Friday 31 October 2014

We must keep a sense of proportion over controversies that rocked gardai

Hugh O'Flaherty

Published 12/05/2014 | 02:30

Senior Counsel Sean Guerin. Photo: Mark Condren
Senior Counsel Sean Guerin. Photo: Mark Condren
Sean Guerin’s report has vindicated Gda Sgt Maurice McCabe. Picture: GERARD HORE
Sean Guerin’s report has vindicated Gda Sgt Maurice McCabe. Picture: GERARD HORE

The Guerin Report, while it made findings of maladministration, was precluded from dealing with the substance of the various complaints made by Sergeant Maurice McCabe. The resolution of those is for another day and another form of inquiry.

For now, I want to focus on matters that first surfaced to do with the alleged bugging of the Garda Ombudsman's office and the controversy about the cancellation of penalty points.

I was reading in a recent edition of the 'New Yorker' magazine a series of interviews one of the staff members had with US President Barack Obama. He had access to Mr Obama on board Air Force One as well as in the White House.

Mr Obama recounted that he had a good relationship with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, but admitted it had been undermined by reports alleging that agents of the US had tapped her mobile phone.

However, he said he assumed there was a whole bunch of folks out there trying to spy on him "which is why I don't have a phone"; he will put nothing on his Blackberry that won't appear on the front page of a newspaper.

I fell to thinking that if neither the US president nor the German chancellor are immune from being bugged, what is the big deal whether the Garda Ombudsman's office was bugged or not. There is no doubt the commissioners do important work, but in this electronic age no place is safe.

At around the time that controversy erupted there was a 24-hour period when there were three murders in the country. I was impressed with the professionalism of the garda officers as they went about their scientific and other investigations.

On Tuesday night last, a four-man gang invaded the Guildea household in Co Meath. They bound and gagged Ms Guildea and her daughter; they ransacked the house looking for valuables. The mobsters made their escape, having stolen a car belonging to Ms Guildea and made their way to Rathmines in Dublin, where an arrest was made.

What struck me about this sorry episode was the sheer professionalism with which the gardai approached their duties. The scientific experts in their white overalls were promptly on the scene as well as the detectives who swung into action in Rathmines.

That these investigations should be done well is of the utmost importance. And, in fact, the gardai are having good success in combating serious crime and tackling the crime gangs.

The importance of this major work has to be contrasted with the furore about the penalty points. It should be stressed that the idea behind the penalty points was to get drivers to behave better. I am sure it has achieved that. It was never intended to be a revenue-raising exercise, as former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan told the Dail Committee.

Along the way, of course, corrections would have to be made to the system. At the start, one of the anomalies thrown up was that a driver could clock up enough points that would lead to his or her disqualification without knowing it. That would be an injustice to the driver; it was corrected. No doubt there were other defects that required correction. But did it need five – or is it six – different forms of inquiry to achieve this?

That is a classic case of using disproportionate means in regard to something of minor importance when contrasted with the essential tasks facing the gardai – the preservation of life and the detection of crime.

The penalty point saga has caused much disharmony and disillusion within the force. The resignation of the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, was not to do with the penalty points controversy but rather some adverse findings that were contained in the report of Sean Guerin SC and the matter of the so-called whistleblowers.

I am not disputing that favouritism is ever right. However, I do respect what the vast majority of the gardai do. So it is important to keep a sense of perspective about these controversies. We have learnt from our involvement with Europe the concept of proportionality.

If there are defects, let that be debated but let us not lose the respect, admiration and gratitude for the work the gardai do in preserving the lives and liberties of the people.

What needs to be done to improve morale? I am not sure the appointment of an independent police authority would be a help. It would lead to more delay and would involve the creation of another quango. The Government as a whole – not a single minister – should assume responsibility for the proper functioning of the force.

A new commissioner should be appointed without delay. He or she will undoubtedly face a big challenge to improve the force's morale. But the commissioner will have the support of the representative bodies – they have said as much – and that is important. It will be a big challenge but the gardai have met big challenges in the past and have succeeded.

Of course, money will have to be provided so that there are no further barrack closures, essential equipment is kept up to date and recruitment is maintained so that the force is at full strength. To the argument that resources are scarce I would answer that money has been found to fund many long-running tribunals and other forms of inquiry. That money would be better spent in restoring the morale of the force.

Irish Independent

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