Garda operational reorganisation

The Garda Commissioner has announced a major operational reorganisation of police service delivery in Ireland. Despite the media fanfare over the announcement, it is questionable whether the plan will deliver fully on its promises.

Female Garda police officer with her arms outstretched
  "Guardians Of Peace" by Claudio Procida. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


The Garda Commissioner has announced a major reorganisation of the Garda Síochána’s operational framework. The overall objective would appear to be to reduce top-heavy, centralised, bureaucratic structures in order to release extra resources to frontline policing, provide more operational flexibility on the ground and achieve greater alignment with the policing needs of diverse local communities. It has been described by the Policing Authority as “the most significant change in the Garda Síochána since its inception”. That is a big claim given the several major structural changes that have been introduced at intervals since 2005 in response to the seemingly endless series of scandals associated with the force. It may also seem a surprising claim as the reorganisation seems, at face value, to be aimed at achieving little more than what one would expect to be the norm already in a national police service of an advanced European democracy approaching the third decade of the 21st century.

Inevitably, questions must be asked whether the reorganisation is really as momentous as it is presented to be, why has it taken so long for such seemingly basic reforms to be announced and will they actually be delivered in a manner that makes a substantive difference on the ground?

Existing structures

The Garda Síochána has been the sole police force in Ireland since 1925. It currently comprises about 14,000 sworn members and about 2,500 civilian staff. Organised on a conventional pyramidal rank structure from Garda (equivalent of constable) at the base to Commissioner at the apex, it has always been highly centralised in its organisation and subject to close central government control. As a primary national public service, it is funded from the national exchequer. It is also subject to the regulatory and directive authority of the Minister for Justice. The Garda Commissioner is answerable to the Government and the Minister through the Secretary General of the Department of Justice (top civil servant in the Department). Until recently, appointments to (and removals from) the top and middle management ranks were entrusted exclusively to the central Government.

Over the past two decades, there have been attempts to inject a degree of external input into the governance and accountability of policing in the State, most notably with the establishment of an independent complaints body (Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission), the independent Garda Inspectorate (broadly similar to HMIC) and the independent (civilian) Policing Authority. While it may still be too early to assess the impact of the Policing Authority (already scheduled for replacement pursuant to the 2018 recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland), these developments do not seem to have impacted significantly on the traditionally close relationship between the Garda and central Government (especially the Department of Justice).

The centralised and bureaucratic character of the Garda is reinforced by its national organisational structure. For policing purposes, the country is divided into six Regions, each of which is overseen by an Assistant Commissioner based in the central HQ. Each Region is further divided into Divisions, of which there are 28 in total. Each Division, in turn, is subdivided into local Districts, of which there are 96 in total (incorporating 570 police stations).

These Regions, Divisions and Districts have never succeeded in developing as dynamic and semi-autonomous hubs responding to the distinctive policing needs of their areas. Their operational potential has been severely undermined by demographics, the proliferation of national and specialist services based at central HQ, and the overbearing size and importance of that HQ in determining resource allocations, policies, procedures, priorities and practices nationwide. However, the institutional and bureaucratic infrastructures associated with the Regions, Divisions and Districts have become established as important material assets that are jealously protected locally by influential political and policing interests. All of this comes at a cost to the delivery of an efficient, flexible, professional, transparent and accountable police service capable of responding effectively and creatively to the distinctive and changing needs of the communities it serves.

The exceptionally broad scope of Garda functions has also fed into the concentration of political and administrative control over policing at the centre. In addition to the conventional responsibilities associated with the prevention and detection of crime, public order maintenance, road traffic and public safety, the Garda fulfils the domestic State security function (like M15) and prosecutes minor offences in the District Court. For most of its history, it has also shouldered heavy regulatory and administrative duties in areas such as: immigration, passport applications, social welfare, firearms licences, weights and measures and even the collection of agricultural statistics. The official authority and physical presence of gardaí on the ground throughout the State made the Garda organisation the ideal tool to discharge a wide range of public functions nationwide for a highly centralised State with weak and undeveloped structures of local government.

