The new Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, has started her tenure with some big commitments to justice reform, alongside significant promises in the new programme for government.
Lots of what is promised has been called for by human rights groups for a long time. So will this minister and this government be able to follow through? And what’s missing?
Minister McEntee has said two of her top priorities are Garda reform and domestic violence, both complex issues that will require significant commitment to achieve real reform.
We have a roadmap to Garda reform, as outlined by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and accepted by the government in December 2018.
Almost two years on and there is still a huge amount of work to be done, not least in ensuring effective oversight bodies. What the minister prioritises will be key.
So far, we know Minister McEntee has emphasised the importance of community policing and timely intervention with young offenders. She has already committed to raising the age limit from 18 to 24 for juvenile offenders to enter the Garda Youth Diversion Programme, a positive step, meaning longer access to key supports for those involved.
Prioritising recruiting and retaining people from diverse and minority backgrounds is an important commitment from the new government. Just last week one survey found that not a single frontline garda surveyed had a positive view of the Traveller community.
Minister McEntee has been positive about the garda response to the pandemic, saying this type of community policing approach is “something we want to emulate all the time”.
But seriously problematic aspects of policing were also rolled out during the pandemic response.
Members of the public contacted us via phone, email and social media concerned about armed gardaí at checkpoints.
While some communities such as those in Dublin’s inner city regularly see guns on hips, the presence of armed police at Covid-19 checkpoints was the white smoke for the rest of the country showing that something had changed.
We urgently need a democratic debate on whether we actually want an armed police force and we need detailed stats on who is currently carrying guns on our streets and why.
We also saw Covid-19 used as an excuse to add spit hoods to the Garda kit. These are mesh hoods placed over an arrestee’s head to, ostensibly, stop them from spreading disease.
Gardaí announced their roll out as a response to Covid-19. But when Amnesty International said they were not fit for purpose and may actually increase the spread of the disease, Gardaí responded that they were needed for other purposes too.
A review is due in September and given serious human rights concerns around hooding, human rights campaigners hope they will be put away for good.
The Programme for Government contains a commitment to implementing the policing strategy for Dublin’s north inner-city in other, equally disadvantaged, areas nationally. But is there any evidence that this policing strategy works?
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has heard complaints of problematic policing in these areas, including stops and searches without good reason. Surely an in-depth assessment of the strategy is necessary before it is rolled out further?
The Minister’s second priority, domestic abuse, is timely in the light of the concerning increase in domestic abuse brought on by the lockdown. We heard last week that Gardaí were called to 27,000 incidents of domestic violence during the pandemic.
One practical step that could be taken without delay is to create more refuges for those fleeing domestic violence. Ireland has been called out on our low numbers. Minister McEntee has committed to finding funding for more.
She has also committed to passing an important law which would outlaw image-based sexual abuse (commonly known as revenge porn) and cyberbullying by the end of the year.
Alongside this comes a wider government commitment to introduce legislation on hate crime within 12 months. Currently Ireland has no law outlawing hate crime other than a largely ineffective law prohibiting the incitement of hatred. Time will tell, but if achieved, this would be a huge step forward for minority communities who rarely see justice for racist, homophobic or otherwise hateful attacks.
Another positive commitment to ratify an international treaty called the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment will require independent human rights-focused inspections of all places where people are detained. That would include garda holding cells and prisons, as well as social and care settings such as nursing homes, psychiatric institutions and direct provision centres.
But this is a promise that has been made by Justice Ministers for eleven years and counting now. Will Minister McEntee be the one to finally ensure that people who are institutionalised in Ireland are properly protected against ill treatment?
On institutionalisation, responsibility for reforming Direct Provision has been charged to the Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, where Minister Roderic O’Gorman has repeatedly committed to ending the system. Ending Direct Provision and moving to a not-for-profit model of accommodation for those seeking international protection is now in the Programme for Government.
Another one to watch is whether a promised review of The Offences Against the State Act will happen. This is the legislation that allows for non-jury trials in the Special Criminal Court with weakened fair trial protections for defendants.
It was disappointing to see a commitment to annually renew the legislation in the Programme for Government. Many human rights advocates have campaigned against this court for years and a review would hopefully lead to its demise.
So far, in general though, Minister McEntee and the new government are talking the right talk – but successive governments have talked much of this same talk over the years. The question is, will they take action?