CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

 

Address by Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD

to the Garda Representative Association, Annual Delegate Conference

25 May 2022

 

President, Vice President, Commissioner and Delegates,

Thank you for your invitation to attend your Annual Delegate Conference.

I am delighted to be here and to be able to speak to you all in person.

Because of Covid, I spoke to you at your last two annual conferences virtually, so I am particularly pleased to be in person here today.

I want to start by saying that as Minister for Justice, I take great pride in the vital work that Garda members are engaged in throughout this country.

It is the women and men of An Garda Síochána who work to keep us safe from harm, and I thank all Gardaí for their continued dedication to serving our communities.

 

2022 is of course a landmark year, as we mark the centenary of An Garda Síochána.

Last night I was privileged to attend an event in the Gresham Hotel to commemorate the founding meeting convened in that very hotel in February 1922 and to pay tribute to the outstanding work of all those who have served as Gardaí over the past 100 years.

As I said last night, the establishment of a new police service by the Provisional Government in 1922 was one of the key foundation stones of the Irish Free State, and An Garda Síochána remains to this day one of the great successes of this country. Its foundation marking the start of a special relationship between the Irish people and the police service of the new State.

An Garda Síochána has faced a succession of challenges over its history, from establishing the trust of the people following years of unrest and war, to the Emergency years during the Second World War, the Troubles, the growth of organised crime, the COVID-19 pandemic and a wide range of other issues over these decades.

On each occasion, individual Gardaí have risen to the challenge and kept us safe.

But I also want to recognise that it is the seemingly smaller moments of policing that make an equally significant impact.

Being available and visible in your communities makes all the difference when it comes to people feeling safe and being safe in their homes and in their local areas.

We are all immensely grateful to An Garda Síochána for your outstanding dedication and commitment to serving the public and for the important role that you play in our society, notably throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I want to commend Gardaí who provided support to elderly and vulnerable people over that time.

The efforts of local Gardaí in supporting the needs of vulnerable people as best as they could in extreme circumstances was phenomenal and will never be forgotten.

I recognise that this service does not come without risk and that Gardaí personally put their lives in danger on a daily basis in order to keep the rest of us safe.

 

Last Saturday I attended the annual Garda Memorial Day at Dublin Castle and in this centenary year it is crucial that we remember and recognise the sacrifices made by the 89 Garda members who have lost their lives in the line of duty over the last century.

The death of each and every Garda member has been a huge loss both to their family and friends, but also to the wider communities in which they lived and worked, and whom they protected with such dedication.

From Garda Henry Phelan, the first member of the newly formed Civic Guards to be killed in the line of duty in November 1922 to Detective Garda Colm Horkan who was so tragically killed in June 2020 and all the far too many brave men who lost their lives in between, each of those 89 men on the Garda Roll of Honour died in the service of the State and for the people of Ireland.

We remember each them and the dedication which all Gardaí have shown in preserving law, order and the security of our country.

The Government is committed to helping all those of you serving in An Garda Síochána in ensuring that there is strong, visible policing right across Ireland. 

A key part of the Government’s commitment to assisting Gardaí in carrying out duties safely and effectively is the An Garda Síochána (Digital Recording) Bill 2022.

I expect to bring the full Bill to Government within weeks and introduce it at second stage in the Dáil by the end of June – this will put us on track to enact the Bill by the end of the  year.

I know that bodycameras are something which you have called for previously and this Bill, will allow for the introduction of bodyworn cameras for Gardaí, as well as strengthening provisions around CCTV and ANPR.

As you are all aware, 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 is a priority for me.

It will provide a robust and modern statutory framework for the use by An Garda Síochána of digital recording devices to support their functions, such as the investigation, detection, prevention and prosecution of criminal offences, safeguarding against and preventing threats to public safety and public order, and in matters relating to the security of the State.  

We will ensure that safeguards are in place to ensure the protection of privacy and human rights.

