Have you ever faced arrest by Gardaí?

Maybe you’ve stumbled into conflict beyond your control, or maybe you’ve fallen victim to mistaken identity. Perhaps a mental illness has flared up in public. Maybe you’ve been involved in a traffic accident, or maybe you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Imagine if, for reasons you’re unsure of, you’re arrested and taken into custody. Now ask yourself: would you feel safe if the doors of a police cell slammed behind you?

The worst deeds happen behind closed doors. Detention of any type, whether in prisons, police cells or hospitals, is a dangerous situation for anyone. That’s recognised the world over – hence why human rights principles lay out special safeguards to prevent abuse of people who are detained, and accountability mechanisms so that mistreatment is detected and punished.

But one bulwark against mistreatment while in Garda custody – a system of independent inspections – is absent in Ireland.

The consequences are grave. Last week, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) took a call from a woman who said her friend’s 13-year-old son had been assaulted in a holding cell where he was detained without any adult present. When no one is looking into these dark corners, serious violations can occur.

ICCL, where I work, was set up in 1976 to respond to widespread concerns about the orchestrated torture of suspects in some Dublin stations. In the years since, there have been a number of cases of people who have died in custody, such as Terence Wheelock and Brian Rossiter. Other have died shortly after release, and others have been subjected to physical assaults, intimidation and threats against themselves and their families.

Are we taking all the steps we can to protect those who might end up vulnerable and detained? When abuse is reported, how is that being detected and dealt with?

Some safeguards are in place. Regulations around police powers were introduced in 1984. Garda interviews have been recorded since 1999 – which was a huge step forward in protecting against abuse. Access to a lawyer during questioning has become standard practice in Ireland since 2014, although still not yet fully legislated for.

As a package, this has greatly increased protection of the vulnerable suspect. Yet it is an anomaly that we still have no system of inspection for Garda holding cells.

In the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, inspectors can turn up at stations, day or night. It has revolutionised the culture of stations where people are held. In many cases, the inspectors are complemented by systems of lay visitors who can all attend stations and access records. As with hospitals and prisons, the possibility of a site visit has had an enormous positive impact on police behaviour.

The value of an independent watchdog with powers to shine a torch into the dark corners of a cell are clear. Imagine if the garda who assaulted the child mentioned above knew that, at any moment, an inspector could walk in. Would the child have been assaulted? Would his parents or guardians have been called? Would he have had his right to a lawyer?

We have three well-established police oversight bodies – the Policing Authority, the Garda Inspectorate and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. But, worryingly, none has the power to drop by a station and check that no one is being held illegally or mistreated. This missing link in our system of checks and balances has been flagged for over 20 years.

It was highlighted again last week when the visitors from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited Ireland. They do have the power to drop in, unannounced, to inspect sites of detention. It’s bizarre to think that a European body has this power, when no Irish body has.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has committed that the government will finally provide for unannounced inspection as part of its plans to ratify a special UN treaty on the prevention of mistreatment of detainees, the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. However we have had government promises on this issue since 2007. It should finally do this before 2019 is out.

But there is a danger that even now the move will be mishandled. The obvious step is for the government to strengthen the powers of existing police oversight bodies so they can enter and inspect stations.

However, for reasons that are hazy, the government seems intent on empowering the Inspector of Prisons to inspector Garda cells instead. That body is woefully under-resourced. It cannot at present properly carry out its main role of inspecting prisons. Giving it extra tasks at this time seems likely to jeopardise the rights of both prisoners and police detainees.

The history of Ireland in the twentieth century is scarred with appalling human-rights violations perpetrated in spaces of confinement, at the hands of officials of both church and state.

For several decades in the middle of the last century, the mass incarceration of women, children, and those with disabilities and mental illnesses created a dark realm of closed spaces beyond the law where abuse and violence took place on a monstrous scale and with impunity.

In the twenty-first century, we must ensure that no one has to dread the clank of a door closing in a place of detention. Independent inspections must be the norm, anywhere the state retains the power to detain – not least, in police stations.

Liam Herrick is executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL). He previously worked as advisor to President Michael D. Higgins for almost three years. Liam was executive director of...

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