague Minister McGrath has recently confirmed that he will engage with Unions and Associations in a review of Building Momentum.
It is important that your voices are central in those discussions and I know that Minister McGrath is aware of that.
As this engagement progresses, I have no doubt that I will be in regular contact with your leadership, and with Minister McGrath.
It really is my pleasure and honour to be physically here with you today.
I hope I will have the opportunity to speak with many of you, and to hear more about your work and the challenges you face.
But before I do so, I want to pay tribute to the key role you play in An Garda Síochána as Sergeants and Inspectors.
You are leaders.
At the frontline of policing, you manage the delivery of effective policing and keeping our communities safe.
You support Garda members and staff, who are growing in numbers and in diversity.
As well as that, you are the critical link between operational and management roles.
As part of that role, you set the high standards that the public are entitled to expect from its police service.
You make sure that human rights are embedded as the foundation and purpose of policing in Ireland.
I genuinely want to thank you for your efforts, and your resilience.
Thank you for the work you do.
Thank you for protecting our communities and providing strong leadership.