Police accountability in Ireland: an analysis of the problems posed by the legal, constitutional and political dimensions and how they might be addressed

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Walsh, Dermot P. J.
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University College Cork
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The concept of police accountability is not susceptible to a universal or concise definition. In the context of this thesis it is treated as embracing two fundamental components. First, it entails an arrangement whereby an individual, a minority and the whole community have the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the formulation of the principles and policies governing police operations. Second, it presupposes that those who have suffered as victims of unacceptable police behaviour should have an effective remedy. These ingredients, however, cannot operate in a vacuum. They must find an accommodation with the equally vital requirement that the burden of accountability should not be so demanding that the delivery of an effective police service is fatally impaired. While much of the current debate on police accountability in Britain and the USA revolves around the issue of where the balance should be struck in this accommodation, Ireland lacks the very foundation for such a debate as it suffers from a serious deficit in research and writing on police generally. This thesis aims to fill that gap by laying the foundations for an informed debate on police accountability and related aspects of police in Ireland. Broadly speaking the thesis contains three major interrelated components. The first is concerned with the concept of police in Ireland and the legal, constitutional and political context in which it operates. This reveals that although the Garda Siochana is established as a national force the legal prescriptions concerning its role and governance are very vague. Although a similar legislative format in Britain, and elsewhere, have been interpreted as conferring operational autonomy on the police it has not stopped successive Irish governments from exercising close control over the police. The second component analyses the structure and operation of the traditional police accountability mechanisms in Ireland; namely the law and the democratic process. It concludes that some basic aspects of the peculiar legal, constitutional and political structures of policing seriously undermine their capacity to deliver effective police accountability. In the case of the law, for example, the status of, and the broad discretion vested in, each individual member of the force ensure that the traditional legal actions cannot always provide redress where individuals or collective groups feel victimised. In the case of the democratic process the integration of the police into the excessively centralised system of executive government, coupled with the refusal of the Minister for Justice to accept responsibility for operational matters, project a barrier between the police and their accountability to the public. The third component details proposals on how the current structures of police accountability in Ireland can be strengthened without interfering with the fundamentals of the law, the democratic process or the legal and constitutional status of the police. The key elements in these proposals are the establishment of an independent administrative procedure for handling citizen complaints against the police and the establishment of a network of local police-community liaison councils throughout the country coupled with a centralised parliamentary committee on the police. While these proposals are analysed from the perspective of maximising the degree of police accountability to the public they also take into account the need to ensure that the police capacity to deliver an effective police service is not unduly impaired as a result.
Police accountability
Walsh, D. P. J. 1992. Police accountability in Ireland: an analysis of the problems posed by the legal, constitutional and political dimensions and how they might be addressed. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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