Sunday 17 December 2017

Fears public left at risk by a lack of regulation

The revelations surrounding the phone tapping scandal pre-date Nóirín O’Sullivan’s appointment as Garda Commissioner. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The revelations surrounding the phone tapping scandal pre-date Nóirín O’Sullivan’s appointment as Garda Commissioner. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Cormac McQuinn and Niall O'Connor

The system designed to safeguard citizens against phone tapping has been called into question as vague and failing to meet international standards.

Under the current arrangements, a lone High Court judge produces an annual report on the operation of Garda phone tapping, which is submitted to the Government.

Writing in this newspaper, legal expert Dr TJ McIntyre criticises the system - arguing that the reports tend to be brief, and offer little if any detail on the extent of phone tapping being carried out.

Dr McIntyre, who lectures in law in UCD and chairs independent civil liberties group Digital Rights Ireland, asked if the public should be reassured by "these bland annual reports".

He said it's also his view that the Irish law on phone tapping and how it's implemented "fail to meet international standards".

A Department of Justice spokesman last night defended the safeguards in place.

He insisted that the involvement of a High Court judge in monitoring the operation of the legislation on phone tapping is "of course, a very significant safeguard".

He said it would be "ill-founded" to "underestimate the importance of the Constitutional independence of the designated judges or, indeed, the considerable experience and abilities of the individuals who have served in that role with distinction".

The spokesman rejected Mr McIntyre's criticism of the length and content of the reports by the various judges that have serviced in the role.

"A report by the judge confirms whether or not the requirements of the legislation are being complied with and, however brief, could not be properly described as 'bland'," the spokesman said.

Dr McIntyre's criticisms of the safeguards come after the Irish Independent on Saturday revealed how gardaí tapped the phones of innocent members of the public.

The investigation by this newspaper revealed that when the unorthodox activities of gardaí were brought to the attention of police authorities, they were ignored.

Read more: Phone-tapping hits all private citizens

One decorated detective who raised concerns has told how he felt undermined and was offered a transfer out of Garda intelligence.

When he sued the authorities for his treatment, the case was settled by the State - only in the last few weeks.

However, the State signed off on a series of secret pay-offs for gardaí and officials in a bid to keep a lid on yet another major scandal.

It is alleged:

  • Innocent members of the public have had their phone conversations listened to without their knowledge;
  • Garda management was also warned that warrants for phone taps were being put in place where officers provided little or no documentation to support their justification;
  • When concerns were raised by a detective, he felt he was sidelined and offered a transfer out of the Crime and Security Department.

In further revelations, the 'Sunday Independent' yesterday detailed how an election worker for a serving politician had his mobile phone tapped by gardaí.

The wire tapping occurred on the phone of the political party activist who was working for a constituency rival of a powerful Government minister. The senior politician is not currently in Cabinet.

The detective who challenged the activity feared gardaí were acting for the benefit of the minister with or without his knowledge.

He was transferred out of the force's intelligence department within two weeks of flagging his fears that the force was being used for "political purposes".

Senior officers cancelled the tap just two days after the detective raised these concerns.

While the justice minister of the day issues the warrant, he or she would not have sight of the documents submitted by gardaí seeking to secure a phone tap.

In practise, applications were prepared by senior gardaí and reviewed by the monitoring section.

The revelations surrounding the phone tapping scandal pre-date Nóirín O'Sullivan's appointment as Garda Commissioner.

Nonetheless, Ms O'Sullivan and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald are under major pressure to assure the public that such shoddy practices within the force's monitoring section have been ended.

Irish Independent

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