Saturday 29 October 2016

Future of the force hangs in the balance

Gene Kerrigan fears for the repercussions if this chance to act properly is buried under party politics

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

YOU'RE a woman assaulted by three men. You go to the police, you make a statement. Three months go by and you hear nothing. One day, a young garda comes to the door. He'd like you to sign something. A paper withdrawing your complaint. He offers you €150. Fifty euro from each of the offenders.

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That's the kind of stuff that made Micheal Martin rise in the Dail last week and announce that there's "shocking" material in the dossier he'd been reading – material gathered by garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. That's the kind of stuff the Taoiseach read last week, after Micheal Martin had given him the dossier and which the Taoiseach described as "grave".

And that – while it's a startling matter for a Taoiseach to find on his desk – is mild, compared to other allegations in the dossier.

These days, we ask little of our politicians. Let's not rehash the sins of Fianna Fail or the hypocrisy of Fine Gael and Labour. Let's not rehash how they collaborated, all three, to shift billions of other people's debt onto our children's shoulders.

We are weary and we ask little of them. The ability, on occasion, to know right from blatant wrong. Enough respect for a garda sergeant with 28 years of service to pay attention when he cries foul. And a willingness, in the face of serious matters, to leave party politics aside for more than five minutes and do what's right.

And, on Thursday evening, I thought perhaps they could offer us that. Micheal Martin, in bringing matters to a head, gave credit to Mick Wallace for raising the matter first. And indeed, Wallace and Clare Daly and Joan Collins and others fought a dogged campaign, in the face of political hostility and media ridicule, to get these matters on to the political agenda.

That evening we saw the Taoiseach appear to give the matter solemn attention and he gave credit to Micheal Martin for bringing the dossier to him. "I've no intention of playing politics with an issue as serious as this", said Enda Kenny.

Fair play. Already that day we'd had the squirm-inducing sight of Joan Burton trying to stonewall questions on the matter. Joan, Joan, Joan – I remember a time when you would have looked at your present self and delivered a withering verdict. But now, the game just goes on – business as usual.

Kenny, however, gave the impression that – at last – after the juvenile behaviour of the past couple of weeks, serious matters might be treated seriously.

Friday, enter Michael Noonan, bringing his vast experience to bear on what truly mattered – circling the wagons around Alan Shatter.

"The opposition parties have him targeted and they're trying to smear him."

No, you world-weary slab of emptiness, this is real. Here is Alan Shatter's friend, political donor and political appointee, Oliver Connolly, speaking to Sergeant McCabe: "Shatter will have read your report in detail. I know he did, he communicated to me. And he will have read all of your exhibits, which I actually numbered one to nine in the actual – in the order which they were highlighted. So he did know, you know, I redacted – the only thing I redacted was your name. Alan studied everything, in fact, I know he did."

Connolly might be right or wrong. Sergeant McCabe may be right or wrong. But it was never right that McCabe and Garda John Wilson were treated as enemy forces. It was never right to label them, as the Garda Commissioner did, "disgusting". It was never right for Alan Shatter to smear Sergeant McCabe with the untruth that McCabe didn't co-operate with an internal inquiry.

It was never right to dismiss the penalty point revelations – as some did – on the basis that they came from the likes of Mick Wallace, who wears football jerseys in the Dail. It was never right to attack GSOC on the basis of legislation that didn't exist.

The Government's attitude to the GSOC bugging scandal was to undermine it from the start, before there was any opportunity to properly assess the facts. Having dismissed GSOC's legitimate suspicions, the Government went about finding alleged facts to justify its behaviour.

Gardai have huge powers to interfere in our lives. They would not be human if none of them ever misused those powers. If those powers are not supervised, or the oversight isn't effective, occasional wrongs will become standard operating procedure. It's human nature.

That is the operating principle behind GSOC. It's the motivation of people such as Maurice McCabe and John Wilson. Anyone seeking to bully them off the stage is acting against the public interest – and the ultimate interests of any police force that seeks the respect of the public.

But to Michael Noonan, who is making a credible effort to appear to be the politically sleaziest person in these islands, the "shocking" and "grave" matters alleged in recent days seem of little concern. Party politics rule. It's Fianna Fail's fault. "These documents relate to a period from 2007 to 2009 . . . It wasn't, heh, heh, the man who's there now that was mal-administering justice."

This stalwart of party loyalty seemed to have stiffened Enda Kenny's sinews – reminding him, perhaps, that he is not primarily the Taoiseach, he is the leader of Fine Gael.

On Friday, Kenny was offering a pre-inquiry absolution to Shatter. We could see the edges of the old nothing-to-see-here flag begin to wave again. Ah, sure, the Commissioner and his lads looked into all of that stuff – nothing in it.

On Friday, here was Kenny: "Minister Shatter, no more than any other Minister for Justice, is required to have a strong working relationship with the Commissioner."

Strong working relationship?

Let us remember. Mick Wallace stops at a traffic light, takes out his mobile. A squad car pulls up alongside and, decently enough, the guards don't make a fuss. Put it away, Mick – or words to that effect. He did and everyone went about their business.

And that little bit of gossip wriggled its way up through the force until it was regurgitated into the ear of the Commissioner. And he brought that bit of gossip to Alan Shatter. And Shatter used it against Wallace – specifically to fight back against revelations about senior officers' alleged misuse of their power to cancel penalty points.

Strong working relationship. Yeah.

Of course, no one can ever mention the force without remarking on their uniformly wonderful relationship with the public.

That's true, if you're not sitting on the ground in peaceful protest, feeling the smack of a baton – and again, and again. That's true, if you're not a young man driving on a housing estate in north Dublin, pulled over for no more reason than that you're a young man driving on a housing estate in north Dublin. To be bullied and treated with disrespect by gardai who'd never have the guts to do that in areas where a Commissioner's children might live.

If this opportunity to behave properly is buried under party politics and circling the wagons – all the old crap – it will depress even further any possibility of a culture in which gardai feel free to constructively complain, to improve the force. And it will demonstrate that it will be easier than ever to get away with malpractice and corruption.

It will be, to borrow a term from the Garda Commissioner, "disgusting".

Sunday Independent

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