Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD


‘Policing, Human Rights and Communities’ Conference

NUI Galway


Friday, 26 April 2019


A Uachtarain, a cathaoirleach, Commissioner Harris, distinguished delegates and guests. Thanks to President hÓgartaigh and to my very distinguished predecessor for their warm welcome to Gaillimh. 


I was delighted to accept Professor O’Connell’s invitation to be with you this morning and I want to thank him for organising this really important and timely conference which my department is pleased to support. 


It has been remarked that Máire’s introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act which decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 marked the “end of the beginning” in Irish society.  It was certainly a seminal moment and a very courageous political act 26 years ago.  It paved the way for the outcome of the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015 and for the increasingly open and pluralist society we have today.


I am sure the Chair (Máire) will agree that today’s themes go to the heart of the system of justice in Ireland. In many ways I feel we have now reached a seminal moment in policing.  Without doubt, the past number of years have been difficult for An Garda Síochána as an organisation. 


But the publication last September of the report of the  Commission on the Future of Policing coincided with the appointment of our new Garda Commissioner, and really set out a blueprint for change, albeit a very challenging one.


The Commission was tasked with undertaking a fundamental review of policing, and its recommendations chart an ambitious future for policing in Ireland. 


It sets out a vision of our police service, An Garda Síochána, and all associated bodies as one which will be proactive, collaborative and adaptive to the demands of 21st Century Ireland.


Today’s conference comes at an opportune time. It has been four months since the Government published A Policing Service for the Future, the four year implementation plan giving effect to the Commission’s recommendations.


We will hear today from a range of experts in the fields of human rights, policing oversight, national security and community safety. 


I have no doubt you will challenge and inform us and ultimately help us shape the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. 


I am very pleased to see so many members of the Commission contributing to the debate here today including our host Professor Donncha O’Connell; Noeline Blackwell, of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, who will chair the session on Human Rights and Policing; Tim Dalton, the distinguished former Secretary General of my Department, who will chair the session on Oversight and Security; and Dr Johnny Connolly, who will speak on the crucial topic of Policing with Communities. 


I am grateful to all of you and your fellow Commissioners for all your work, especially to the eminent Chairperson, Dr Kathleen O’Toole, who brought her valuable international experience of running several US police departments, establishing the Garda Inspectorate here in Ireland as well as her experience on the Patten Commission on policing in Northern Ireland. 


Together the Commission members brought to the task a wealth of diverse experience and expertise from their respective fields, and produced a report with recommendations that have the power to effect positive and meaningful change of the policing system in Ireland when implemented.


Implementing change is always a challenge. Leadership is essential. I am confident that the Garda Commissioner and his senior team will provide the necessary leadership.  There is huge support for the programme of change within Cabinet and all relevant Departments are part of an implementation body - I want to acknowledge and thank Helen Ryan from the Commission who agreed to serve as the independent chair of the implementation body. 


I regularly meet with Gardaí all over the country and, as the Commission found, there is a real appetite for change within the organisation itself, at a grassroots level. I am confident that this process will result in a modern, adaptive policing service, supported - but not dominated - by my own Department of Justice and Equality which is going through its own major transformation process at present.


I look forward to your reflections on what this might mean for An Garda Síochána, for communities, and for the individual citizen.


Human Rights and Policing

The first session this morning will be on Human Rights and Policing.


The Commission’s report sets out a vision based around ten key principles, the first of which is that human rights are the foundation and purpose of policing.


On one level, this sounds simple and intuitive.  And yet, this is a radical and potentially transformative statement.  The reality is that a policing service whose primary focus is on protecting and upholding human rights is one that will be professional and effective; maintain the trust of the community it serves; it will welcome oversight and drive continuous improvement, and it will listen to and offer appropriate, but not unquestioning, support to the members and staff who work within it. 


In my previous role as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I worked to promote and protect human rights around the world as this is a signature foreign policy objective for Ireland.  As Minister for Justice and Equality, the protection of human rights is again at the very heart of my brief.  I strongly believe that successful implementation of this reform programme and particularly its human rights elements can position Ireland as a positive example and global leader in policing and build on the proud history of An Garda Síochána in this regard.


The relationship between human rights and policing is a multi-dimensional one. Taking the Commission’s recommendations on board, we must regard the essential purpose of policing as protection and vindication of the human rights of all members of society to live free from violence, abuse, crime and fear.


At the same time, members of An Garda Síochána have powers including to arrest, search or detain, which may involve interference with the rights of some individuals in certain circumstances. These powers are appropriately and necessarily circumscribed and prescribed by law, but they have grown up in a piecemeal fashion over decades and are not sufficiently clear to individuals. 


