At 2.30pm last Tuesday, a number of councillors, management officials, community representatives and journalists logged onto a Zoom call.
The purpose was to take part in the Dublin City Joint Policing Committee (JPC), designed to bring council officials and elected councillors together with gardaí and community representatives in order to discuss the most pressing issues in relation to crime and policing.
At the beginning of the meeting, Fianna Fáil Councillor Daithí de Róiste was re-elected as committee chair. As he prepared to move forward with business, however, it became apparent that no gardaí were present.
“No, we have no gardaí yet,” said the council assistant manager Brendan Kenny. “We were due to have a representative but there’s no guard here yet.”
A number of councillors questioned whether gardaí indicated if they would be present. Some councillors reacted with incredulity that no gardaí would be present at a JPC meeting.
“There’s not much sense in having a meeting – that is a Joint Policing Committee meeting – with no garda present. It really is a contradiction of terms,” said Labour Councillor Joe Costello.
“In my 11 years on the council, I never had a situation where I attended either a local or a citywide JPC and there’s been no presence form the gardaí,” said Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam.
After about 15 minutes, the JPC meeting was adjourned until the following week and is due to take place Wednesday 30 September when gardaí can be present. It was another delay for the Dublin City JPC, which hasn’t met formally since last December and has only met once since the new council was elected in May 2019.
Dublin City Council later said in a statement that due to a clerical error, an email invitation did not reach gardaí informing them of the JPC meeting and that officials did not realise this until the meeting was about to start.
“Our fault not the Gardaí in any way. We would never contemplate holding a JPC meeting without the Gardaí in attendance,” a council spokesperson said by email.
However, the issue has frustrated some councillors, who have criticised the length of time that has passed without a proper JPC meeting and think the entire committee system needs to be overhauled.
Joint Policing Committees
Joint Policing Committees were first held on a pilot basis in 2006, with guidelines being issued in 2008 for their establishment in local authorities across the country.
The purpose of the committees is to have a forum where local council officials, senior gardaí, Oireachtas members for the area and community interests can meet, consult, discuss matters affecting crime and policing in their area. The committees can then make recommendations around specific actions that can be taken by gardaí to improve public safety or reduce crime in an area, for example.
JPCs are statutory committees, meaning they are enshrined in law and provided for in the 2005 Garda Síochána Act.
In Dublin, there is a citywide JPC, as well as five separate area sub-committees, which correspond to the five operational areas of the council. Aside from the Dublin City JPC, the area sub-committees are all held behind closed doors and are not open to the media or members of the general public.
“Area JPC meetings are always held in Committee due to the nature of the discussions. This has always been the practice and is in accordance with the guidelines,” a council spokesperson said by email.
“Community Representatives have always been concerned about their safety if such meetings were public.”
The last public, citywide JPC meeting was held on 3 December 2019, while the one before that was held on 12 March, before the local elections.
“What we need is the JPCs to be reenacted immediately,” says independent Councillor Anthony Flynn. Flynn is a member of the citywide JPC and the Central Area sub-committee.
“We need the council, the councillors, and the gardaí – all the stakeholders need to get back into the room and figure out what the issues are and what the problems are in terms of the city as a whole and we need to react to that,” he said.
This is echoed by independent Councillor Cieran Perry, chair of the Central Area JPC, which has not met since March 2019.
“I was hoping that we would have had a JPC in the June, July period but when that didn’t happen I reluctantly agreed that we would have something in September,” he says. “So I’m disappointed that that hasn’t progressed.”
Perry says that following the local elections in May 2019 and the election of a new council there is usually a delay in setting up new committees. This delay was exacerbated by the general election in February of this year and then Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted regular proceedings, he says.
Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn – a member of the South East Area JPC as well as vice-chair of the Dublin City JPC – agrees with Perry, saying that the process of setting up committees after the local elections “is far too long by any standard”.
Flynn says that the way in which JPCs are held is no longer fit for purpose and that there needs to be a complete revamp of committees and the laws which govern them.
In 2014, the Justice Department released an updated set of guidelines for how JPCs should function and what the goals of the committees should be. The guidelines state that wherever possible meetings should be held in public and held four times a year. As well as this, the guidelines state that JPCs should hold wider public meetings regularly, or at least once a year.
For Flynn, the lack of public knowledge around JPCs is one of the main concerns.
“There needs to be a publicity campaign to let the general public know that this is where the gardaí are more or less held to account,” he says. “The whole thing is about visibility and accountability.”
This is a view echoed by business owner and community representative Gerry Fay. Fay runs K&A Stores, a convenience shop, in North Wall in the north inner-city and is a member of the North Wall Community Association. Fay says that a community policing forum like the JPC needs to be set up and made visible as a matter of urgency.
“I mean there’s a total disconnect now,” he says. “Before you had a local policing [forum] and then you had the citywide one that used to take place in Liberty Hall that would be attended by the chief superintendent and the various districts […] that’s all gone now.”
He sees the lack of JPC meetings as a further moving away from community policing by gardaí in recent months.
Recently, he says, a point of contact with a garda working the beat in the community has been lost. He says especially at this time of year, with Halloween approaching, that a physical garda presence is needed.
“There’s no question about it, there are serious problems. Especially coming up to Halloween now it’s batten down the hatches time. We’ll have to see how it goes,” he says.
Different area committees have had different experiences while the JPCs were not being held.
Green Party Councillor Caroline Conroy says that the Dublin North West Area JPC met informally over Zoom in recent months.
“We asked for extra meetings during covid because we couldn’t meet because of social distancing and all that so we had to ask specifically for a Zoom meeting,” she said. “Now they did oblige and we did have a meeting.”
Meetings of the North West and South Central Area Committees were held on Monday 28 September. A meeting of the North Central Area Committee is due to be held on 5 October, and dates have not been set yet for a meeting of the Central or South East area committees.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting of the South Central Area JPC, Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan – a member of both the citywide JPC and the South Central area committee – said that it was important that meetings started to be held again regularly.
“This is the first meeting of the Dublin South Central JPC since January,” he said.
“That’s a long time and it’s just not satisfactory when you don’t meet because there’s no follow up, accountability, action points followed up on and that’s a concern so hopefully, we’ll get on top of it now.”
The Future of the JPC
In an emailed statement, Dublin City Council said JPC meetings had not been held in recent months as a result first of the general election and later the Covid-19 pandemic “where priority had to be given to essential services”.
“However during this period interaction between the gardaí and Dublin City Council continued as before,” the spokesperson said.
It said that consideration will be given to having monthly meetings of the JPC from now on for a period of time. Some councillors have raised concerns about irregular meetings of JPCs and a lack of proper community representation for a number of years.
A report earlier this year found 17 vacancies for community members on four of the five area sub-committees.
“Over the last number of years JPCs in the city have entirely failed in my opinion. It’s just not a success,” says Flynn. “There isn’t any kind of outcome or progress.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Justice Department said that JPCs had served an important function to date, but that the department was currently devising a policy on a whole-of-government approach to community safety.
The spokesperson said that this approach would bring together a wider range of service providers and give the local community a central voice in identifying safety issues that affect them.
This approach is part of the government’s plans to implement the recommendations of the Report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, which was published in September 2018. As part of this, the spokesperson said that community safety pilot programmes are being developed in specific areas, with Dublin’s north inner-city being considered as an area to run a pilot.
“The pilots will seek to establish a partnership approach to community safety between service providers, including An Garda Síochána, the local authority and the local community,” the spokesperson said.
The pilots will seek to improve community confidence in organisations like the gardaí. A spokesperson said that in the meantime JPCs will continue to operate at normal.