Monday 21 April 2014

Elaine Byrne: It's time the gardai put justice above reputation

Recent cases highlight the urgent need for a new transparency in the force so it can retain our trust, says Elaine Byrne

Garda Commisoner Martin Callinan
Garda Commisoner Martin Callinan

We are very good in Ireland at using euphemisms to disguise the truth. The past is always a foreign country where things were done differently. Serious failings are dismissed as the isolated incidents of just a few rotten apples. We move on and forget, over and over until it happens again.

In the words of the Smithwick tribunal, this "culture of failing adequately to address suggestions of wrongdoing, either for reasons of political expediency or by virtue of misguided loyalty, has been a feature of life in this State".

None more so than An Garda Siochana. Five recent incidents alone suggest that the gardai are not independent from political interference nor are they democratically accountable. Those are not words I use lightly.

The moral authority which the gardai depend on to serve the Irish people has been undermined by a pattern of behaviour where the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal and the protection of the reputation of the force are prioritised above justice. Justice Yvonne Murphy used those exact words to describe the child abuse scandal in the archdiocese of Dublin, another highly hierarchical, deeply centralised and secretive institution.

These have been five noteworthy incidents within the gardai in 2013.

1. The collusion by at least one garda with a terrorist organisation dedicated to overthrowing the State, in the murder of two fellow police officers, is the ultimate betrayal of everything that a police force stands for. The Smithwick tribunal also strongly criticised the flawed nature of the subsequent O'Dea (1989) and Camon (2000) investigations. The internal garda investigations dismissed any notion of garda wrongdoing and Judge Smithwick identified critical factors which, he felt, influenced the outcomes.

The Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, rejected Smithwick's assertion that the culture of loyalty being prized above honesty "is still prevalent now".

2. In May, two internal garda investigations into the penalty points controversy were published. Instead of forwarding the allegations to the Garda Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), a body designed for the purpose of investigating misconduct and malpractice in the gardai, the gardai once again investigated themselves. Even Transport Minister Leo Varadkar called on the GSOC to investigate.

On receipt of the garda reports, Alan Shatter said the allegations "have not been substantiated".

The two whistleblowers responsible for a dossier detailing the 66,000 cases of quashed traffic offences were not consulted during the inquiry. Clare Daly TD criticised the garda internal reports which she described as having "limited terms of reference".

So what were the consequences?

Daly used her parliamentary privilege last December to name a judge, a rugby player and a journalist as beneficiaries of the quashed penalty points. In January, she was arrested, and unusually for an alleged drink driving case, was handcuffed. News of her arrest was leaked to the media. Daly's blood-alcohol level was 33 per cent below the permissible limit.

Whistleblower Garda John Wilson felt he had no other option but to retire because his "position was untenable".

3. In a live Prime Time debate on the penalty points controversy, Alan Shatter revealed confidential policing details about Mick Wallace as a means of damaging him in the heat of a political argument. He said that the independent TD had benefited from garda discretion when he was caught using a mobile phone while driving. The Justice Minister abused his power for political purposes. He later apologised for his "inadvertent" remarks.

Section 41 of 2005 Garda Act stipulates the information that the Garda Commissioner has a duty to give to the minister. They include issues around the preservation of peace and public order; the protection of life and property; and the protection of the security of the State. In my humble opinion, an individual on a mobile phone does not come under these categories.

What confidence can the public have in the justice system if the Justice Minister decides to disclose confidential information whenever he likes?

4. In a very public dispute, GSOC accused the gardai of failing to co-operate in its inquiry into allegations that senior officers of a specialist unit allowed convicted drugs trafficker Kieran Boylan to continue dealing drugs in exchange for information on other dealers.

A GSOC Special Report in May noted that it was "wholly reliant upon assurances from An Garda Siochana that the evidence and information they have supplied represents the totality of such information held."

In every inquiry this "independent statutory body" makes into the gardai, the GSOC is obliged to first "request" the information from those they are investigating. If granted, a member of the gardai will access the database on behalf of the GSOC. Forgive me for being sceptical.

5. In 2012, the DPP demolished the garda case against Ian Bailey, the self-confessed suspect for the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. It found no evidence linking him to the crime and expressed serious concerns over garda practices, including an overdependence on unreliable witnesses.

A unanimous Supreme Court decision found that Bailey should not be extradited to be questioned as part of a French murder inquiry.

Bailey is now suing the State for wrongful arrest. He has brought a High Court civil action to order the State to release all material relevant to his legal team. The Garda Commissioner says that, as an entity being sued, he is entitled to oppose discovery of this documentation.

As Bailey's solicitor Frank Buttimer told RTE Radio One, "what amazes me is the silence which is emanating from various quarters, various people in positions of power."

In her new book on policing in Ireland, Dr Vicky Conway has described a historical political unwillingness to criticise the gardai. Ireland's heavily centralised governance structure of policing is in stark contrast to other countries where accountability lays with independent bodies, not the minister. This would prevent the remarkable politicisation of our police force.

Irish Independent

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