A consequence of these features is that the Garda has been poorly equipped to respond rapidly and flexibly to the needs of a society and communities which are wrestling with the negative effects of profound social, economic and technological changes, and experiencing a dramatically increased fear of crime against the person and property. A centralised, top-down, control mentality and bureaucracy has sapped local initiative in taking the decisions necessary to respond to new developments and to address the distinctive needs of diverse communities on the ground. Even where initiative is present, it is frequently frustrated by institutional or political opposition from above, or simply because of a lack of personnel resources to sustain local frontline and community policing. Part of the problem here is that too many trained Garda personnel are sucked into civilian-type desk jobs in Headquarters and other administrative divisions to service the bloated bureaucracy.

The Garda Commissioner’s announcement of a major operational reorganisation is an attempt to respond to some of these issues by swinging the balance away from the current top-heavy bureaucracy and top-down mentality to a flatter, less hierarchical and more agile structure.

The reorganisation

At the core of the reorganisation is a reconfiguration of Divisions with a view to developing them as “mini-police forces” with the personnel, resources, skills and autonomy to deliver an efficient, flexible and responsive police service for the changing needs of the communities they serve. Accordingly, the number of Divisions is to be reduced from 28 to 19 (with each having about 600 – 800 gardaí), while the six Regions will be reduced to four. Each of the enhanced Divisions will be granted more power, responsibility and resources to prevent and detect crime; including their own teams to deal with sex crimes, economic crimes, cybercrime and other serious crimes, instead of having to rely on such supports from Dublin. National units will focus on complex, sensitive and high-profile crimes, while specialist units dealing with drugs, organised crime, armed incidents, sieges etc will continue to be based in Dublin and be made available to Divisions as required. The current regional armed support units will be expanded, but it is not entirely clear whether this refers to an increase in personnel and/or their bases. A new investigations management system will also provide support to Divisions.

An associated core aim of the changes is a substantive and visible increase in frontline and community policing. Critically, it is envisaged that this will be achieved partly through a significant reassignment of gardaí from desk jobs that do not require the skills of trained gardaí. The Garda has always displayed a reluctance to employ civilians for roles that do not require policing skills. This might be interpreted as evidence of an inward-looking and insular mentality harbouring suspicion of the outsider, and a preference to keep Garda business within the Garda brotherhood. Currently, civilians account for about 17 percent of the Garda establishment, compared with an international average of 25 percent (almost 70 percent in the Surrey Constabulary). The planned changes should bring the Garda up to the international average by 2021. This, in turn, should allow a significant reallocation of trained gardaí for frontline and community policing.

The changes envisage dispensing with some non-core Garda functions, most notably immigration processing and prosecuting minor offences in the District Court. This will also free up trained Garda personnel for deployment on frontline and community policing.

Governance, transparency and accountability have long been problems for the Garda. Surprising as it may seem for a large centralised public body discharging a vital function at the heart of government, the Garda still lacks basic management tools such as a comprehensive workplan based on a clear operating model, and clear job specifications for all positions so that everyone knows what they are expected to achieve, what discretion they have and the standards to which they are expected to exercise that discretion. Without such tools, effective and meaningful accountability will remain an aspiration without substance.

The reorganisation plan does make a nod in their direction. It promises the designation of key leadership roles with clear accountability, and a clarification of roles, responsibilities and associated performance metrics. It also includes the appointment of a new Deputy Commissioner for Transformation and Performance, dedicated Divisional Superintendents for performance assurance and an Expert Director for Learning and Development. The lack of detail on all of these, however, means that it is not clear whether they will address the serious weaknesses in governance and performance accountability processes identified by both the Garda Inspectorate in 2015 and the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in 2018.

When fully rolled out over the next three years, it is anticipated that the reorganisation plan will deliver greater devolution of policing resources, responsibility and autonomy from the centre to the locality. Each of the 19 Garda Divisions should have the capacity to respond creatively, flexibly, efficiently and effectively to the policing needs of their respective communities, without having to look constantly over their shoulders for central approval and/or technical supports. A leaner central bureaucracy, coupled with the dropping of some non-core policing duties, should free up trained Garda personnel to enhance frontline policing and more sustained community policing teams. Local communities should experience a more visible, responsive and consistent policing service committed to keeping people safe.

Will it be delivered? 

