SPEECH BY MINISTER FOR JUSTICE AND EQUALITY, MR CHARLES FLANAGAN, T.D., AT 2018 ANNUAL DELEGATE CONFERENCE OF ASSOCIATION GARDA SERGEANTS AND INSPECTORS (AGSI)
Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow - Monday 26 March 2018 at 6 p.m.
Chair, distinguished delegates and guests, thank you for inviting me. I am delighted to be at your annual conference, an important gathering for an important group in our society, our Garda Sergeants and Inspectors.
At the very outset, I want to acknowledge that importance. I am sure the events in Trebes have been playing on your minds in the last week. You will have been particularly aware of the fate of Arnaud Beltrame. I want you to know that in government, in my department and in society generally, we fully recognise that you are the people who, along with your colleagues at other grades and levels in An Garda Síochána, you are the people we depend on to protect us, to be brave for us, to make sacrifices for us and we are all very grateful for your willingness to do that.
Speaking personally, both as someone from a legal background and as a public representative, I have had many opportunities over the years, to work closely with An Garda Síochána, and like the vast majority of people in the State, I hold you in high esteem. So it’s a real privilege to be here today for the first time as Minister to address you.
But while it might be a privilege for me, I know it is not an easy time for you. The service is facing challenges. There is no question about that. Serious issues have arisen. But your organisation has embarked on a major programme of change to enable it to adapt both to what has happened and to the demands of modern policing, and every one of us in this room knows that you, the members of the supervisory ranks, the link between the front-line and senior leadership in the organisation, you are the people who are absolutely critical to the success of the programme of change and then in turn to the success of An Garda Síochána.
It’s a success I am confident we will see because I know you want to deliver what we all want to see, an organisation capable of providing the type of police service that the people of Ireland deserve – one which is rooted in community, trusted and respected by those it serves and fully equipped to carry out its mandate. I know you are a long way along the road to being that service in many respects. I want to assure you of my support and that of the government as you travel the rest of it.
But as to the issues on that road, well I would like to address some of them today.
Resources - people
First of all resources. We all know it’s not possible to provide a good service without sufficient people, equipped with the right tools, to do the job.
Well, in terms of people, the numbers tell the tale of our commitment. Over St Patrick’s weekend 206 new Gardaí passed out from the Garda College. They were the first of the 2018 groups. By the end of the year they will have been joined by three others, which will bring the total of new members to 800. In all, by the end of 2018, Garda numbers will be at over 14,000 – a net increase of 500 on top of last year’s increase of 600.
I’m sure you all know that increase last year represented the first significant one since numbers started falling in 2009, and it’s good to see. It’s great that we have been able to drive that level of recruitment, but of course we can’t ignore the fact that as the number of new Gardaí increases, so does the requirement for adequate supervision and support for them. It is crucial that new members are guided as they develop into committed members who carry out their duties in a manner that does honour to themselves and their organisation and reflects the Code of Ethics that is now in place to guide the actions of every member and civilian in An Garda Síochána. That is why I am engaging with my colleague the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to agree revised employment ceilings for your ranks, to ensure you have the numbers to provide this absolutely essential support and supervision.
And we are increasing numbers in other areas too. We all know that recruitment was suspended during the bleak years of the economic downturn, but as soon as the Government had steered the economy back on the road to recovery we put in place a plan to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 by 2021, with that 21 thousand to be made up of 15,000 members, 2000 reserves and 4000 civilians.
You will be aware that we recruited for Reserves last year and that a Reserve class is due to enter the College shortly, and you will be aware too of the programme of civilianisation which is underway. The aim of it is twofold: to provide additional expertise in some areas, and in more general administration areas, to free up members at all ranks to do the work you have been trained to do – police work, preventing and investigating crime.
I do recognise that our plans for a new, more strategic approach to the Garda Reserve, and for significant civilianisation, represent major changes. And I recognise that change can be difficult. However I am very firmly of the view that these ones will deliver significant support to you and other members of the force as you engage in core policing work. The best modern police services are those with an integrated workforce where police professionals and civilians work together and where their respective skills and expertise are fully recognised. We want to be the best.
So I do both expect and wish to see the pace of civilianisation and reassignments to operational policing accelerate this year. I know that your Association is engaged in discussions with Garda management on the roll out of the reassignment programme. I urge you to embrace it positively and to engage with it constructively. The Commissioner is committed to it being done in a fair way, he is taking account of the length of time and the reason a member may have been away from the front line and he is ensuring that members who are reassigned have the support they need to contribute to operational policing. The government meanwhile has allocated very significant funding, in the order of 1.65 billion euro. So together, let’s make sure the funding is deployed effectively and that we get results. I believe we must make this work. There is no downside to civilianisation – it means more members on the front line to add to, support, and alleviate the strain on those already there.
Resources – Fleet, ICT
But the government is not only committed to investing in people in An Garda Síochána. We also understand the need to invest in resources - computers, vehicles, accommodation.
We have made good progress on the Garda fleet. Between 2013 and 2017, about 2000 new vehicles came on stream. We spent almost 44 million in that period; and between now and 2021, we have earmarked another 30 million euro, under the Government’s Capital plan, to make sure the fleet remains modern, effective and fit for purpose.
We are investing in ICT as well. Between 2016 and 2021 some €342 million will have been spent on ensuring you get to deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies. In the last few years we have seen the delivery of new systems including eVetting, a new Anti-money Laundering application, and the ANPR – automated number plate recognition – system. Many new functions have also been added to the PULSE system, which itself is supported by a dedicated data entry service in Castlebar, and further initiatives are also planned under the MRP, including computer aided dispatch facilities, a roster and duty management system, an investigations system, an investigations management system and the Schengen Information System - SIS II.
