39. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on the appointment process for the position of Garda Commissioner; if he has considered the concerns expressed by the Commission on the Future of Policing about making such an appointment before the commission has finished its work; and his further views on whether it might be premature to make such an appointment before that process is completed. (Question 51979/17 asked on 05 Dec 2017)

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire: My question relates to the Commission on the Future of Policing. The Minister and his Government have put a great deal of store by the commission in terms of the reform of policing and justice more generally and in its ability to deliver significant change. If the commission is to deliver the kind of change hoped for by the Government, it is essential that it be given the proper space and time it deserves to finish its deliberations.

Deputy Charles Flanagan: The Policing Authority under section 9 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, as amended, has responsibility for nominating persons for appointment by the Government to the post of Garda Commissioner.  In the meantime, we have an excellent acting Commissioner in Dónall Ó Cualáin who is exercising the full powers of a Garda Commissioner.

This will be the first time that the new legislative process is utilised and I have consulted with the chair of the authority about a process to identify and appoint a permanent Commissioner to An Garda Síochána. We are agreed that it is crucial that a deliberate and considered recruitment process takes place so that the best possible candidate is appointed following a selection process. We are also agreed that an overly long delay in the appointment of a new Commissioner would not be optimal for the organisation in terms of performance and morale.

As I have previously stated the authority has, over the past number of months, undertaken some essential ground work for the recruitment process in advance of the formal triggering of the statutory process by Government. This work has included the conduct of some research into aspects of the appointment process and engagement with my Department and with the Public Appointments Service which will undertake the competition on behalf of the Policing Authority.

Having regard to the progress made by the authority I would expect that the Government will be in a position to formally approve the authority issuing an invitation to the Public Appointments Service to conduct the selection process very shortly. Once this is done, I would anticipate that it could take up to six months to identify and appoint a successful candidate. In the interim I have authorised a deputy Commissioner to exercise all of the functions of the Garda Commissioner during the term of the vacancy.

As the Deputy is aware, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is undertaking a comprehensive review of all aspects of policing in the State and not due to complete its work until September next. I am sure the Deputy will agree that it would not be in the public interest, or in the interests of An Garda Síochána as an organisation or its members, to allow uncertainty to surround the leadership of the national police service for such a lengthy period.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire: Sinn Féin has long been of the view that what we need in the South is a Patten-type approach which was so central to the reform of policing in the North. It is in that context that we welcome the establishment of the Policing Authority, for which we had long called, and the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. If there is to be the Patten-type shift that apparently is desired by all, including the Government, the commission needs to be given full scope to consider all of the matters in question. They include what role the Garda Commissioner and senior staff in An Garda Síochána should have.

The Minister’s response confirms what I received in response to a written question a number of weeks ago. The commission is to finalise its work in September 2019. It is likely to be six months from a point a number of weeks from now before a Garda Commissioner will be appointed; therefore, realistically we are talking about June or July next year when a Commissioner will be appointed. Within weeks of that happening, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland will come forward with its report which potentially will contain radically different proposals for the role of the Commissioner, thus creating greater uncertainty. It is my view that the full scope of the role will be better understood once the commission has completed its work.

Deputy Charles Flanagan: I am not sure I agree with the Deputy’s contention. It is important to bring certainly to this issue at the earliest opportunity. I acknowledge that the commission is not due to complete its work until September, but I am sure the Deputy will agree that it would not be in the public interest, or in the interests of An Garda Síochána or its members, to allow uncertainty to surround its leadership for such a lengthy period. From my engagement with the chairperson of the commission, Ms Kathleen O’Toole, I know that she shares my concern that a careful and deliberative process be taken to the recruitment process in order that the best possible candidate will be selected and also my concern that the process not be prolonged beyond what I would regard as being a reasonable timeframe. I welcome the willingness on her part to bring the commission’s wealth of experience and expertise to the process being undertaken by the Policing Authority. I know that there has been contact between the two bodies, which I welcome. The approach I have outlined has allowed the authority to engage with the commission on how the future role and responsibilities of the Garda Commissioner. As I said to the Deputy, this will assist in ensuring potential candidates will have as much information as possible on the future landscape and the role and functions of the Garda Commissioner.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire: It is anticipated that the process will begin in a matter of weeks, before or around the time the call is made for submissions on the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. What is not in the public interest is what is probably the most crucial appointment of a Garda Commissioner in the almost 100-year history of An Garda Síochána not being approached in the right way. It is essential that the appointment be got right and if the Government is serious about the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland - I believe this is the test - we need to get the appointment right. The chairperson of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland wrote to the Minister and the Policing Authority about this matter and said it was unlikely a credible candidate would come forward and apply for the role when there was so much uncertainty hanging over the future of the Garda and the Commissioner’s role. As I understand it, she also wrote that so much change was required that it would not be possible to draw up accurately a specification for the role of Garda Commissioner before the group’s recommendations were published next September. Furthermore, she maintained that it would be a serious mistake if a Garda Commissioner was appointed without clarity on what the job would entail. This is a crucial appointment and it would be a serious error by the Minister and the Department if they were to proceed with it before this job of work was completed. If we are serious about the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and its ability to transform policing and justice, we should wait and see what it has to state.

Deputy Charles Flanagan: I advise the Deputy, as I did in the context of my earlier reply, that the process has moved on somewhat. In recent days the Policing Authority submitted its assessment of the package that will be required to attract candidates of the desired calibre. It has engaged external expertise in that regard. It has also submitted its views on the pool of candidates available and whether eligibility should be limited in any way. Its views will, of course, be taken into full consideration by the Government. At this stage, it is anticipated that Government approval will be sought to formally trigger section 9. That will take place before the end of the year in tandem with the granting of approval for certain policy choices concerning the requirement for the appointment of a Commissioner.

On the timeline which I understand is the issue being raised by the Deputy, both the Policing Authority and the Public Appointments Service have in recent days advised that the selection process will take in the region of six months to complete, that is, from the granting of Government approval to trigger section 9 to the Public Appointments Service submitting the name of the successful candidate to the Policing Authority. The authority will then, under law, have to consider whether it is satisfied about the person’s suitability and then make a nomination to the Government. Having regard to the fact that the acting Commissioner is operating with the full powers available under law to the Garda Commissioner, in the context of the future of An Garda Síochána and the reform programme under way, any inordinate delay would not be in the best interests of the police service.