Sunday 21 December 2014

We're paying price of 'blind eye' politics

The tragedies of murdered gardai were cynically used to justify unconscionable behaviour over decades

Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30

WITNESS: Guards told Conor Cruise O’Brien of beatings
WITNESS: Guards told Conor Cruise O’Brien of beatings

Will Alan Shatter survive? The answer, of course, is that it doesn't really matter. Shatter has his good points and bad – but he's a fleeting figure. He played a part in creating the current crisis, but he came late to the game. What we've seen over the past week is an explosion of toxic fumes that have been building up since the Seventies.

Over the years there were attempts to draw attention to what was happening – by lawyers, civil liberties advocates, the occasional garda whistleblower. But again and again the shut-your-face brigade won the day. And we're now reaping their harvest.

Before you say anything about the police, it's mandatory that you say how wonderful they are and what a great job they do. You must emphasise that any criticism applies to one or two bad apples who've somehow snuck into the majestic, flawless orchard of law and order.

But the Garda Siochana is not a flawless wonder. It's a human institution, with the group-think and the us-against-the-world tendencies of all institutions. And it displays a disturbingly aggressive and automatic rejection of any criticism.

It's understandable, to some extent, why this is so. There were four gardai murdered in the Seventies, there were eight gardai murdered in the Eighties. At a time when the force badly needed a cold, rational appraisal, and a ruthless weeding-out of bad habits, emotions were high. To criticise the direction in which the force was moving meant you had to raise questions about an institution in which people with families went out to work and never came home.

Few had the stomach for that.

Politicians found it much more to their liking to express outrage at any attempt to describe the reality of what was going on.

Suspects were beaten, people were framed and sent to jail. There was a heavy gang operating within the force. A relatively small number of guards were involved, but a far wider number turned a blind eye. You might not approve, but to betray your colleagues was unthinkable (recognise that syndrome, bishop?).

A barrister told me of a little game he used to play – he'd glance at his brief to note just the allegations of garda violence (slammed up against a wall, punched in the ears from behind). Then, from the details of the assaults used, he'd try to name which guard did what – and he was usually right.

The existence of the heavy gang was denied point blank. It still is. But let's use the testimony of an impeccably conservative witness. Government minister Conor Cruise O'Brien. He wrote, in a memoir in 1998, of being told by a detective about how the police traced some kidnappers. They arrested a man they believed knew something, and "started asking him questions, and when he at first refused to answer they beat the shit out of him". And they did so until he talked.

O'Brien approved of this. As a minister, he denied publicly that anything of the sort was going on. Privately, the police were confident enough to tell O'Brien what was done, knowing they were safe doing so.

The police did not tell O'Brien how many innocent people they beat up who didn't have any secrets to tell them.

When you start beating people up there'll be allegations in court, so you have to deny it on oath. From assault comes perjury. From perjury comes the collapse of one pillar of law and order – a trustworthy police force.

And when the courts repeatedly accept tainted evidence, they too are damaged.

There were whistleblowers – gardai who weren't happy with any of this. Two of them went to government minister Garret FitzGerald and told him what was going on. When FitzGerald tried to raise the matter he was assured by Fine Gael and Labour hacks that these cops could be dismissed as mere Fianna Fail stooges.

To put it at its kindest – out of respect for those who were murdered, some within the establishment tolerated a dramatic lowering of standards. Or, less kindly – the establishment wanted results, and some encouraged low standards, regardless of the long-term effects on the force.

At all levels of the force, there's total rejection of any garda caught taking a bribe or stealing. And, to the force's credit, such behaviour has always been on the low side. But anyone who raises questions about institutional dysfunction is accused of bad faith – this applied from the Seventies up to the current Garda whistleblowers.

Blatant problems were left untreated. To even mention them was to attract a withering blast of contempt. Politicians and the Justice Department offered the Garda institution unshakable solidarity. The message to the Garda was plain – whatever you feel you have to do, there'll be no comeback. Sections of the media, those who saw themselves as garda auxiliaries, could be counted on to assure the public all was well.

Critics were smeared as Provo fellow travellers, or "anti-garda", they were "soft on crime", they "cared more about the criminals than the victims". Or they were just cranks. Above all, they were accused of degrading the sacrifices of those officers who laid down their lives.

And so, the tragedies of murdered gardai were cynically used to justify behaviour over which no self-respecting police officer could stand.

Through the Eighties and Nineties, a succession of miscarriages of justice and one-off controversies were ignored. Nothing to see here. Until the smell from festering scandals – culminating in the Donegal follies – became unbearable, and Morris and Smithwick were unavoidable.

In recent months the pattern has repeated itself. Smithwick questions the Garda obsession with institutional loyalty? Well, the judge doesn't know what he's talking about.

GSOC is afraid the guards are bugging its offices? Attack GSOC.

Whistleblowers won't take the hint and bugger off? Publicly insult and demean them.

Right up to recent weeks, political backing for the blind eye strategy was automatic. Suddenly, inevitably, we have a scandal that stunned even Enda Kenny. And he's a man who's been in the Dail since 1975 and managed to see nothing wrong for decade after decade after decade.

Sunday Independent

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