News John Downing

Monday 22 September 2014

Reputation of Gardai must not be a casualty of Coalition dithering

Published 24/02/2014 | 02:30

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Minister For Justice Alan Shatter

THERE is more than a suggestion that Alan Shatter and the rest of the Government do not entirely grasp how potentially serious these rolling controversies about An Garda Siochana really are.

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The seeds of doubt have been sown about the force which has enjoyed an 80pc public approval rating in recent times.

But let's be utterly frank about police popularity.

The whole nature of policing is based on something of a Faustian pact. Good citizens agree to submit to a form of de facto coercion to ensure law and order are upheld in the greater society.

To make it work, the general populace must have broad trust in the policemen and policewomen who have a good deal of direct power.

As someone who lived for over a decade in Belgium, spent almost three years in France, and also lived for periods in Netherlands and Germany, I rather like An Garda Siochana.

It is a citizens' police force whose members for the most part do their best. In the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, the gardai stood their ground and defended against considerable subversive threats from so-called republicans and others.

Just two years ago, an IPSOS MRBI poll found that only 19pc of Irish people mistrusted the gardai.

Their confidence rating was second only to doctors, who had a 90pc trust rating, but they were ahead of judges who had a rating of 71pc, civil servants who were on 60pc, and well ahead of my own trade of journalism, with journalists trusted by 42pc of people.

But this is a fragile trust in the gardai which can be seriously damaged if current events are not correctly handled by our Government.

Anecdotally, we know that across the country, solid middle-class citizens are quietly rehearsing their misgivings with neighbours, colleagues and friends.

These are not the kind of people to shout about negative attitudes to the gardai.

They will keep their counsel and express their feelings at the ballot box in upcoming local and European elections and perhaps, if this uncertainty persists, in the general election now just two years away.

This one could seriously cost Fine Gael and Labour – and sooner than they think.

For the past fortnight we have had the venting of understandable tension between An Garda Siochana and their oversight body, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). It is clear that there are flaws in the oversight system.

It is even more clear that the Government delayed far too long in setting up a judicial review of the controversy about alleged surveillance at GSOC headquarters. Had Mr Shatter moved a week earlier than he did in appointing Mr Justice John Cooke, a lot of damaging controversy and speculation could have been spared.

But hot on Judge Cooke's appointment came even more damaging allegations put into the public domain by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, who took the baton from Independent Wexford TD Mick Wallace.

Mr Martin has successfully stoked up some middle-class angst about our justice system.

The Fianna Fail leader has dealt on a person-to-person basis with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny by passing on details of some worrying allegations.

Mr Kenny responded in kind by saying this was all above party politics and he would study all the issues involved.

All good stuff on both sides. But Mr Kenny and his cabinet colleagues must know that they cannot hang about here.

Each extra day they take to formulate a response risks being filled with further damaging speculation and allegations.

The big missing piece is a meaningful response from the Justice Minister himself.

At the end of last week he was abroad on EU business and the weekend was taken up with reviewing documentation on these allegations.

We need to know if Mr Martin's allegations are true.

Did Mr Shatter have these allegations for two years about shortcomings in serious crime investigations, including abduction and murder, over the years 2007-2009?

Is it true Mr Shatter did nothing since he got these dossiers in January 2012? If it is untrue, what did Mr Shatter actually do?

The great irony of where we find ourselves right now is that we could be greatly helped by a strong system of garda oversight.

But, given the unresolved current state of things, it is not certain that giving these allegations to GSOC would help allay public anxiety. That of itself tells us that we urgently need a review of the powers and structures available to GSOC.

It is not clear that the bulk of allegations furnished by garda whistleblowers to the Fianna Fail leader will in fact stand up to general scrutiny.

But now that they have been tabled, they must be scrutinised.

Perhaps the best way of doing this would be to task a second senior judge to take on this work. That would help allay public fears and modify the tone of public discourse about these serious matters.

Irish Independent

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