So we are spending the money, to enable you to be the best.
But being the best will, of course, involve a willingness to embrace change. I acknowledge that change brings challenges, but if a challenge is the right challenge, overcoming it can be really satisfying.
And one of the challenges facing the service now, is of course the reform programme, a major element of which is The Policing Authority.
The Authority’s mission is clear – to drive excellent policing through valued and effective oversight and governance. We all need oversight and governance and I strongly believe the Policing Authority has made a significant impact since its establishment. It has met regularly with the Commissioner and management team to discuss performance in relation to policing matters, it has focussed on establishing policing priorities and a Policing Plan for 2018, and it has also of course played a central role in the development of the Code of Ethics which I referred to earlier.
I am confident that the reform plan, which is being pursued by An Garda Síochána, supported by the Government and overseen by the Policing Authority, has the capacity to deliver a service which is modern, efficient, effective and fit for purpose and I ask you all to get behind it, and increase the pace of change to reflect the urgency of the task and the expectations of the public.
Commission on Future of Policing
Of course while we are asking you to embrace the Reform Programme on the one hand, we are also looking at the wider issue of Policing, and the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is a really important project which is due to report in September. Comprised of national and international experts and chaired by Kathleen O’Toole, it is examining every aspect of policing in a fundamental way. I know the Commission has engaged with a wide range of stakeholders in the Justice Sector including your association, and has undertaken countrywide consultation with members directly and with the public. I want to thank you for your co-operation and I hope you are looking forward as much as I am, to a well-grounded report that will map an ambitious future for An Garda Siochana come September.
In any big organisation, industrial relations play a big part and I know that since your last Annual Delegate Conference the AGSI has taken a full part in the public service pay talks, facilitated by the Workplace Relations Commission and the officials of my department. I am delighted this experience has proved to be a positive one and that you have accepted the terms of the pay deal. It represents a new way of doing things but I believe it is clearly in the best interests of you and the public that you and your colleagues stay within the framework of the public service pay agreements and that you continue to participate fully in the essential reform programmes currently being undertaken.
I think we are getting there. The government is continuing to focus on progressing access to the WRC and the Labour Court for the Garda Associations. Enabling legislation is currently being brought forward through the Working Group chaired by John Murphy, and I am also aware that AGSI are working with the WRC to put a shape on new internal structures for dispute resolution. I welcome these moves as I believe they are vital steps in creating a new approach to managing industrial relations in An Garda Síochána.
Of course at the end of the day, the reason An Garda Síochána needs things like good industrial relations, good governance, decent resources and proper staffing is because they will better enable the force to engage in a core function - the function of fighting crime, of all descriptions.
Gangland crime has no place in civilised society and I am pleased to report that there has been significant progress in tackling the insidious threat of organised crime, particularly in Dublin’s North Inner City.
Operation Hybrid was established to coordinate the response to that violent crime and also to address concerns about community safety. It benefits from significant support by dedicated and highly trained Armed Support Units and it has responded robustly to the series of shootings perpetrated by violent criminals. Its operations have resulted in 73 arrests, the seizing of 37 firearms, 265 searches and the conducting of in excess of 16,000 lines of enquiry.
Of course the drugs trade fuels the activities of organised criminals, and I want also to commend the significant success that the Gardaí have achieved in targeting that trade. I remain committed to ensuring that the force will continue to have the resources required to tackle this and all other forms of criminality in our State.
It’s particularly distressing for all of us I think when the form of criminality involves child exploitation – and so I want to reference the success of Operation Ketch in February. It targeted those possessing and distributing child exploitation material, and it led to the seizure of equipment containing tens of thousands of images of child pornography. This incredibly important work, led by the Online Child Exploitation Unit at the Garda National Protection Services Bureau reminds us that the protection of children should be paramount. I commend the work of all involved and I want to assure you that the government will continue to support fully the Gardai in the fight against all forms of child sexual exploitation and abuse.
And finally on the subject of crime, we can only know how well we are doing if our data is dependable. Recording data correctly can of course be time consuming, but it is nonetheless of paramount importance. The public must be confident that data is robust and accurate, and those who formulate policy need to know they are doing so on sound evidence. I don’t want to dwell on the recent controversies regarding the recording of data. I just want to ask you to do everything you can, and to encourage those working with you to do everything they can, to ensure the necessary care in taken in the recording and inputting of data.
Appointment of next Commissioner
And so to conclude. You are members of a fine service, which will have, in the near future, a new Commissioner. The competition was launched on 9th March, and while we wait for the process to unfold, Acting Commissioner Donall O’Cualain continues to do a fine job. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that and to thank him for his dedication and service.
The appointment of the new Commissioner meanwhile is being overseen, for the first time, by the Policing Authority. It will nominate a candidate for appointment by Government and it is critical that the person who ultimately emerges has the capacity to lead and develop An Garda Síochána. Leading it, or indeed any police and security service, is an extremely challenging job, especially at a time of such significant growth and reform – that is why the government decided that the competition should be an open international one, to ensure that whoever is selected – be they an internal or external candidate – would have been tested against the strongest field possible.
I am pleased the process is underway and I want to acknowledge the good work of the Authority and the Public Appointments Service, which is actually undertaking the selection process. It will take some four months or so to complete with some further time required to make the final appointment – so it will be a while – but I do expect that the next Commissioner will be in place before the Autumn.
But getting back to the Spring, and indeed today, can I just finish by again thanking you for the invitation to address you today, and much more importantly, by reiterating my appreciation for the work that you do. You provide a vital public service for which government and public alike are very grateful. Thank you for that, thank you for having me and all the very best for the remainder of the conference. I hope it goes well, I look forward to meeting some of you here later and to working with all of you over the coming year.