Saturday 22 October 2016

'Nothing to see here stance on PAC' is blinkered

Published 30/01/2014 | 02:30

Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Collins
Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Collins

Nothing to see here, move along. I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of the Garda Commissioner's evidence to the Public Accounts Committee. Except the more he insists there is nothing to see, the more people stop and stare.

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And many don't like what they are looking at. Public trust is wobbling. Not in rank and file guards, respected for their hard work and integrity, but in the selective way the system is perceived to work in Ireland.

That's the real issue with penalty points being wiped – relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, unless we regard them as part of a pattern of preferential treatment for citizens with pull. Meaning not everyone is equal under the law.

Nothing to see here, move along. Alan Shatter's announcement that the Garda Ombudsman Commission would investigate penalty points and fines being deleted was the Justice Minister's attempt to lay the controversy to rest. Except, it turns out, six members of the Ombudsman had points and fines annulled by gardai. So, the body charged with investigating points being cancelled comprises members who had points cancelled themselves. Presumably there were valid reasons for removing those points, as can be done legally. But it is still surreal.

One of the whistleblowers who brought the penalty points issue to public attention will give evidence in private to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) today. Much as we'd like to hear his account, after tuning in to Commissioner Martin Callinan's, it is right and proper to hold the session behind closed doors.

Damning allegations can't be made against innocent people in public - and everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

However, it takes courage to be a whistleblower. Commissioner Callinan's chest-thumping display before the PAC is proof of it.

Whistleblowers do not prosper in Irish life. They are often frozen out by colleagues, they don't get promoted, they receive precious little thanks. Yet as a society we need them. Only insiders really know what goes on within a culture. And in going public, they become outsiders.

Another kind of outsider matters, too. People drawn from other jurisdictions to teach important institutions – perhaps solidified in their mindsets – that other, better ways of doing business exist.

One of the lessons from the economic collapse was that we operate by an insular ethos. We can be parochial, and resistant to change. Subsequently, outsiders were brought in at senior levels in the regulatory authorities and banks.

Perhaps it's time senior police officers were recruited from services in other jurisdictions to shake up the status quo – the PSNI might even have lessons to teach us.

It's been something of an eye-opener to observe Commissioner Callinan, who took an oath to uphold the Constitution when he joined up, behave like an absolute monarch. As though he doesn't understand this is a republic, and he is answerable ultimately to his fellow citizens.

His responses to the PAC, democratically elected representatives of the people, can be summarised as follows: I run my own show and nobody is entitled to question how I do it.

It was all so autocratic.

This leader didn't like being undermined, as he interpreted it, by guards making complaints to a parliamentary body. He shouldn't be "usurped by subordinates".

See what I mean about an absolute monarch? Hyper-conscious of position. This wasn't about your authority, Commissioner. It was about transparency and accountability.

He advanced the case that members of An Garda Siochana who believed some colleagues were engaged in wrongdoing should not have gone public. They ought to have brought the matter to the attention of a senior guard, who would bring it to the attention of the commissioner.

Keeping everything in the family. Nothing to see here, move along. The logic can only be grasped by positioning it in a bygone age.

The commissioner's word play before the PAC was fascinating: for example, his insistence that the two garda whistleblowers were "so-called whistleblowers".

He was at it again, when Mary Lou McDonald asked why there was an eight-month time-lag between an allegation about a garda superintendent cancelling four fixed notices, and the commissioner writing to the whistleblower. He declined to say what happened during that protracted period citing a "confidential process". Procedures were involved, I expect. Procedures appear to matter a great deal to him.

But his word play descended into an extraordinarily free use of language when he called it "quite disgusting" that the whistleblowers should make allegations. Some might interpret it as public-spirited behaviour on their part rather than disgusting – a decidedly odd analysis, on his part, unless you factor in the absolute monarch posture.

Rather more disgusting was his threat of disciplinary action against the serving guard who took his complaint to a parliamentary body. I found that ominous – although not as ominous, I imagine, as any other guard considering turning whistleblower.

Any guard who believes there is wrongdoing, and goes public about it will be punished. That's what his warning shot signalled. But it's in the best interests of neither the gardai nor the Irish people.

And so to his piece de resistance as supreme leader: "my force" as the commissioner calls it. Does he pay wages and pensions? Does he pick up the bill for uniforms, cars and equipment? No, that's down to the Irish people. So I think we can safely describe it, not as his force but as ours.

It is essential for the penalty points issue to be addressed by independent outsiders, because the Garda Ombudsman is not the channel through which it should be investigated.

I don't believe there has been widespread abuse, but I would like to know if status or profession were factors when points were wiped.

Are we all equal under the law or is there a pecking order?

Irish Independent

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