Tuesday 12 December 2017

GSOC's culture of paranoia has cast cloud over garda watchdog


GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien
GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

WHEN it comes to enjoying the confidence of the people, credibility is crucial. But in the aftermath of the Cooke Report, credibility is something the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) is sorely lacking.

While Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is planning immediate legislative action to strengthen GSOC and garda oversight in general, these measures are unlikely to be enough to persuade a sceptical public to put their faith in the commission.

Indeed, there are crucial issues cutting right to the heart of the commission which need to be urgently addressed. These include the leadership of GSOC and what many now see as a culture of paranoia within it.

There is also the key issue of the integrity of its internal security. There appears to be a mole at the heart of GSOC, leaking material detrimental to the organisation itself and those it is tasked with watching, the gardai.

Before any of the drama over the alleged bugging of the agency's headquarters, leaks came – apparently from within the oversight body – about its own chairman Simon O'Brien.

His living arrangements were leaked to the 'Sunday Times', detailing how he spends part of his week in England, where his wife and children are based.

Then details of the confidential Verrimus Report were given to the same newspaper by someone in the organisation. We do not know if it was the same person or another individual altogether.

The Cooke Report highlights issues of judgment and decision-making at the top of the organisation.

It is understandable, and probably inevitable, that there would be tension between GSOC and the gardai.

However, it is less understandable that this would seep into the decision-making processes of GSOC's commissioners, who should be above such distractions.

The reality is that Mr O'Brien and his fellow commissioners, Carmel Foley and Kieran Fitzgerald, launched an investigation into the possibility their offices were being bugged by gardai when there was scant evidence this was the case.

It is a course of action which raises serious questions about their judgment.

An excessively suspicious mindset within the commission seems to have clouded its interpretation of the findings of a sweep of its offices by UK security firm Verrimus.

Indeed, Judge Cooke found that GSOC's interpretation of the Verrimus findings had been "heavily influenced" by an atmosphere of frustration and tension between its personnel and senior gardai.

GSOC launched a public interest investigation into the gardai after three technical anomalies were discovered by Verrimus.

It also decided not to inform the justice minister of the day, Alan Shatter, of what it was doing, something Judge Cooke says it should have done by law.

The GSOC probe didn't find any evidence of garda spying and only served to plunge relations between GSOC and the force to an all-time low.

While Judge Cooke found GSOC's commissioners "acted in good faith", he said it was "unfortunate" that further clarification was not sought from Verrimus or a second opinion from someone else before the public interest investigation was started.

Following his appointment by the Government to examine the "bugging" affair, it didn't take Judge Cooke long to demolish two of the three anomalies, while finding there was no evidence the third was "attributable to an offence or misbehaviour" by a member of the gardai.

Despite the weight of evidence presented by Judge Cooke to suggest no bugging occurred, Mr O'Brien, a former commander with the London Metropolitan Police, insists there are still "question marks" over alleged surveillance of GSOC's offices.

He also says there is no question of him resigning from his €146,370-a-year job.

Mr O'Brien is fortunate that Ireland does not have a resignation culture as it is arguable that if he held a similar role in the UK, his position would be viewed as untenable by now.

Under his leadership over the past three years, GSOC has been extraordinarily defensive in its dealings with other agents of the State.

For example, lawyers were hired to sit in on interviews Judge Cooke conducted with senior staff and legal obstacles were encountered by barrister Sean Guerin when he sought access to GSOC files for his report on allegations made by garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

GSOC has also complained that it lacks "effective independence" because it is financially dependent on the Department of Justice.

While new legislation will go some of the way to remedy these shortcomings, it will not restore public trust.

If Mr O'Brien is to stay on, then he will have to show that the internal security breach which led to the leaking of aspects of the Verrimus report has been plugged.

Right now there is at least one mole in his organisation, whose identity, to the best of our knowledge, has not been uncovered. While this situation persists, it will be hard for the public to have confidence in the integrity of the commission.

Somebody in the GSOC took a huge decision to leak details of the bugging suspicions and Mr O'Brien says only seven people, including himself, had access to the security report.

The leaking was a dangerous, deliberate and calculated act and the person who did it must have known it would cause immense controversy.

It deeply embarrassed the Government and contributed to the departure of a justice minister and a garda commissioner, who were both already under significant pressure.

Four months on from the leak, there is no sign of the culprit being identified.

Judge Cooke noted that the commission complained it did not have enough staff, due to budget restrictions and the government recruitment moratorium, to implement optimum security measures.

As admissions go, it is an ominous one and does not bode well for the future.

Irish Independent

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