In response to the Commission’s recommendation, new legislation will be prepared to codify powers of arrest, search and detention, with associated statutory codes of practice to ensure full clarity and transparency in this key exercise of coercive power. This will be challenging and will take some time to get right.  But, I regard this work as core to the human rights principle in the Commission’s report and I am pleased that work has now started in my Department to develop a planned approach with a view to making outline proposals to Government before the end of this year. 


Of course, members of An Garda Síochána have always been expected to act in accordance with the law and with the highest ethical standards of public service. While the first Culture Audit of An Garda Síochána, commissioned by the Policing Authority and published in May 2018, identified a range of very serious concerns, I was glad to note that it also articulated strongly the attachment that Gardaí have to their role in protecting and supporting communities, and to the value that personnel place on using policing powers appropriately, and with integrity and honesty.  There were many welcome positives to be gleaned from this Audit about a commitment to these core values and an appetite for change.


While we discuss human rights and policing in a comfortable setting today, Garda members frequently face difficult on the spot choices and dilemmas in the use of the discretionary and coercive powers granted to them by law. 


It is imperative that Gardaí are fully trained to exercise their lawful powers appropriately, ethically and in a manner fully consistent with their statutory human rights obligations, and the ethos and mission of An Garda Síochána. 


And so I was particularly pleased that the implementation plan for the Commission’s report – A Policing Service for the Future – included a number of priority projects to ensure that An Garda Síochána is fully equipped with the support and practical tools to meet its human rights obligations.  These include establishment of a Human Rights Unit, development of a Human Rights Strategy and the convening of a Strategic Human Rights Advisory Committee, which includes membership from academia and civil society. 


The Commissioner will no doubt update us this morning on the very welcome  progress which has been made on these and other human rights–related projects already this year. I appreciate this continuing commitment by the Commissioner and his team and strongly support the roll-out of human rights training to all Garda members and staff.


I and my Department will continue to support and cooperate with Garda management in advancing these and other reform projects.


For example, funding has been made available to An Garda Síochána to help advance key priority projects under the implementation plan including engagement of human rights expertise to assist in drafting a Human Rights Strategy.


I am conscious too that it is intended that the Code of Ethics, developed by the Policing Authority in 2017 setting out the ethical behaviours expected of Gardaí in their day to day practice, will be further embedded in the organisation, as set out in A Policing Service for the Future.


I recently attended a Passing Out Parade at the Garda College where the Commissioner had introduced, for the first time, the taking of the oath in public. New recruits openly swore to abide by the Code of Ethics in front of their families and friends and each other.


It was a really powerful moment - on a day that they will always remember - to hear new young Gardaí articulating their commitment to these values and standards of practice. It builds trust and signals a willingness to be accountable, as well as reinforcing the values that we all expect of our police service in a democratic society. I expect adherence to and full compliance with the Code of Ethics to be for all Gardaí across the entire service and not just the new recruits.



National security was another key focus of the work of the Commission on the Future of Policing, given that An Garda Síochána performs a dual role in providing both policing and security services to the State. Again it is an area in which balancing and upholding human rights is a critical element of success. 


Safeguarding the State’s security is, of course, the highest priority for the Government and it has been a core duty of An Garda Síochána since its foundation.


Indeed, I pay tribute to the men and women of An Garda Síochána who have stood in the front line – some among them making the ultimate sacrifice – in defence of our State and its democratic institutions, notably in the face of a 30-year terrorist onslaught on this island from the Provisional IRA.


‘Salus populi, suprema lex est’ – the safety of the people is the highest law – is how Cicero famously encapsulated the state’s primary duty as being to ensure the safety of its people.


To my mind, this is as good a classical measure as you will find of the fundamental duty of the state as being to protect and to promote the public good and one which, I think, in its own way stands the test of time.


That public good is firmly grounded in the fundamental human rights that people enjoy and it is the duty of the Government and its agencies to promote, vindicate and enable the exercise of those rights to the benefit of all.


In doing that, the state must seek to strike an appropriate and agreed balance between rights and obligations that may, at times, be in competition.


A central element in achieving this is gaining trust and acceptance by the people that the correct balance of rights is arrived at and ensuring their confidence that the measures taken by the State’s services are necessary and are carried out strictly in accordance with fundamental rights requirements and the law.


National security is, at its heart, a fundamental responsibility of the Government but is increasingly a function that relies on a much more co-ordinated and connected effort across the public service, working with our communities, our international partners and the private sector, if it is to be effective.


The need to inform, to provide insight into the work of our security services, while recognising the sensitivity and secrecy pertaining to much of its work, is key.  This presents a challenge, yet one that is surmountable.  Through proper design and a robust oversight regime, much can be achieved in providing reassurance to the public in relation to the work of the State’s services.


