Minister must restore public faith in Garda Siochana
Shortcomings in the justice system have been exposed and must now be tackled, writes Philip Ryan
A TAXI driver recently turned to me and said: "Fair play to that whistleblower fella taking on the guards like that."
I agreed that Maurice McCabe was brave to stand up to his superiors when it was obviously detrimental to his career progression.
A nod of agreement followed and then a short silence before he said: "But do you think he bugged the GSOC's office?"
I tried my best to explain that the two issues were completely separate, but when we missed my turn I realised I was fighting a losing battle.
The episode, however, is a fitting example of how the complex and seemingly endless debate on various policing issues has confused the public.
People have tuned into the RTE Six One News on an almost nightly basis to watch Justice Minister Alan Shatter attempt to explain away the mounting scandals that have landed on his desk.
Whether he is denying bugging or ordering independent investigations into allegations of garda misconduct, the minister has rarely been off the airwaves.
But there is still little by way of explanation for the average onlooker who is slowly losing faith in the arm of State responsible for making people feel safe.
Sgt McCabe's campaign to highlight his allegations of improper penalty point terminations was the catalyst for the current imbroglio.
He was once an anonymous whistleblower but is now a household name after giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee.
The much-publicised hearing in late January followed an internal garda inquiry into his claims and an investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The findings of both inquiries differed greatly, and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was called before the Oireachtas public spending watchdog to explain the disparity.
Before Minister Shatter could take a moment to exhale, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commissioner bugging allegations hit the headlines.
Minister Shatter denied there was any surveillance, Ombudsman Commissioner Simon O'Brien said he could not definitely say there was no bugging and Commissioner Callinan defended his troops adamantly.
The precursor to the controversy was a very public falling out between Garda HQ and GSOC over what the Ombudsman perceived to be a lack of co-operation when investigating complaints.
For two weeks a media storm battered down on Leinster House but when the deluge drifted away the public was none the wiser as to what exactly happened.
The minister's hand was forced and he drafted in retired judge John Cooke to unravel the complexities of the controversy.
Then it emerged that Sgt McCabe had two years earlier forwarded a series of potentially serious allegations of garda malpractice to the minister, which it was claimed were not properly investigated by his department.
Again, the minister appointed a legal expert – barrister Sean Guerin – to investigate the claims.
Both investigations have
been given eight weeks to report back to Minister Shatter and, if they see fit, recommend further action.
If Mr Guerin recommends a commission of investigation, which is a strong possibility, we could be in line for a public inquiry similar to the Murphy Report on clerical sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese.
With the entire justice system under the spotlight, the minister has announced his intention to overhaul the 2005 Garda Siochana Act which was enacted in the wake of the Morris tribunal findings of garda corruption in Donegal.
Along with GSOC, the legislation passed by former Justice Minister Michael McDowell saw the formation of the Garda Inspectorate office –an independent body tasked with reviewing garda operations and administration.
It also introduced the confidential recipient system which allows gardai to make anonymous complaints about fellow officers.
Mr Shatter announced his intention to abolish the confidant for whistleblowers shortly before the most recent office holder, Oliver Connolly, was accused of telling Sgt McCabe that the Justice Minister would "finish" him if he thought the officer was "screwing him".
An interim recipient will
soon be announced to fill the gap until the minister brings forward new legislation.
The alleged conversation between Sgt McCabe and Mr Connolly highlighted a discrepancy in the legislation which may need the minister's attention.
The confidential recipient forwards all anonymous complaints to the Garda Commissioner for his consideration. Unless, of course, the complaint is about the commissioner; in which case it is sent to the Justice Minister. What is supposed to happen next is unclear.
Sgt McCabe's complaint about Commissioner Martin Callinan seems to have been sent from the Justice Minister to the commissioner himself for consideration, according to the alleged conversation with Mr Connolly. And when the Justice Department was asked last week about the protocol, it simply pointed towards the minister's intention to change the current system.
Mr Shatter's new proposals will see GSOC – which currently investigates complaints from the public, the Justice Minister and the Garda Commissioner – handling allegations of misconduct from serving officers.
The Garda Ombudsman was recently asked by Mr Shatter to investigate Sgt McCabe's allegations of wrongfully
quashed penalty points as the legislation permits. There is no date for when this report will be published, but work has commenced.
A Garda Inspectorate's report on the same issues is due before the Cabinet this week and will be published on the same day. The report will contain a series of recommendations on operational matters associated with fixed term penalty notices which the Garda Commissioner will enact where possible.
Today, it has been revealed that the inspectorates' office has never received a confidential recipient report from the Garda Commissioner as is required, with a whistleblower's permission, under law.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee is also examining the Garda Siochana Act and will make recommendations to the Department of Justice.
It will hold public hearings in an attempt to tease out the anomalies that have resulted in the recent scandals.
Most people may still be baffled by the various arms of the escalating debacle, but most will agree that shortcomings in the justice system have been exposed.
It is now up to Mr Shatter, whom colleagues describe as the "most reforming" Justice Minister to tread the floors of Leinster House, to introduce the changes which will restore the public's faith in the police force.