Codes of Practice will have to be published and Human Rights and data protection impact assessments must be agreed following consultation with relevant stakeholders.    

The Bill is broad and covers a number of areas and I am confident we will move to begin piloting bodyworn cameras in the next 12 months.

While the Bill is strong on the powers to record, it is less strong on the powers to process records. 

This is something I intend to rectify by introducing amendments at committee stage when the Bill is proceeding through the Houses of the Oireachtas.  

There is no point in providing you in An Garda Síochána with significant powers to use video evidence if you have limited powers to search this evidence or process it in an automated way. 

It is my intention to provide for the use of facial recognition technology, Artificial Intelligence technology and other digital evidence management systems by An Garda Síochána. 

I have been clear, that as Minister for Justice, I cannot ask you, the members of An Garda Síochána, to provide a world class policing service with one hand tied behind your backs.   

Your primary duty in An Garda Síochána is to protect the public. 

If you are not using the latest technologies available then you cannot live up to your mission.  

The arguments for digital policing and digital evidence are compelling. 

I have been given examples of thousands of hours of CCTV which were searched manually in certain murder cases.

Many of An Garda Síochána’s international law enforcement partners – such as Europol, Interpol, the UK National Crime Agency and the US National centre for missing and exploited children – already use facial recognition technology.

They use it to search for missing children, to tackle child sex exploitation and prevent terrorism and serious organised crime.

If Ireland is to cooperate effectively with these organisations, then An Garda Síochána must have the proper tools for doing so.  

Facial recognition software could be used where you might have a photo of a person that you need to search against recordings from a CCTV system. 

A manual search might take tens of thousands of hours while an automated search might take minutes.  

It is important to remember that by identifying someone’s face in a certain location at a certain time, you might also be proving their innocence as that might make it impossible that they have committed the crime.   

However, it is my intention that any search results will only be used to assist a human decision making process. 

We will not let the computers alone make decisions.

I will prohibit use of such systems for racial and other forms of profiling.   

Facial recognition will not be used for indiscriminate surveillance and mass data gathering or – it will be used in very clearly defined circumstances to help Gardaí search CCTV and video footage.

Importantly, the technology will only be used to support decision makers in An Garda Síochána – it will not replace them. 

Any provisions that I will introduce will also fully comply with GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018.

I know there are some who say that there should be a ban on facial recognition technology in law enforcement, but I cannot agree with that.

We must acknowledge that there are occasions when the interests of public safety, fighting crime and national security must override the absolute right to privacy.

 

Of course, I am also committed to supporting An Garda Síochána through ensuring you have the necessary resources to do your work.

This year the Government provided an unprecedented budget of over €2 billion to An Garda Síochána, including provision for capital budget of €147 million.

I know that as an organisation you have raised concerns with regard to the number of trainees who will enter Templemore this year.

It has of course been inevitable that recruitment has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years, however I can assure you that the Government remains committed to our target of increasing the number of Garda members to 15,000 – and going beyond this.

I was very pleased to able to attend the Garda College in Templemore last week to attend the latest passing out ceremony of 102 new Garda members, bringing the number of members attested so far this year to 316 and the current total number of members to approximately 14,396 with a further attestation to come in early July.

This will represent an increase of 12 per cent since December 2015 when there were 12,816 Garda members nationwide.

I was very encouraged by the level of interest in the recent recruitment campaign.

Over 11,000 men and women applied to join your ranks.

That is an incredible number of people and it is proof of the respect and appreciation that is out there for the work that you all do.

It also shows that being a member of An Garda Síochána rightfully remains an occupation to be extremely proud of.

The Commissioner has indicated that capacity is being developed in the Garda College to have a rolling period of recruitment starting in September and into next year. 

Class groups of in the region of 200 entrants can be accommodated at 11 week intervals.

This should ensure that there will be approximately 400 additional trainees entering the College before the end of the year.

The exact intake numbers for 2023 will be determined as part of the Budgetary process.