These are all matters that are at the heart of many of the recommendations made by the Commission.


The Commission recognised a number of key issues:


The recommendations of the Commission speak directly to each of these matters.  

While the national security space presents genuine and inevitable challenges to open and public oversight, my objective is that the new arrangements will support a more coherent, dedicated framework of independent oversight, examination and reporting.  


This will both support and facilitate individual Gardaí and the Garda organisation, as well as the Defence Forces, in providing security services to the highest standards and to the greatest effect.  It will also provide better information and reassurance to the public about those activities and the operation of the legal frameworks that govern them.  This will not be easy to achieve as there are natural tensions and I look forward to hearing about Lord Anderson’s UK experience later on. 


I think we would agree a fundamental guide in this area is a principle referred by Edmund Burke, who wrote: “Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither, in my opinion, is safe.”


Balance is the key in seeking to put in place balanced and agreed arrangements for the greater good, vindicating the individual’s right to life and bodily integrity, satisfying the legitimate expectation of the public to safety and protecting fundamental rights and freedoms, we should be guided by both Cicero and Burke at once.


Public safety must be our highest duty but, in attending to that duty, we must not stray so far from liberty as to create injustice.


In addition, to the Commission recommendations to enhance the existing security capabilities and legislative regime in this area, the Commission makes a number of recommendations for the establishment of new structures. It recommends the establishment of a coordination function to be based in the Department of the Taoiseach, as well as special arrangements for the oversight of national security powers, most notably, the post of Independent Examiner. Work is already underway on the establishment of the new National Security Analysis Centre under the auspices of the Department of the Taoiseach and the preparation of a legislative scheme to provide for the post of Independent Examiner.   


The State still faces threats to its security – of that there is no doubt.  The security landscape is more varied and dynamic now than at any time in the past.  As the Commission found, Ireland, like many other open and democratic states, faces threats from international terrorism and the cyber domain that present new and significant challenges.


Sadly, the more traditional security threat remains. The senseless and horrifying killing of Lyra McKee in Derry is a tragic reminder of the real and persistent security threat from republican paramilitaries.  Those who killed her had no thought whatsoever for the human rights or the democratic wishes of the communities they cynically purport to represent or defend.


I send a clear message to those terrorists and their ‘fellow travellers’ – your hatred and violence have no place in our society.  You do not act in our name.  Your wish to pull this island back to a dark and bloody past will not succeed because of the resolute commitment of the people of this island to peace, democracy and fundamental rights. The People of Ireland have democratically endorsed the Peace Process and we all fervently want it to succeed. That is what Lyra McKee wanted too and this morning, we, like so many others over the past few days, ‘stand with Lyra’.  I’d like to pause for a moment now to remember Lyra and express solidarity with all those who knew and loved her during her short but impactful life.


Policing and community safety

One of the most striking findings of the Commission was that, while the prevention and tackling of crime is a key priority for An Garda Síochána, the majority of Garda time is actually spent on harm prevention. The nature of policing is such that Gardaí are constantly in contact with vulnerable people – people with mental health and addiction conditions, homeless people, children, elderly people, and others at risk. This is a common feature of policing not just in Ireland but in many jurisdictions.


Gardaí are often called upon to assist when a vulnerable person is in need of help, when in fact other agencies of government may be more appropriately trained and equipped to respond to these incidents. Such events often happen after hours and Gardaí are required to pick up the pieces in very challenging circumstances.


In my experience, Gardaí generally meet this challenge with the utmost compassion and care, providing reassurance to victims, their families and communities.  But with the benefit of the Commission’s work, we can now re-examine how we can improve current arrangements and improve outcomes, especially for the vulnerable person. 


The Commission has recommended, and the Government has approved, the development of the Policing and Community Safety Bill to replace the Garda Síochána Act 2005. This Bill will redefine the functions of An Garda Síochána to include the prevention of harm to vulnerable persons, and the Government has agreed it will place a statutory obligation on relevant state agencies, such as local authorities, health, child and other social services, to work with An Garda Síochána to protect people from harm.


This is a radical change and will support close collaboration with communities and other agencies to keep our society safe and to prevent harm to vulnerable people.  And importantly, the vision will also require An Garda Síochána to be fully supported in the role of community policing.


The Commission also recommended that An Garda Síochána should move to a local model of policing, where District Policing is the backbone of police work and the police mission. In essence, what this means is that frontline police and their role in solving problems affecting community safety, reducing crime and preventing harm should be positioned at the core of the organisation.


The Commission recommended that all personnel at district level, both sworn and non-sworn, should be considered to be community Police, and the building of community partnerships should be a requirement for all Garda Districts. The Programme for Government underlines the need for close engagement between An Garda Síochána and local communities and this is an essential feature of the strong community policing ethos which has long been central to policing in this jurisdiction.


