Garda claims must be dealt with urgently
Published 06/10/2016 | 02:30
A culture of secrecy can only be maintained in a climate of fear and distrust where silence is the price paid for acceptance. Step out of that circle and alienation and isolation are assured. The prospect of such an atmosphere pervading in any organisation is anathema, and for there to be the remotest possibility that it could exist within An Garda Síochána cannot go unchallenged.
The revelation that there has been a series of grave complaints of malpractice made by two senior gardaí, of a concerted campaign within An Garda Síochána to discredit a whistleblower, is shocking and abhorrent.
It is understood that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will appoint a senior member of the judiciary to examine the sensational claims. Incendiary allegations that bullying and intimidation have been going on within the force without sanction have in the past been roundly denied. There were robust rebuttals on the grounds that those who sought to bring abuse complaints forward would be protected and channels would be open all the way to the top. That a new wave of damning charges should surface within months of the O'Higgins report is disturbing, and could have serious implications.
Morale among gardaí is at an all-time low; the possibility that there could by systemic bullying and intimidation will further undermine and damage the force.
We need assurances that a full review of internal policies will be undertaken without delay. Yesterday, a Garda statement was issued, saying: "Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan would like to make it clear that she was not privy to nor approved of any action designed to target any Garda employee...."
Of course, no-one would expect the Commissioner to approve the gagging or abuse of whistleblowers.
However, given the slew of past complaints, one might ask the question: should she not have been aware of the potential for such abuse, as she is ultimately responsible for preventing it?
The treatment of whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson should have been more than enough to draw a red line under the possibility of such mistreatment ever recurring.
Let it not be forgotten that it was the handling of similar issues that led to the demise of the predecessors of both Ms O'Sullivan and Ms Fitzgerald, and came perilously close to toppling an entire Government.
Yesterday, Independent TD Clare Daly said there was a "huge gulf" between the public statements of Commissioner O'Sullivan on the protection of whistleblowers and the reality on the ground. That gulf must be closed once and for all. The Commissioner has frequently stated that anybody making genuine complaints will be fairly treated and their input welcomed. And yet, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) is requesting legal powers to go to the courts to compel the Commissioner to hand over information as part of a campaign to be given more "teeth".
Judge Mary Ellen Ring, the head of GSOC, said recently that she has serious concerns regarding its ability to investigate complaints from Garda whistleblowers.
She also said that the watchdog needs greater powers over Garda disciplinary proceedings. All of this comes in the context of gardaí gearing up for an unprecedented strike over pay and conditions. In the past when the going got tough, the appointment of a committee or a commission was the default setting for governments; that, of course, was only if 'kicking the can down the road' failed.
But these claims are too explosive and must be treated with the utmost urgency. That there is a crisis in An Garda Síochána is not in question, how it is handled is.
For, should it escalate, it could rapidly determine the fates of: the Commissioner, the Minister for Justice and even the Government.