How garda watchdog tape slipped below radar
Claims about Alan Shatter’s attitude to whistleblowers have been made in the Dail, but is Irish society bothered, asks Colum Kenny
Published 09/02/2014 | 02:30
Last week, serious claims were made about the Justice Minister’s attitude towards whistleblowers. You may not have noticed this, because much of the media all but ignored it.
Like the penalty points affair itself, these claims and how we respond to them are a test of how much Irish society really cares about reform.
The claims were based on an alleged transcript of a tape-recording of a meeting between a garda whistleblower and the Confidential Recipient, as the person officially appointed by the Government to help garda whistleblowers is known.
The current Confidential Recipient is a barrister, Oliver Connolly, who had made donations to Fine Gael prior to his appointment. The Irish Independent reported in 2011, for example, that Mr Connolly had given Mr Shatter’s own political fund €1,000 in 2007.
Not all of the alleged transcript was read into the record of the Dail. The Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality may now wish to hear it in full.
The transcript indicates that complaints by two known whistleblowers have extended to more serious matters than penalty points, and have included allegations of negligence and indiscipline in respect to the investigation of rape and other serious crimes. It is understood that these complaints have been considered within the Gardai and been determined entirely or for the most part to be without substance.
The alleged transcript also indicates that the senior whistleblowers complained to the Confidential Recipient about the Garda Commissioner having promoted a certain member of the force.
The commissioner has described the manner in which the whistleblowers made their complaints as “disgusting.”
There is nothing in the alleged transcript of the tape-recording, partly quoted last week by Mick Wallace TD, to suggest that Mr Connolly did not do as much as his office enables him to do to pursue properly the concerns of the whistleblower who secretly recorded his conversation with him.
In fact, Mr Connolly went to some lengths to inform Minister Shatter of relevant matters, and assured the senior whistleblower that Mr Shatter “has an open mind” and had studied everything in the whistleblower’s complaints.
The alleged transcript indicates that the whistleblower complimented Mr Connolly for being “straight and honest” with him, adding “that’s what I like.” It was not that particular phrase that Mr Mr Wallace quoted.
Instead, Mr Wallace quoted two sentences referring to the possibility of the media finding out about the whistleblower’s complaints. Mr Wallace told the Dail:
“A while back we were given a transcript of a conversation two years ago between Maurice McCabe and the Confidential Recipient. It is frightening. It includes the following: ‘I'll tell you something Maurice, and this is just personal advice to you, if Shatter thinks you're screwing him, you're finished.’ Here is another line: ‘If Shatter thinks, here's this guy again trying another route trying to put pressure, he'll go after you.’ Our Minister for Justice and Equality will ‘go after you’. What is going on?”
The Sunday Independent understands that Mr Wallace received the transcript from a fellow Independent, Clare Daly TD, whom whistleblowers had expected to read the transcript into the record of the Dail but who never did so. It is understood that neither deputy has heard the actual tape-recording.
The full transcript indicates that Mr Connolly was attempting to give the whistleblower some friendly and helpful advice as to how to proceed, it being thought that neither the department nor the commissioner was likely to take matters further at that point unless something changed.
However, statements intended as prudent advice to the whistleblower, about pursuing his legal options rather than going to the media, were regarded by the whistleblower as a cause for serious concern.
This alone raises questions about the wisdom of the Justice Minister choosing for the sensitive position of Confidential Recipient a person who is a Fine Gael supporter rather than an independent retired judge, for example.
Last week, Mr Shatter told the Oireachtas that the Government will now in fact abolish the post of Confidential Recipient and transfer its functions to the office of the Garda Ombudsman, who is currently undertaking an investigation of some aspects of the penalty points scandal.
He seemed to blame Fianna Fail, reportedly telling the Dail that, “It’s an office created by my predecessor which gives rise to all sorts of difficulties and allegations and conflicts which are unfair to members of the force and to a member of the force who has a valid complaint to make.”
These statements by Minister Shatter come after months during which whistleblowers have been criticised for not making more use of that office!
It is not known if, in the context of its current probe solely into the penalty points affair, the Garda Ombudsman will look at the manner in which Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan furnished information about Deputy Wallace to Minister Shatter that Mr Shatter used on RTE to damage Mr Wallace.
It is said that Mr Shatter forged close professional ties with Commissioner Callinan when faced with preparing for major international visits by President Obama and Queen Elizabeth within two months of his appointment as minister.
Contrary to one claim, the Standards in Public Office Commission did not find that the minister had acted properly in using on television confidential garda information relating to an alleged traffic offence by Mr Wallace.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee may wish to determine if the minister sought information from the commissioner about members of the Dail and other critics, or if the commissioner offered it unasked. Just last month, Minister Shatter himself complained to RTE that, “We now have the gardai engaged in political controversy, which I think is completely undesirable.”
The minister also rightly said in the same interview on January 28 that, “It is crucial that we maintain public confidence in the Gardai.”
Last week in the Dail, Mr Shatter returned to the offensive against Mick Wallace. He claimed that, “On every occasion on which he has something to say about An Garda Siochana, Deputy Wallace appears to be engaged in a campaign to undermine public confidence in the force. . . Deputy Wallace is making a career out of blackguarding the Garda Siochana.”
Mr Wallace vigorously denied the smear. He also criticised Mr Shatter for referring the penalty points affair to the Ombudsman only under Section 102 of the Garda Siochana Act 2005, and not also under Section 106, which he claims might have allowed a fuller investigation.
Why did the media not pay more attention last week to the reported claims that the Confidential Recipient thought it likely that the minister would “go after” and “finish” the whistleblowers if they went to the media?
The claims were repeated under privilege in Dail Eireann and were protected from legal action even under Ireland’s restrictive defamation law. However, they were made by a deputy whom some regard merely as a maverick.
Perhaps editors felt that they were just being fair to the minister, because the media had heard no copy of the tape-recording that was being purportedly quoted.
Or perhaps it reflects a certain laid-back attitude to the whole penalty points issue, which far from being treated as a scandal typical of a broader culture not only in the Gardai but in Irish society.