It’s not just the Commissioner, stupid!

Elaine Byrne, 25 March 2014

The traditional attitude to scandal in Ireland is to politicise and personalise. We move on once the head-on-the-plate has been delivered. Or we just move on without it. The third anniversary of the Moriarty Tribunal fell last weekend – but let’s not go there (the hot weather in exile is some compensation). 

Let’s get it right this time. The government are actually introducing far-reaching legislation that will make elements of Ireland’s ethical infrastructure that of international best practice. Ireland is not corrupt but that perception is there because we mess up on the small stuff. 

The resignation of the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan should not have happened. He was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t – long before his “disgusting” remarks about whistleblowers.



What should happen now?

For the last 18 months I was a consultant on the European Commission anti-corruption report on Ireland. This involved liaising with stakeholders from many of Ireland’s watchdog agencies. The problems they articulated were similar across the board – resource capability, legislative limitations, overlapping responsibilities and ability of the different oversight organisations to co-operate and share information. I wrote about this here and hereAn independent audit of all oversight agencies is long overdue, as articulated by former financial regulator Mathew Elderfield last year.

The Garda Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has made two specific reform proposals (among many others). 

1. Reform the whistleblower framework 

GSOC should act as the external confidential recipient. A position where the Gardaí receive complaints of corruption or malpractice about themselves was never a runner. Changes to the whistleblowing framework are already underway, there was a high level Inter-Departmental meeting on this issue already this week. 

2. The Garda Commissioner must be subject to civilian oversight 

GSOC currently have responsibility to oversee policing but this does not extend to the Commissioner. GSOC should have the capacity to investigate allegations of misbehaviour by the Garda Commissioner where it is in the public interest.


2 thoughts on “It’s not just the Commissioner, stupid!

  1. Elaine,

    Thanks for the link to the very useful overview in the Annex on Ireland to the EU Ant-corruption Rport COM(2014) 38 Final dated 3 Feb 2014

    Click to access 2014_acr_ireland_chapter_en.pdf

    However, I am puzzled by one statement on page 11 of this report ie
    “Since most planning decisions are taken by elected local councillors….”

    Are you completely sure that this statement is an accurate description of the actual process within planning authorities ie. local authorities and now An Bord Pleanála, in cases of appeals and projects that are classed as coming under the critical infrastructure provisions of the Planning legislation?

    My understanding of the current situation is that
    1. the elected Councillors make the Development Plan – they decide on issues like zoning and all the other details that are contained in the development plans;.
    2. once the plan is formally adopted by the Council of the local authority, decisions on actual applications for permission (eg. new developments, major changes, change of use) are made by Council officials, within the framework set down in the development plan adopted by the Councillors;.
    3. In a formal legal sense. elected local councillors have no role in taking any planning decisions, once the Development Plan is adopted.

    Let me be clear that I am not saying that Councillors do not try to influence the Council officials who make the decisions on individual applications for planning permission. So do other citizens, using the normal processes of trying to influence individual planning decisions ie. representations in various forms. Yes, we do see some strange decisions, at both local and national levels when An Bord Pleanala is involved.

    In formal terms, making the development plan is a “reserved function” of local authorities ie. only the elected Councillors can adopt the development plan. These reserved functions are defined by law and cover important matters of policy and finance.
    Once the development plan is adopted, other planning decisions are executive functions.
    “The day-to-day management of the local authority, including staffing matters, is vested in a full time chief executive – known as the county or city manager. The manager and/or staff to whom functions are delegated discharge what are termed ‘executive functions’ – in effect these involve the day-to-day running of the authority within the policy parameters as determined by the council. Any function of a local authority that is not specified in law as a reserved function is deemed to be an executive function.”

    In short, there is a formal separation of powers in local authorities.
    To what extent it has limited the scope for corruption is a matter of judgement.

    The rest of that section of the EU report refers explicitly to “re-zoning” – which is part of the making (and changing) the development plan.

    As far as I know, most cases of corruption in planning have been centered on the making of the development plan – specifically when elected Councillors make zoning decisions.

    • Slight correction
      “In formal terms, making the development plan is a “reserved function” of local authorities ie. only the elected Councillors can decide to adopt the development plan.”

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