But the capacity provided by the recruitment competition means that a steady stream of recruits will be able to enter the College, in keeping with our commitment to continue to train new recruits annually.

In my speech at the Gresham last night, I noted the particular contribution which has been made by the women of An Garda Síochána since the first twelve female recruits joined in 1959.

It is vital that everyone in our society sees members of their own communities serving in An Garda Síochána and I particularly welcome that 40% of applicants in the recent recruitment competition were women and that there was a notable increase in numbers applying from minority backgrounds.

I am sure everyone in this room recognises the vital contribution which a much diverse police service will bring to our society.

 

As I have mentioned, An Garda Síochána has faced a succession of challenges since its foundation in 1922, and it is important to acknowledge that reform is necessary in order to continue to combat challenges effectively.

I welcome the willingness on the part of Gardaí to actively participate in the ambitious programme of reform outlined in A Policing Service for our Future.

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.

I know how important it is to ensure appropriate training is available to you, delivered in appropriate facilities.

Online training allowed Gardaí to continue to train and educate during the pandemic.

It allowed new initiatives to continue, and for members to continue to develop yourselves.

But of course as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic, I expect 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 the Commissioner is mindful that so many members of An Garda Síochána have benefitted hugely from the opportunities online training have provided, including access to training that would never otherwise be available in Ireland.

But 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.

Training is also an important element of ensuring victims – including victims of domestic, sexual and gender based violence - are continually supported.

I also know that a new training programme is being worked on to enhance the skills of DPSU members and will ensure that each one can carry out the full range of specialist tasks frequently necessitated within their roles.

I look forward to being updated as this work progresses.

 

Working together, we are ensuring that more victims are coming forward to report these awful crimes, confident in the knowledge that they will be treated with dignity and respect by all those they come into contact with in the justice system.

As you know, I am currently leading work on a new whole of Government strategy to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This new plan will have a particular focus on prevention, and on ensuring victims are better supported. It will set an overall goal of zero tolerance in our society of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

I intend to bring both the finalised strategy and the action plan to Government in the coming weeks.

The input of An Garda Síochána and the work of your members will be crucial to the success of the strategy.

A lot of work is being carried out in this area and I look forward to continuing to work together on this.

A collaborative approach is so important to ensuring victims receive the best possible support that they deserve.

And with collaboration in mind, the Government is committed to maintaining effective engagement with Unions and Associations in an effort to further develop strong relationships between Government Departments and An Garda Síochána.

My colleague Minister McGrath committed to engagement regarding a review of the Building Momentum public sector pay deal.

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.

My officials, along with officials in the Department of Public Expenditure are in communication with Unions and Associations on the matter and I understand further engagement is taking place this week.

I might also take this opportunity to provide an update on a number of issues your leadership team raised with me at a recent meeting in advance of your conference.

One of the issues raised was the review of the compulsory retirement age for Garda members.

That has now been completed and submitted to me and I am currently giving it detailed consideration.

Your leadership also raised the process for applying for the Supplementary Pension and the variety of approaches being taken by the Department of Social Protection.

This matter was raised by my Department with DPER earlier this month, and it is expected that, working together with the Department of Social Protection, we will be able to make progress in clarifying and resolving the remaining issues.      

 

In conclusion, while we commemorate 100 years of An Garda Síochána and take time to reflect on the distinguished service over that period, it is important that we equally focus on what can be achieved over the next 100 years.

 

The changing landscape of criminal behaviours against the backdrop of technological advances have to be reflected in how crime is disrupted.

As Minister for Justice I am committed to supporting the necessary legislative developments and ensuring that An Garda Síochána has the funding it needs to continue the outstanding work that has made the country so proud over the past century.

But at the centre of it all is you – the frontline members of An Garda Síochána, at the heart of your communities, keeping them safe and protecting our State.

Thank you for that work and that all that you do for the people of Ireland.

ENDS