The fanfare accompanying the announcement of the Garda Commissioner’s planned reorganisation belies the fact that, when fully implemented, the changes will do little more than bring some aspects of the management and delivery of the civil policing service into line with what has been the norm in neighbouring police forces for many years. It is not as if Ireland has been blind to developments elsewhere, or to the urgent need for such reforms at home. The voluminous reports of the Morris Tribunal (2004-2008) provided a detailed and reasoned body of essential reforms much more extensive than those in the reorganisation plan. Similar recommendations have been repeated relentlessly since then by numerous judicial inquiries, the Garda Inspectorate, NGOs, politicians and other commentators. In particular, the Garda Inspectorate’s 2015 Report, Changing Policing in Ireland, offered a comprehensive analysis of the structural and management weaknesses, together with the actions that needed to be taken to address them.

It was not until the scale and frequency of Garda crises were threatening to bring down the government in 2017, that the political will was found to embark on a process that resulted in the Commissioner’s announcement last week. This entailed the establishment of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland whose report in 2018 encompassed much of the substance of the Inspectorate’s analysis and recommendations. The government moved quickly to commit to the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations (See ‘Implementing police reform in ireland’).

There must be a fear that the forces impeding change in the Garda for so long will frustrate even the comparatively modest changes envisaged. The Garda as an organisation has a long record of publicly purporting to welcome reform recommendations only to allow them to fall by the wayside unimplemented when the crisis that inspired them has passed. In the case of the Morris Report findings and recommendations, the Garda even went so far as to establish an elaborate series of working parties to act on the reforms, without actually delivering much in the way of substantive change. The Garda Inspectorate has also drawn attention to the large gap between Garda acceptance and actual implementation of its recommendations (See also, ‘Oversight of police reform in ireland’). It cannot be assumed, therefore, that a Garda public announcement of reform plans will translate fully into substantive change on the ground. Even if the planned structural changes to established Garda Division boundaries are introduced, it does not necessarily follow that the associated substantive benefits will follow.

Internal forces of opposition are already apparent. They include vested interests within the Garda concerned about losing cosy sinecures and promotion opportunities as a result of increased civilianisation and greater emphasis on community policing. There will also be external opposition on the ground from local communities and political representatives in areas that will lose the status of having a Divisional HQ. Although the Garda is a national police force, it is subject to intense parochial political interests, the influence of which can be felt acutely at national level.

It may be that there have already been compromises, with the result that the plan is less ambitious than it otherwise should have been. Interestingly, the Commissioner’s plan is not fully in accord with the recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, even though it is meant to be an integral part of the implementation of those recommendations. The plan retains the regional structure, merely reducing the Regions from six to four, and without offering any compelling justification for their retention. The Plan also foregrounds the Division as the vital focal point in the revised structure, while the Commission seems to prioritise the smaller District, with the Divisions playing a supporting role.

Questions must also be asked about the relatively large number of Divisions envisaged in the Plan (reduced from 28 to 19). Nineteen “mini-police forces” seem a very large number for a small country like Ireland, with a population of less than 5 million (almost one third of which is based in the Dublin Metropolitan Area). Inevitably, many of these Divisions will be serving large rural areas with low density populations. This must raise questions over their long-term viability and comparability with Divisions based in or encompassing each of the cities. It is submitted that dividing the country up into eight “mini-police forces” would be more consistent with the devolution of sustainable and viable police services from centre to the locality.

The planned cutting back on non-core policing duties also seems timid and disappointing. It does little more than promise changes that are already in train. In particular, there is a notable silence on the State security function. Will the dedicated community police officers engaging with their communities on a daily basis continue be State security agents? Will they still have the responsibility of gathering intelligence and reporting to the centre on perceived threats to State security and on “any event of an unusual or sensational nature of which it is desirable that the Government or the Commissioner should be speedily informed”? This aspect is not mentioned in the reorganisation plan. It would appear, therefore, that the tensions between the Garda as a civil police service and a State security agency will remain, albeit partially hidden behind the projected image of a community police service focused on meeting the policing needs of diverse local communities.

Finally, it is worth noting that the reorganisation plan was presented by the Garda Commissioner, rather than the Minister for Justice. It can be expected, of course, that it was discussed with, and secured the backing of, the Minister and the Policing Authority in advance. Nevertheless, the fact that the Commissioner took authorship of it suggests that he may be set to take a more prominent role in the discharge of his statutory function over the direction and control of the Garda. It remains to be seen whether he will be equally authoritative in driving forward urgently needed progress on mainstreaming human rights and transparency in all aspects of the Garda and policing in Ireland.

Download the September 2019 edition of Criminal Justice Notes