Friday 28 November 2014

Opposition's at risk of scattergun politics – it must learn less is more

Published 05/04/2014 | 02:30

There are so many angles to this garda misconduct debacle that it would confuse an army. At this stage, focus is being dissipated by a near farcical series of shock disclosures. Acres of newsprint and air time have parsed the facts, allegations and denials.

Doom-laden predictions abound of the cumulative impact on our body politic and justice system. But strangely, in all the furore, more is less. To quote an elderly legal friend squinting for the first time into a computer screen 30 years ago: "It's like looking into a bush."

Against this chaos, and to keep perspective, I am retreating into my own experience as an Opposition Justice spokeswoman for four years. I was a newly elected TD, learning on my feet. It was a white-knuckle ride for much of the time; not for the fainthearted.

Part of my job was to table parliamentary questions both written and oral to the Justice Minister and to the Taoiseach when related to the remit of the Attorney General or DPP.

Many related to the delay in investigating and prosecuting reported child-abuse allegations. At that time only a fraction were advanced and nobody had to account for this to anyone. This has changed now.

Many serial sex abusers escaped prosecution claiming "lapse of time" but the courts finally closed off this escape route.

Back then, there was a "revolving door" prison system, whereby prisoners were released early just to make space and then went on to reoffend. There was even a controversial petition system for TDs to seek early or temporary release of prisoners.

Prison overtime was a total scandal, with officers who were off sick for long periods still claiming overtime. A whistleblower before his time exposed this and the abuse was stopped. The "General" and his like were untouchable until after Veronica Guerin was murdered.

So, the Justice brief was always scandal-prone, often with implications for the security of the State. The department was notoriously minimalist in its replies; the culture was one of secrecy, not accountability. For the opposition TD, it was a David versus Goliath situation.

I do not share Clare Daly's political views but as one who stood in her shoes, I admire her courage. For a deputy on her own with no party to back her up, it is a lonely station. Like it or not, she and Mick Wallace have done the State some service. The two deputies' colourful political pedigree makes them fair game for scepticism by the political establishment.

When they first raised the penalty points issue, shooting the messenger was the response. Many doubted the veracity of their claims. Garda whistleblowers who briefed the deputies had been rubbished and intimidated. When Ms Daly was stopped by the gardai and arrested on suspicion of drink driving, the incident made its way into the media almost immediately.

When the minister undermined Mr Wallace on TV using intelligence shared with him by the former Garda Commissioner, many people felt queasy.

Since then, claims of garda incompetence or worse have been growing in number and veracity. Apparently lessons and recommendations of the Morris Tribunal have not been heeded.

Serious allegations of bugging of GSOC were rubbished; whistleblowers were castigated. We are expected to believe that nobody of any significance knew about widespread taping of calls to garda stations, including former Commissioners and Secretaries General. Now a plethora of costly reports and investigations are in train to establish facts.

The political fallout is already evident in the polls and the government parties are understandably anxious to get back to business.

Launching the policy on universal health insurance, housing strategy and tobacco control initiatives this week was an attempt at normalisation.

But the Opposition is in danger of scattergun politics. By focusing unduly on the personality of the minister, they risk overreaching.

The key problem in all this is garda mismanagement and malpractice. This has led to the early retirement/resignation of the commissioner, which on balance is appropriate in the circumstances.

To lambaste the Government for that resignation is illogical and even perverse. However belatedly, the minister has established independent enquiries and a Garda Authority independent of the Justice Department is a certainty.

The Opposition needs to stop throwing up dust for the sake of political head-hunting. There is a time to know when you have won.

Unfortunately for the taxpayer, these state failures will not be exchequer neutral. Apart from the public loss of confidence in the administration of justice, litigation against the State will be costly.

Deputies need to be mindful of this and leave these matters to be examined fairly and independently by those appointed, free of parallel political noise.

Irish Independent

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