Saturday 22 October 2016

A force in fear of talking to the media puts public at risk

Reprimanding of whistleblowers is just the tip of the iceberg, as senior ranks run scared, writes Jim Cusack

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

Old guard: Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter Picture: Steve Humphreys
Old guard: Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter Picture: Steve Humphreys

The term "whistleblower" has become central to discourse on the Garda Siochana as a result of a decision taken more than a decade ago, and almost forgotten.

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In order to ameliorate criticism of the criminal offence introduced by then minister for justice Michael McDowell, in the 2005 Garda Siochana Act, threatening gardai with seven year's imprisonment and, or, a €75,000 for "unlawful" disclosure of information, an office known as the Official Recipient was set up.

This was to be staffed by a political appointee whose function was to secretly hear complaints about corrupt or criminal practices or bullying from gardai who felt unsafe making such complaints to senior officers.

Very few gardai ever actually knew the office existed. Instead of being an independent agency that could investigate complaints and expose wrongdoing, its function was purely to note complaints and pass the matter back to the Department of Justice and the Garda themselves.

If a garda with a genuine complaint about a superior officer went to the Official Recipient and made a complaint, supposedly in confidence, he or she could find their complaint handed back to the very same senior officer. Only a handful of gardai ever made complaints to the Recipient and it remained unknown until Sgt McCabe went to the office and taped his conversation with the then appointee, Oliver Connolly, in 2012 and published the transcript.

Connolly resigned, and was quickly followed by the defenestration of minister for justice Alan Shatter and commissioner Martin Callinan.

Amid the reshuffling of figures at top level, including the appointment of Noirin O'Sullivan as Garda Commissioner, a decision was made to arrest and question the head of the Garda Press Office Superintendent Dave Taylor. His arrest and suspension for supposedly breaching Section 62 of the Garda Siochana Act in April last year sent shockwaves through the force.

The arrest at Balbriggan Garda Station was by members of a special Garda unit set up and headed by Commissioner O'Sullivan's husband, then superintendent and since promoted to Chief Superintendent, Jim McGowan. Asked by the Sunday Independent if there was a conflict of interest arising from her husband being in charge of such a sensitive internal investigation, the Commissioner said that there was none in her view.

But within the force the arrest of Supt Taylor was taken as a lesson that anyone caught talking to the media faced the same fate. Taylor was actually subjected to 20 hours of imprisonment, held in a cell in his shirt and pants with his shoes taken from him. The epaulettes signifying his rank were removed from his uniform, the Garda equivalent of a military cashiering.

Supt Taylor remains suspended on reduced pay 18 months later. A file was sent to the DPP earlier this year but returned, according to sources, with a note attached asking the investigators for "any evidence".

Up to Supt Taylor's arrest, senior operational gardai were generally allowed to field questions from the media about criminal matters and did so largely to ensure that the right of the public to be informed was met while not compromising any investigations. This stopped dead with Taylor's arrest.

Senior gardai were clearly frightened that they too could also find themselves in a cell for merely having a conversation with a journalist.

One of the effects of this was that the necessary police-media function of alerting the public to criminal threats has disappeared.

To this journalist's knowledge, there were two incidents of the rape of young women by random attackers and no descriptions of the assailants or warnings issued to the public.

Officially sanctioned press releases now consist almost entirely of basic accounts of murders, fatal road accidents, missing persons and drugs seizures - which always contain the exaggerated street prices of the product. No press releases are made in relation to the vast bulk of crime. The Garda release statistics through the Central Statistics Office and, after examining the way gardai collate and record crime figures, the CSO has basically stated it cannot stand over the figures.

This is now becoming a central and possibly defining issue between the current Garda management and the newly established Policing Authority, which has assumed control over the force from Cabinet and the Department of Justice. The Authority chairperson, Josephine Feehily, repeatedly put it to the Commissioner at a public meeting last Thursday week, that failure to properly record and publish crime statistics is undermining public confidence in the integrity of the Garda. She received no adequate response.

The matters raised in the Dail over the past two years by Mick Wallace and Clare Daly about the allegations of two whistleblowers who say they were targetted and unfairly treated for trying to raise issues of corruption, which preceded last week's further revelations, may actually be the tip of an iceberg.

Gardai who have spoken - despite the threat to their careers and livelihoods - have referred to very serious criminal as well as corrupt practices that have been covered up.

These include an allegation that a mid-ranking officer was involved in running a gang of armed robbers. He was questioned but nothing further arose.

Another garda denied a claim by a female sex worker that he had forced her to perform an act on him when she called to a station to retrieve her laptop and phone that had been seized in a raid. The garda admitted having sex but claimed it was a mutually agreed act. He is still serving on the force.

In Dublin there are suspicions that the Kinahan drugs cartel has infiltrated and subverted the force. One officer who spoke to the Sunday Independent made reference to a surveillance operation mounted against the late Jim Mansfield which monitored the suspicious movement of what was to believed to be large amounts of cocaine and heroin from a lock-up in Dublin several years ago.

When gardai watching the gang, who ultimately came under the control of the Kinahans, reported their findings, the lock-up was almost immediately cleared and the operation closed down.

Mansfield had been, for years, allowing the importation of cocaine and heroin through his private aerodrome at Lucan, Co Dublin on behalf of the cartel.

In any functioning police force, these matters must have come to the attention of the most senior ranks and the direct governing authorities, the Department of Justice and Cabinet and action should have been taken.

But, sources say, the Garda has become run by a swathe of senior officers without the ability or willingness to address major internal problems.

The near universal support among gardai for industrial action next month is seen by some senior gardai as a result of deep unease among ordinary decent gardai about the internal collapse of the force, as much as about pay.

Sunday Independent

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