Thursday 29 September 2016

Nothing to see here, so move along now please

Colette Brown

Published 15/02/2014 | 02:30

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter

WHEN gardai are investigating crime they identify suspects by examining their means, motive and opportunity – except, it seems, when the finger of suspicion is pointed at them.

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Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan reacted angrily to the revelation that the prime suspects behind the alleged bugging of the office of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) were gardai.

The very suggestion that gardai had the most obvious motive, and means at their disposal, to bug the office of the independent body set up to investigate them was utterly anathema – a scurrilous slur on the reputation of every serving garda.

Yesterday, just six days after first learning of the security breach, the commissioner went even further. He categorically ruled out the possibility that there was any authorised, or unauthorised, surveillance of GSOC by members of the force.

While the speed of his internal investigation into the controversy has to be commended, its conclusions appear, at best, premature.

Because, unless he's possessed of psychic abilities that have yet to be disclosed, there's no way that he could possibly have established that some maverick garda, out of a 12,000-strong force, was not to blame.

The commissioner was practically a model of restraint compared to the furious reaction of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI).

Its general secretary John Redmond stopped just short of asking for GSOC chairman Simon O'Brien's head on a plate.

On Tuesday, the day before Mr O'Brien had even gone into the Dail to answer questions from the Public Service Oversight Committee, Mr Redmond was calling on him to resign for "usurping the Government" by not reporting the security breach when it was discovered.

Of course, Taoiseach Enda Kenny could be to blame for that misinterpretation of Mr O'Brien's obligations because he had stated he had a statutory duty to inform Justice Minister Alan Shatter when, in fact, no such duty exists.

So, just 72 hours after learning of the suspected surveillance, Mr Redmond was confidently asserting that no gardai were implicated and that any suggestion they were was "outrageous".

Meanwhile, a disorderly queue of government representatives has rushed to any available microphone to loudly rubbish any suggestion that GSOC's office was bugged.

Mr Shatter, who appears to have researched contemporary surveillance techniques by watching episodes of 'Inspector Gadget', is demanding incontrovertible evidence before deigning to lift a finger.

Evidently, a report from security specialists that concluded the chance that a phone in GSOC's office hadn't been tampered with was "virtually zero", isn't good enough.

Which begs the question, what kind of evidence is the minister looking for? Is he looking for an actual bug? A briefcase containing sensitive documents? Recordings of phone calls between GSOC members and interviewees?

What exactly does he need to see?

If you weren't worried about the cosy relationship between members of the Government and gardai before this scandal erupted, you should be now.

Faced with a controversy that would send any government in any self-respecting democracy in the world into crisis mode, the response has been a collective shrug of shoulders, denial and obfuscation.

The biggest threat to national security, we are now being told, is not the bugging of GSOC's offices but rather the leaking of the information to a Sunday newspaper.

It's a reaction that wouldn't be amiss in some authoritarian tin-pot dictatorship where glorious leaders and state apparatchiks are beyond reproach.

Despite all of the guff about accountability, transparency and openness when Fine Gael and Labour entered government, they have acted with depressing predictability to this scandal.

Instead of giving any credence to GSOC's serious concerns that its offices had been compromised, they have opted to shoot the messenger and are now engaged in a witch-hunt to find the whistleblower.

When you strip away all of the bluster and recrimination from this fiasco a simple, stark point remains. GSOC believes it was bugged. The minister doesn't believe GSOC.

How can the public be expected to have any faith in the probity and reliability of GSOC's investigations when the justice minister is happy to blithely undermine its conclusions on a matter of such grave importance?

This leaves GSOC in an untenable position. What kind of credibility does it now have to conduct its very sensitive, and important, investigations into alleged garda misconduct?

The truth is, nobody – not the Garda Commissioner, or the AGSI, or members of the Government – know who attempted to bug GSOC's offices.

The only way to move on now with everybody's reputation attached is to conduct an independent inquiry.

Instead of circling the wagons, both the Government and the gardai should be eager to try to get to the bottom of the matter, identify the source of the breach and restore public confidence.

Irish Independent

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