Tuesday 25 October 2016

Shane Coleman: Why any support for the force must not be given at the expense of the Ombudsman

Published 12/02/2014 | 02:30

Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Taoiseach Enda Kenny share a
moment. Mr Shatter has moved to take the heat out of the bugging row.
Photo: Steve Humphreys
Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Taoiseach Enda Kenny share a moment. Mr Shatter has moved to take the heat out of the bugging row. Photo: Steve Humphreys

CRISIS, what crisis? Alan Shatter's forthright 'nothing to see here' address to the Dail yesterday sucked all the heat out of the controversy.

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At least as far as the Government is concerned – the pressure on the Ombudsman's office, if anything though, continues to build.

The Minister for Justice's statement that there was "no definitive evidence of surveillance" would appear to leave little room for argument. It seems unlikely as cautious and canny an operator as Shatter would have been so emphatic in his comments unless he felt he was on sure ground.

As Shatter resumed his seat in the Dail, you could almost feel the sense of deflation on the opposition benches. Before that it seemed the Coalition might be in more than a little difficulty. The Opposition was clearly sensing blood. The Government was questioning the Garda Ombudsman and an independent inquiry was required to get to the bottom of it all, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein argued.

They seemed to have a point. By turning its cannons on the Ombudsman over the office's failure to tell Shatter about the potential security breach, the Coalition left itself open to the charge it was making a villain out of the potential victim in all of this.

To compound matters, the Taoiseach got it wrong on Monday with his assertion that Article 80 subsection 5 of the Garda Siochana Act required the Ombudsman to inform the Minister for Justice of matters of exceptional importance – it clearly doesn't. Incredibly, Fine Gael figures continued to stick to that line yesterday.

But that hardly matters now. All eyes today will be on the appearance of the Garda Ombudsman Commission when its representatives appear before the Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. TDs are likely to grill the Ombudsman representatives on what exactly was uncovered.

Given Shatter's statement to the Dail came directly from his briefing by the Commission's chairman Simon O'Brien, they are unlikely to contradict anything the Justice Minister said.

However, the questioning on the three vulnerabilities identified by the routine security sweep at its headquarters last September may throw up some more detail. That in turn should help inform people on just how real the threat to the office's security actually was.

It promises to be an uncomfortable couple of hours for O'Brien & Co, coming on top of what has been a distinctly uncomfortable couple of days.

The call from the Garda Representative body for O'Brien's resignation may be perceived as opportunistic, but there's no question the chairman is under intense pressure.

The office is, of course, independent, but it's hardly immune from the obvious displeasure of the government of the day.

There is, of course, an argument that the Coalition can't have it both ways. If, as it states, there was no compromising of the security of the Ombudsman office, can Enda Kenny and Alan Shatter really take Commission members to task for not informing it of that 'non-risk'?

The chairman could credibly argue today that, given the office's investigation found that no further action was necessary, there was simply no need to inform the minister.

It may also point to a further sub-section of Article 80 of the Garda Siochana Act. It requires the Justice Minister to put a copy of any report from the Ombudsman before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Putting such a report in the public arena would inevitably have created considerable headlines and damaging controversy that may not have been warranted by what actually happened.

However, the reality is that for reasons of realpolitick, or good old fashioned ass-covering, the Ombudsman's Office should have informed Shatter about what its security sweep uncovered – however minor the potential breaches seemed to be. It might also have been more savvy in how it phrased its statement on Monday night when it said "there was no evidence of Garda misconduct".

But notwithstanding the quotes in media reports from senior garda sources that O'Brien's position was untenable, those failures would appear to be, at most, a 'yellow' rather than a 'red' card offence. Much may, however, depend on O'Brien's performance today.

More importantly, the controversy in recent days shines further light on the dysfunctional relationship between the Ombudsman Commission and the Garda. And that's not something that can be exclusively laid at the door of the Ombudsman – far from it.

The Government, quite rightly, is not going to do anything to undermine garda authority. But that strong support shouldn't be at the expense of the Ombudsman Commission. The perception up to now is that it has been. That imbalance is something the Coalition needs to urgently address.



Irish Independent

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