Sunday 23 October 2016

There really should be a law about this

The arrest of two TDs was embarrassing. But the report on the gardai was shocking, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

‘Parts of the force dealing with specific types of crime seem to exist in name only... for instance, the Fraud Squad’
‘Parts of the force dealing with specific types of crime seem to exist in name only... for instance, the Fraud Squad’

Last Tuesday evening, Judge William Hamill addressed the Law Reform Commission. In another part of the capital city, Mick Wallace TD was enjoying his final evening of freedom. Hours later he was incarcerated in Limerick prison for a grand total of - eh, two hours.

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Even as Judge Hamill's startling words disturbed the ears of his listeners, the state incarceration machine was inexorably grinding its way towards Clare Daly TD. It wrenched her, too, into the dank, fearsome bowels of Limerick prison.

For all of an hour-and-a-half (I think she got the half hour off for good behaviour).

So, we have Judge Hamill saying sensible things about a nonsensical system. At the same time, the police are preparing a farcical jaunt for two members of parliament who had to be seen to be punished for doing their duty.

Daly and Wallace were convicted of trying to find out what facilities we extend to foreign military planes using Shannon on their way to wreak havoc.

Now, one could conclude that the State had no option but to play out the farce. After all, Daly and Wallace had broken the law - albeit a minor law. Having been caught and fined - and having refused to pay that fine - the two politicians had to pay the price.

The law had to take its course, right?

Well, it depends how you look at it.

How many warrants issued for non-payment of fines are currently live on the Irish Courts Service computer system?

As it happens, that was something the District Court judge addressed in his speech to the Law Reform Commission last Tuesday. There are 211,715 such warrants outstanding.

No fewer than 7,951 warrants are for drink-driving, a crime that kills numbers of us every year. And another 44,901 are for other serious motoring offences.

How does the legal system choose which people to put in jail, out of all those people who have been fined, but who haven't paid their fine?

By the gravity of the case? No, apparently not. By lottery, perhaps? By pure chance?


So, let's see - they put 211,715 names in a hat and they pick out a name and - ah, look, it's Mick Wallace, the TD. Put him in jail.

And the next name out of the hat, well - it's Clare Daly TD. What a coincidence!

I don't think that's how it happened. I think we can guess how it happened.

Meanwhile, Judge Hamill spoke of the ease with which criminals defraud the State of millions of euro. Motor registration, it appears, is easy to manipulate, and that lets the chancers get away with all sorts of crime. As the judge said, "the honest are dealt with and the dishonest, or at least the very careless, usually escape".

It seems that the basic paperwork involved in processing all sorts of crimes is often missing. On occasion, Judge Hamill said, he's had to cancel warrants on the basis that "such fundamentals as a date of birth and the gender of the person weren't known".

Many prosecutions, he said, seem "predestined to fail". He wouldn't ever use the expression, but the judge's experience seems to be of a Mickey Mouse legal system.

As the judge spoke, the Garda Inspectorate was having a deserved lie-down. Its members had worked hard and conscientiously to prepare a report for publication last Friday. The report is called 'Changing Policing in Ireland'.

I recommend to Judge Hamill that he avoids reading this report until after Christmas, as its contents will seriously degrade his ability to enjoy the festivities.

The picture painted of the police is quite shocking.

The farce of driving people from one side of the country to the other, to jail them for 90 minutes (at a cost of four times the fine they haven't paid), isn't an aberration.

This is the level at which the system operates - a system that so many of our top cops and their political chums seem to believe is all it should be.

The Garda Inspectorate uses polite language, but let us summarise roughly: the upper echelons of the force seem well sprinkled with ineffectual careerists, presiding over a fragmented, poorly organised institution.

Parts of the force dealing with specific types of crime seem to exist in name only.

Take, for instance, the Fraud Squad.

Now, I've long thought of the Fraud Squad as an outfit of well-resourced specialists, hand-picked to tackle the kind of white-collar crime that has done so much damage to this country.

A bit like the outfit that Kevin Costner put together in The Untouchables.

I imagined they had copious files on the dodgy business people, the organised crime gangs and the bent bankers. I imagined the Fraud Squad bristling with technology, wielding its expertise to protect us from the new breed of cybercrime crooks.

Apparently it's not quite like that.

The Fraud Squad lacks - eh, specialists in fraud.

And it doesn't have a cybercrime unit.

By the time I reached page 67 of the report, and realising how the Fraud Squad is resourced, I was seriously considering a life of white-collar crime.

It's a wide open field, with vast rewards, little chance of being caught and hardly any chance of going to jail.

In fact, the Garda Inspectorate report suggests that the Fraud Squad be disbanded and that the work it is doing be handed over to a new Serious and Organised Crime Unit.

It's not laziness. The members of the over-stretched Fraud Squad, it appears, work their asses off trying to deal with the waves of chores sent its way.

The wider force doesn't seem to be organised to deal with crime as it is - it seems over the years to have been put together by someone who doesn't quite see the bigger picture, has limited resources and little sense of priorities.

If you're into shoplifting the cops are all over you. Pull off anything more complicated and - well, let's put it this way: the force is configured to deal with certain types of crime. Certain other activities aren't considered a priority.

Mick Wallace and Clare Daly have been excellent TDs, at the top of their form in a period when we need efficient people on our side. I'm sure they had better things to do last week than to take part in a ritualistic jaunt down to Limerick, and back, to fulfil someone's notion of due process.

I'm sure the gardai involved had better things to do.

It may be good that within one week we had A) the farcical sight of two politicians being taken to jail just long enough to justify someone rubber-stamping a form; and B) an experienced judge drawing attention to the unfairness and inefficiency of the criminal justice system; and C) a 400-plus page report that describes the awful state of the force and makes a serious effort at reform.

Individual gardai put their careers and their peace of mind on the line to alert us to this kind of thing. They were treated with contempt by senior gardai and by politicians who should have known better.

The Garda Inspectorate refers to "minimal and often ineffective internal changes made . . . in response to recommendations made in many previous reports and inquiries".

This inertia isn't a result of indecision. There is an enemy within.

The enemy is those for whom an ineffective but highly political police force is preferable to an independent and efficient one.

Sunday Independent

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