An Garda Síochána has a number of innovative initiatives that bring Gardaí closer to the local communities they serve, improving policing responses, building positive relationships with their communities and proactively reducing crime.


Day in, day out, I hear, in my role as Minister for Justice and Equality, stories that exemplify the importance of An Garda Síochána’s close connection with the communities that it serves. They are often the good news stories that go under the radar.


Recently, I saw an example of positive community outreach and relationship building at work. Gardaí competed in a pool tournament with teenagers from the local Youth Project. This sounds innocuous, and maybe some would say that police time would be better spent tackling crime. But that would miss the point that, in fact, what was happening there and in similar circumstances elsewhere was proactive policing. These Gardaí are building relationships of trust and mutual respect in the communities that they police and serve. They are showing themselves to be approachable, friendly and trustworthy, and they are engaging with young people in a way that helps to divert from anti-social behaviour and from criminal activity.


Tomorrow I present Garda National Youth Awards where no doubt I will see further and fine examples of Gardaí and youth working together. This is a key part of the vision that the Commission, and that I as Minister for Justice and Equality, share for policing in Ireland.


The reality of modern Ireland is that serious and organised crime does exist and requires investigation, interception and tackling. But much of the day to day work of An Garda Síochána is in - and of - the ordinary community.


The Government is committed to ensuring there are more Gardaí on the frontline to improve engagement with local communities and to fight and prevent crime.  This is also the very essence of the Commission’s finding where they have identified the need for more visible policing within communities. That is why a plan is in place – and on target - to increase Garda numbers to 15,000 by 2021, and Garda Staff numbers to 4,000.  This greater role for Garda staff will allow highly trained Gardaí who are currently in roles that don’t require police powers to be freed up for frontline duties.


Another element in building strong community relations is having a police service that is representative of the communities that it serves. I very much welcome the Commissioner’s recent decision to make amendments to the Garda uniform to reflect religious and cultural traditions. This announcement coincides with and helped to publicise the recent Garda recruitment campaign. An Garda Síochána is our national police service and it important that its membership reflects the welcome increasing diversity of Irish life. On the launch of the recruitment campaign, I urged members of minority and new communities in Ireland to consider a career in An Garda Síochána and I hope many will put themselves forward.



Before concluding, I want to reflect on another point which often goes unsaid but which is a fundamental one – the strength of any organisation lies in its people.  In the case of An Garda Síochána I am referring to both sworn Garda members and Garda staff. 


The Report of the Commission on the Future of Policing appropriately placed a great emphasis on supporting Gardaí and Garda Staff to perform effectively in what is often a physically and psychologically demanding profession. The dedication of its people is An Garda Síochána’s greatest resource. They must be given the necessary supports and enabled to work in a positive and supportive, listening environment.


I am delighted that 2019 will see positive steps including the development of a new uniform and new rosters, the development of a much needed Wellness programme for Garda members and Staff, as well as significant improvements to learning and development within the organisation. The Garda Building and Refurbishment Programme also continues to progress the physical infrastructure, some of which is in a poor state. These are all positive improvements that will improve conditions on the frontline, career development opportunities and help improve the wellbeing of all personnel. 


The Commission were clear that An Garda Síochána must foster an environment of psychological safety.  An organisation in which people at all levels feel able to share ideas on challenges, opportunities and problems without fearing retribution or marginalisation.


This very issue was also highlighted by Judge Charleton in the Disclosures Tribunal Report where he called on An Garda Síochána to look at itself honestly and identify its own faults.  I fully support his comments that the attitude of our police service, of all of our public service, must be that of duty to the public, to victims of crime, and to the taxpayer.


I know that Commissioner Harris feels the same and has said he will ensure that An Garda Síochána is a safe environment to raise issues and concerns.



It is my belief that the Government’s support for the detailed implementation plan for policing reform will redefine policing in Ireland and actively reflect human rights as the foundation and purpose of policing.


There is a lot of new structure in the plan but with a focus on supporting a newly transformed culture while maintaining and building on the inherent traditional strengths of the organisation. 


An Garda Síochána has positive community relationships which are the envy of police forces internationally, but it is vital that we build on this strength and continue to maintain and increase that crucial public trust. 


I want to again thank Donncha O’Connell, and the Irish Centre for Human Rights Centre here at NUIG, for the opportunity to join you all today and I look forward to further engagement as we drive the implementation of these measures over the next few years.


There will no doubt be big challenges ahead, but I strongly believe that with the clear internal appetite for change, the Commissioner’s leadership, the Government’s commitment to this programme of reform, and the buy-in that has been achieved at a senior level across the public sector – this is a challenge that can be met within the timeframe as envisaged


Thank You