Gardai 'fear for lives' if they are placed under new surveillance
GARDAI fear their lives could be put in operational danger if they are placed under surveillance by a team of spies hired by their watchdog body.
The rank and file Garda Representative Association is demanding that the Government spell out what is being planned in a controversial measure giving powers to the Garda Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, to carry out surveillance and intercept communications.
These powers – which are included in the heads of new legislation approved by Cabinet this week – will apply when GSOC are investigating criminal complaints against gardai.
Association president Dermot O'Brien told the Irish Independent last night that placing gardai under surveillance could jeopardise serious investigations into organised crime or dissident republican activity and create difficulties and risks for his colleagues.
He wants immediate consultations with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald before the drafting of the legislation is advanced further.
Mr O'Brien said: "Members of garda rank do not want to live in a police state. Gardai are, first and foremost, drawn from the communities where they police. Is there a real need for these inflated powers."
He called for a proper debate to create clarity about the Cabinet's plan to reform and strengthen the workings of GSOC before "draconian" powers could creep into the Irish justice system.
His association always wanted full independent investigation of complaints made against its members, he added, and had repeatedly asked that GSOC investigate all complaints.
"It is in our members' best interests that an independent and impartial agency provides oversight in a watchdog role to enhance confidence in policing.
"But before the powers of GSOC are enhanced, we need answers to specific questions. Top of the list is the oversight for GSOC, especially if they have powers of covert electronic surveillance and interception of communications."
Mr O'Brien asked: "Who will be able to authorise such interceptions? Who will be entitled to seek the specific warrant to enable GSOC investigators to do this work?
"If so, what are the terms and oversight of such intelligence gathering?
The leader of the 11,000-strong association warned that his members' constitutional rights could be eroded and privacy invaded by an agency, which had been given the power to legally spy on them.
He said obvious questions included whether the surveillance could be carried out by persons from outside the State, would they be licensed, who would be able to analyse the data and where would it be stored.
"It could be that foreign spies are employed to monitor the activities of Ireland's counter espionage defences. GSOC could sub-contract this work to foreign mercenaries to listen in to criminal intelligence or information that may affect the security of the State," he pointed out.
He said gardai were frustrated by the intrinsic uncertainty within the proposals and the lack of balance and impartiality towards the malicious, false and vexatious complaints that utilise the workings of GSOC to undermine garda investigations and subsequent prosecutions.