WHEN the police are checking allegations about someone, they'll look at that person's record. Does the supposed suspect have "previous"? If so, it doesn't prove guilt, but it suggests a pattern of behaviour, a capacity to act in a certain way, that may be relevant to the current case.
So, when we look at the row currently raging between politicians and the Garda Commissioner, there are things we need to bear in mind. And, by the way, this is indeed a proper row. It's not just a disagreement on ways and means – this is an emotional confrontation. The angry commissioner blatantly resents the impertinence of the Public Accounts Committee ("those people") who dare to assess an aspect of his stewardship.
It's a conflict between a policing body and the civilian authority. And it's complicated by the fact that there are many politicians who back the police, whatever the circumstances. As for "previous" . . .
Judge Peter Smithwick spent six years heading a tribunal investigation into a double murder case. On the Garda Siochana, he noted from the evidence he heard, "an ingrained culture of prioritising loyalty to the good name of the force over the legal, moral and ethical obligation owed to give truthful evidence to the tribunal".
A judge does not lightly assert his belief that some gardai prioritise group loyalty above speaking the truth on oath. He does not lightly claim that such people place group loyalty above legality, morality and ethics.
"Loyalty is prized above honesty," said Judge Smithwick, whose report was published just over a month ago.
Reporting on the Donegal scandal in 2006, Judge Fred Morris said: "The tribunal has been staggered by the amount of indiscipline and insubordination it has found in the Garda force."
That was putting it mildly. The police put an innocent man, Frank Shortt, in jail for three years.
Judges aren't the only ones concerned about group loyalty. Last May, the Garda Ombudsman Commission, which oversees the force, noted what appears to be a systemic lack of co-operation from the police. Requests for even non-contentious information were met with "unacceptable delays", as well as "refusals, part disclosure, or part access".
At the end of 2012, three-quarters of Ombudsman investigations were outside the 12-week response period. And 21 were over two years old. The chair of the Commission said: "We are just not getting the co-operation we require."
There are two things happening – one is almost farcical, the other deadly serious.
The farce derives from the commissioner's disgust. The act of the whistleblowers, who went to the PAC with evidence of alleged malpractice in enforcing the penalty points law, was "disgusting", Martin Callinan said. "Disgusting," he repeated.
He might have expressed disagreement – denoting a civilised divergence of view. Instead, he chose disgust, an emotional term. He referred to the "so-called whistleblowers" as "my subordinates", who were trying to "usurp" him. Again, personal language.
Commissioner, they are your subordinates in one sense only. An organisation of 13,000 people is not a hippie commune. To be deployed, it must have a command structure. Within that structure, for the purpose of organisational efficiency, one layer is under (or subordinate to) another in the chain of command.
In matters of conscience and justice, of accountability to the civilian authority – which is what this row is about – no garda is subordinate to another.
The concept of a whistleblower, someone within an organisation who discloses alleged wrongdoing, has been recognised since the 19th Century as an essential part of democracy. Such people may be right or wrong; they are not traitors or casual informers. When internal structures fail, group loyalty undermines the organisation – unless the help of an external authority is sought.
The deadly serious aspect of this row is about whether internal structures have failed. The whistleblowers tried the internal route – reporting a single superintendent, and his actions in deleting four instances of penalty points.
We're talking about one superintendent and four speeders – five people to be questioned. How long does it take? Five hours? Five days? Five weeks? It took eight months.
Perhaps there were reasons, perhaps this was an incredibly complex matter. Last Thursday, Mary Lou McDonald TD asked the commissioner about the delay. He wouldn't explain. Such investigations were confidential, he said. She stressed that the committee didn't want names or details, it merely wanted to understand the process. "It's a confidential process," said Mr Callinan.
This is nonsense. There are covert garda operational details that need the protection of confidentiality. An inquiry procedure is not confidential. Virtually every day, gardai go into court and explain the investigative process behind their actions. "I discovered A and this led me to do B, which in turn led me to conclude that I should arrest C."
If the investigative process was, for some bizarre reason, rendered top secret, most of the criminal cases coming before the courts would collapse. "Why did you arrest the accused?"
"Ah, now, that'd be telling, M'Lord."
The Commissioner isn't protecting some top-secret investigative process. He's being asked about internal structures some believe have failed. The experience of Judge Fred Morris comes to mind: "procedures can be used to delay and frustrate simple and straightforward investigations."
The allegations of the whistleblowers needed a small internal inquiry, it wasn't a murder case. Judge Morris again: "Members of the Gardai against whom any wrong is alleged have the dubious, and often exploited, benefit of procedures that compare with those in a murder trial. Garda discipline should be about accounting for how one has served the people of Ireland and about the truth."
Minister Brendan Howlin: "Disciplinary action within the Garda Siochana takes on the character of a criminal trial with a criminal level of proof required. This is hopelessly inadequate."
Despite the repeated evidence that the force needs urgent reform – and this goes way back before Smithwick or Morris – the current commissioner rejects that conclusion.
While formally accepting the Smithwick report last month, he explicitly rejected its finding on Garda group-think. "The police force that is described is not the police force that I lead. Everything we do in An Garda Siochana is designed to establish the truth."
Mr Callinan rejects the case for reform – and he insists that he is the "accounting officer" who must alone decide what, if anything, needs reforming.
The defenders of this position traditionally put forward the "thin blue line" defence – gardai put their lives on the line – as if that trumps everything. But no garda ever sacrificed his life to defend the force's right to do wrong.
Four independent TDs brought this matter into the public realm. Ming Flanagan was smeared over his own acceptance of the deletion of penalty points. Mick Wallace was smeared by the Minister for Justice, with information given to him by Commissioner Callinan. Clare Daly was falsely suspected of drink-driving and publicly handcuffed. Her arrest was immediately leaked and she was wildly smeared in the media before test results proved her innocence.
How strenuously has the force sought to identify and charge whoever broke the law in an effort to undermine Ms Daly? Ah, now, that'd be confidential.