Colum Kenny: Smithwick report has shown need for more Garda accountability
Findings only reinforce doubts that the Force isn't encouraged to tell the truth when things go wrong
Published 08/12/2013 | 02:30
WHAT will Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan do to change the present "culture and attitude" of senior gardai that Judge Peter Smithwick described last week as "disheartening and depressing"?
What are they likely to do, given the experiences of garda whistleblowers and of some Dail deputies who recently raised abuses of the penalty points system among other serious issues within the force? Or given that Mr Callinan last week claimed no such culture or attitude exists?
Judge Smithwick's report into the murder of two RUC officers raises further questions about the adequacy of procedures put in place since 1989 to encourage gardai to tell the truth about problems within the force.
The judge regrets efforts made during his tribunal to discredit the evidence and character of retired Chief Superintendent Tom Curran.
The judge reports that, "without it ever having been put to Mr Curran on behalf of the Garda Commissioner that he was lying or mistaken, questions were asked of both him and other witnesses which, in my view, were clearly designed to cast doubt over his evidence.
"I can only assume that instructions to adopt such an approach were given on the basis that the Garda Commissioner did not like what Mr Curran had to say."
Judge Smithwick continues: "Tom Curran . . . struck me as an officer of the utmost integrity. I would have thought he is as deserving of the support of the Garda Commissioner as any other former officer. However, it seems to me that because he was giving evidence of which An Garda Siochana did not approve, such support was not forthcoming."
The judge then says, in some of the most critical comments ever made publicly at a senior level about the gardai, "I regret to say that this suggests to me that there prevails in An Garda Siochana today a prioritisation of the protection of the good name of the force over the protection of those who seek to tell the truth. Loyalty is prized above honesty."
His remarks will not surprise garda whistleblowers who tried for a long time within the gardai to raise their concerns about the abuse of the penalty points system, before taking their complaints to the Dail.
They feel that they have been subjected to unreasonable pressures inside and outside the Force, and that their allegations in respect to penalty points and other serious matters have not been adequately investigated.
Judge Smithwick admits that such a culture is not unique to An Garda Siochana and that all large organisations struggle with this issue.
However, he adds, "given that I have already concluded that political expediency and the prioritisation of the good name of the force contributed to suggestions of collusion in these killings not being properly investigated when they first arose, the fact that such a culture and attitude is still prevalent now, more than 20 years on, in the context of the work of this tribunal, is disheartening and depressing."
On its main news report last Tuesday, RTE described the judge's finding of fact, that a culture of misguided loyalty is still prevalent in the Gardai, as a "contention", allowing itself by this distinction to state baldly that Mr Callinan had accepted the "findings" of the tribunal. He actually rejected the judge's statements in this respect.
And BBC Northern Ireland challenged the Commissioner over his position on the finding of collusion, pointing out to him that he had used the word "accept" rather than "agree" or "believe".
Mr Callinan insisted: "Everything we do in An Garda Siochana is designed to establish the truth."
That may be so, but perhaps the Garda do not "do" a broad enough range of "things" to get at the full truth.
It is crucial that the public has confidence in the gardai, and that the force is seen to be run in a just and efficient manner. As Judge Smithwick concludes: "The integrity of and confidence in An Garda Siochana can properly be maintained only if suggestions of inappropriate or illegal conduct by members are taken seriously, transparently and thoroughly investigated and, above all, not tolerated or ignored on the basis of some misguided sense of loyalty to the force or to its members."
In Britain in recent years, vigorous efforts have been made to make the police there more transparent and accountable. Reforms here have been hesitant.
Mr Shatter sent out the wrong signal on garda accountability when he appointed a political supporter of his and contributor to Fine Gael as the official "confidential recipient" of internal garda complaints.
It is no reflection on the ability or integrity of that person to say that whoever was appointed ought to have been seen to be entirely independent, and ought to have been given the powers to carry out all necessary investigations in an adequate fashion.
Similarly, it ought not to have been the gardai themselves whom Mr Shatter asked to investigate certain aspects of the penalty points scandal.
Shatter also sent out a wrong signal when he went on national television earlier this year and used personal information furnished to him by the Garda Commissioner to discredit one of the deputies attempting to have the penalty points scandal independently investigated.
But perhaps the greatest indication that the culture and attitude criticised by Judge Smithwick are not changing fast enough was the failure of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission's office this year to secure from the Government unfettered access to the Garda's Pulse system of record keeping.
Whistleblowers have suggested that the Pulse system has been manipulated and that entries on it have been changed in inappropriate ways, yet the Garda Ombudsman depends on the gardai themselves to furnish its office with information from Pulse. The Ombudsman's request was simply rejected by the government.
The Smithwick report, the Morris Tribunal about garda practices in Donegal, certain published and as yet unpublished assertions by whistleblowers elsewhere, and recent indications by the Comptroller and Auditor General that his own complaints about abuses of the penalty points system were not acted upon, together constitute a compelling case for an Oireachtas investigation into the management and discipline of the force.
The media also need to ask harder questions of the gardai, on whom their security correspondents rely perhaps too closely for so many crime and security stories.
The Smithwick report now ratchets up the argument for Garda reform. Even had Judge Smithwick not found that there was collusion between some garda or gardai and the IRA in respect to murder, his finding on the culture of the Force alone would be deeply worrying.
Those who resist greater accountability in the gardai may argue that transparency can jeopardise national security, or increase the risk of civil disorder by discrediting the force. But the public overall remains well disposed towards the gardai, who in general do a good job. Citizens are capable of discerning the difference between confidentiality and cover-ups.
Does Shatter's government want to know the truth about garda practices and procedures? The fact that their new Freedom of Information Bill includes the gardai might suggest that they do, until you look closer and see that the law here will still be restricted compared to that in some neighbouring jurisdictions.
When it comes to this current government, is it – to borrow from Judge Smithwick's key phrase – also the case that "loyalty is prized above honesty"?