Political eejit or visionary, Wallace makes valid case for reform of gardai
Greater transparency within the force is a goal that deserves a fairer hearing, says Colum Kenny
Published 21/07/2013 | 05:00
WHAT have Deputy Mick Wallace and RTE's political correspondent David Davin-Power got in common?
Both had brushes with the law but got off lightly.
Wallace used his mobile phone while driving but escaped with a warning. The Minister for Justice Alan Shatter informed us all on television about it.
And Davin-Power walked out of the District Court in April without the usual fine or speeding conviction after he agreed to make a charitable donation.
But that did not stop RTE's man from asking Wallace a hard question when Wallace launched his proposals for better regulation of the gardai last week.
The press conference had just heard moving personal testimony from ordinary members of the public about alleged garda malpractice. David jumped in with the first question, to Wallace.
The father of a dead boy, and the brother and sister of a dead man had spoken of their problems in having their families' cases investigated as thoroughly as they might have been.
But RTE's political correspondent wanted to know what Wallace would say to criticism that his proposals were motivated more by antagonism towards the gardai than by anything else?
The fact that a senior garda shares confidential information about you with a senior minister, who then shares it with the nation on TV could reasonably incline you to demand changes in the system. Some might call that righteous indignation rather than antagonism.
But David was just doing his job. He no doubt heard in the corridors of power the hostile mutterings of members of political parties who resent the rise of independents. And it was their antagonism, not that of Wallace, that doomed the TD's proposals last week.
Wallace admitted that his Private Member's Bill hadn't a chance. A Private Member's Bill is a mechanism meant to enhance democracy by giving non-government deputies a chance to introduce new laws where the government has not done so.
In practice, almost as a principle, Irish governments often frustrate the mechanism by voting down private bills on the basis that they themselves will, any day now, introduce a better one. Thus do promises of Dail reform amount to far too little.
Many Dail deputies know well that the way in which the gardai work needs an overhaul. While most gardai want to do the job fairly and decently, a few bad apples and a lack of discipline in certain areas are polluting the force.
So why not use Wallace's proposal to put things right? Fianna Fail joined Fine Gael and Labour to defeat him. But there is no time like the present. The reform of Irish society is taking too long.
Wallace wants more distance between the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner in terms of how the force is supervised, thus bringing Ireland into line with some other jurisdictions.
He does not want the official Confidential Recipient of complaints by garda whistleblowers to be a political appointee. Whistleblowers who lifted the lid on penalty points complain about the present system being too weak.
Wallace also wants a stronger Garda Ombudsman, one with direct access to the Garda Pulse system and not dependent on serving gardai to investigate the gardai themselves when there is a complaint. Gardai should also not conduct investigations of other gardai in the same area.
Now some people think that Mick Wallace TD, as well as deputies Luke Ming Flanagan and Clare Daly who joined him at his press conference last week, are bigger political eejits than average even for Dail Eireann. Such people may be right, or they may be absolutely wrong. That's a matter of opinion.
But why should it prevent our parliament from seizing this moment to fix at least some of the problems in the gardai that clearly need to be fixed urgently? At present we simply do not know enough about what is going on, but there are enough disturbing complaints from very ordinary citizens to give cause for concern.
One source told me last week that he believes that
some gardai have again begun to set aside penalty points for people who would otherwise have them recorded on their licences.
Ming Flanagan uses a good comparison. He says that the absence of independent supervision over the gardai leaves all gardai exposed to suspicion, just as the absence of a weighing scales in a grocer's raises doubts among customers about the honesty of the most moral shopkeeper.