Eoghan Harris

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Notes on survival for Simon O'Brien, GSOC chairman

Eoghan Harris

Published 16/02/2014|02:30

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Garda Siochana Ombudsman chairman Simon O'Brien (right), Kieran Fitzgerald and Carmel Foley arrive at Leinster House
Garda Siochana Ombudsman chairman Simon O'Brien (right), Kieran Fitzgerald and Carmel Foley arrive at Leinster House

NIALL Collins summed it up. "It's been a bad week for democracy, a bad week for transparency and a bad week for the Garda Ombudsman Commission." But thanks to the hard work of a handful of critics like himself, it's been a worse week for Enda Kenny, Alan Shatter and Martin Callinan.

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So much so, that Simon O'Brien now has a chance to do the State some service. But first he must make a choice. To do his job come what may, or humbly pin the shamrock of Kenny, Shatter and Callinan to his coat as a signal that he has come to heel.

As someone who has studied the Irish political psyche for over 50 years I can assure O'Brien of one absolute truth. If he makes a stand the Irish people will finally rally to his side. But if he tries to be all things to all men his foes will fillet him like a fish.

Already his apology for not alerting the Government has weakened his position. Contrary to what Enda Kenny claimed, he was not obliged to alert it. Conor Brady, his predecessor, shrewdly said he would not have told the Government either – at least not until he had a lot more evidence.

O'Brien's mannerly remarks about having a "nice" cup of coffee with the Garda Commissioner were also a mistake in the midst of a battle. Anything that smacks of cosiness poses problems for Irish people. Clarity is crucial.

The problem is that nothing in O'Brien's past life in the London Met prepared him for the Coalition campaign against him last week.

The Met is not free of politics. But it is a crèche compared with the romper room of the Irish Republic since Enda Kenny's Government took office with a majority which has gone to its head.

But such power brings its own problems. And Kenny's Coalition is more dominant than any administration since the foundation of the State. De Valera did not have the help of a masochistic media acting as another arm of Government.

I refer to the collusion of political and security commentators – whom I call PolSec in honour of Orwell – who conducted last week's campaign in favour of Callinan and against Simon O'Brien. Thanks to our restrictive libel laws, I cannot spell out the names.

Actually, there is no need for me to name the PolSec cheerleaders. The whole country was talking about what absolute asses they made of themselves. At one stage they gave the impression of wearing garda uniforms with lots of gold braid.

But what really reinforced public scepticism about the PolSec campaign to promote Callinan at the expense of O'Brien was that it was a repeat performance. A few weeks ago the same pundits were rubbishing the garda whistleblowers, whose proposed evidence to PAC Callinan pronounced "disgusting".

By now the public can detect what Myles na gCopaleen called "Droch Bholadh sa Tig Againn" (a bad smell in our house). That smell is coming from a section of the media which has stupidly hitched its wagon to a Coalition star. Stupidly, because in a small country the public knows when the media is muzzling itself.

Both these forces – a Coalition made arrogant by its dominance and a media which has forgotten what investigative journalism is all about – combined last week to try to crush a decent London-Irish public servant.

And they failed.

They failed for a few reasons. First, because of the cogent political probing of a few Opposition politicians like Micheal Martin, Niall Collins, Lucinda Creighton and Mary Lou McDonald.

Second, because Pat Kenny and Ivan Yates on Newstalk and Vincent Browne on TV3 did the job RTE failed to do properly. Thirdly, because of the courage of a handful of columnists. At first sight it seemed a fragile line of defence. But Twitter traffic showed it was supported by the silent majority. By Wednesday, under steady volleys from Collins & Co, the PolSec campaign began to run out of road. By Thursday, the Shamrock Trio and their media minders were in trouble.

Always alert to a shift in the political wind, Enda Kenny eased himself out of the frame, leaving his loyal Labour supporters in the lurch. Shatter and Callinan were now backs to the wall. But having brazened it out a few weeks ago on the whistleblower issue, they decided to do it again.

Shatter went on Prime Time, where he steadfastly refused to give O'Brien his blessing. Then he went down to Templemore and backed up Callinan's claim that no member of the gardai was involved in surveillance. But this was a bridge too far.

Watching him on television I asked myself: but how can Callinan be so sure of that? Somehow I was not surprised when Pat Rabbitte publicly asked the same question. His reservations came barely in time to rescue the Tanaiste.

Earlier in the week Eamon Gilmore exposed himself to future grief by giving the Shamrock Trio full support. He was not helped by Joe Costello shouting "rubbish" in response to the Opposition's responsible probings. None of which went down well in Labour's leafy suburbs.

Simon O'Brien is now in a stronger position this weekend than he was last Monday. But he must reinforce his position by sharing any remaining reservations he may have with the Irish people. And trust it to come to a commonsense conclusion on the twin issues of bugging and leaking.

On the business of bugging I believe most Irish people apply the principle of Occam's razor: the simplest story is most likely to be true. Since the main function of the Ombudsman's office is to keep an eye on rogue gardai then it logically follows that any surveillance most likely came from that area.

On the leaked documents another old principle should be applied: cui bono, who benefits? Surely rogue gardai are the main beneficiaries of the stream of leaks to the Sunday Times – which weirdly included criticism about Simon O'Brien commuting to and from the UK.

But in the end, neither bugging nor leaking pose a mortal threat to Irish democracy. These are technical and security problems.

As the Chinese proverb says, we cannot stop the blackbirds of evil flying over our heads.

The problem, as the proverb points out, is when we let them make a nest in our hair. Rogue gardai are not really the problem.

The problem is the Government's undermining of the Ombudsman's office, which is responsible for dealing with rogue gardai.

But if Simon O'Brien stands up to what is now the Shamrock Duo, if the Opposition stays on the Callinan case, if the Labour Party stops acting like Kenny's lackeys, and if the media remembers that probing is what sells papers – then it might turn out to have been quite a good week for Irish democracy.

Sunday Independent

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