independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

It's time to lift blinds on culture of secrecy at the heart of justice

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. Picture: David Conachy
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. Picture: David Conachy

Two weeks on and the GSOC saga not only has legs but has morphed into something even more ominous for the Government, managing to eclipse the biggest white-collar trial in living memory. It has turned out to be the proverbial can of worms.

What baffles this old hand is why Justice Minister Alan Shatter was so reluctant to launch an immediate independent investigation of the claim that GSOC had arranged a security sweep of their premises because they thought they were being bugged. Instead of standing back in acceptance that this was a grave matter, he stalled and tried to make light of the whole story. Moreover, by taking sides he discredited the GSOC.

Although a courageous and reforming minister, Shatter has form when it comes to disregard for whistleblowers. His handling of the very serious penalty points issue left a lot to be desired. Sometimes it's not the substance of the controversy but rather the handling of it which is the test of government. In this case, given the technical nature of surveillance, most of us glaze over and suspend judgment. But people draw inferences from the demeanour of the cast of players, particularly when it is televised live.

What is clear is that GSOC is not fit for purpose. It lacks capacity to provide proper oversight of senior garda management. But more seriously, the relationship with the minister and the garda commissioner is one of mutual mistrust. The Department of Justice and the Garda Siochana thrive on secrecy, intelligence and surveillance. The notion of transparency is anathema. This is the political dilemma facing government if real garda accountability is to be achieved post the Morris Tribunal. Given Sgt Maurice McCabe's treatment, the notion of protection for whistleblowers is totally discredited.

I served as opposition spokesperson for Justice from 1993 to 1997. I was newly elected and learning the hard way, on my feet and in public. It was not for the fainthearted. It was part of my job to table questions to the justice minister on matters of security, crime, the courts and prisons. At times it brought me into the murky areas of organised crime and subversion. It was a time when 'The General' and his like were acting with impunity because of very liberal laws on bail and the right to silence; making a laughing stock of the justice system. It was the time before Veronica Guerin was gunned down in broad daylight in her car.

It was also a time of IRA activity and subversion with a degree of overlap between both sets of criminals. Looking back it was understandably a time when the public and the body politic supported a strong garda force including surveillance and counterintelligence to protect the security of the State itself. Oversight of the Garda was not on the agenda.

They were a busy four years. The FF/Labour coalition collapsed because of the non-extradition of paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth and a row over the appointment of Harry Whelehan as President of the High Court. It was the revolving door era of the prison system with prisoners released early just to make space. After the Veronica Guerin murder, Nora Owen launched an all-out zero-tolerance policy against organised crime.

Justice issues go to the heart of democracy; controversies frequently bring down governments. For the last two weeks I had a feeling of deja vu. Opposition spokespersons' tails were up. Ministers looked afraid, apart from Alan Shatter, who possesses the detached composure of an undertaker no matter how dire the circumstances.

But opposition deputies can only ask questions and hope, like David slinging stones at Goliath, that one will land. The GSOC members looked pale and stressed under committee questioning. Simon O'Brien's testimony to the committee was riveting, if only for its inconsistency. Strangely, changing under questioning did not take from its veracity. The truth can often be confusing and difficult to explain, particularly when testifying under pressure and before the phalanx of the media. One had a sense of something totally unscripted, unfolding dangerously.

In Government Buildings and Leinster House, deputies and staff were hunched over monitors agog. Labour ministers were queasy; Pat Rabbitte had a face like thunder. When it comes to law and order, Fine Gael and Labour come from different cultures. Fine Gael side with the Gardai; Labour with civil and human rights. It must be galling for Labour to see Sinn Fein wearing those clothes. When the Fianna Fail leader produced the dossier of alleged garda mismanagement and worse, and the "sacking" of the confidential recipient was announced, it was a seismic moment.

By week's end, the Taoiseach was ashen and contrite, while his Justice Minister was bizarrely in Greece.

I recalled a quote from former British Prime Minister James Callaghan: "And the sky turned black with the flapping wings of chickens coming home to roost."

Irish Independent

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