Charlie Flanagan breaks his silence on 'dark chapter' in Garda history
Charlie Flanagan has broken his silence on controversies in the force and the justice system at large
Charlie Flanagan has been Minister for Justice for the past three months. He has spent that time reading into his brief and meeting with officials and agencies who underpin the country's justice system. During that time, he has kept his counsel on the mounting security and policing issues which have sparked concern in the minds of the public.
But now, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, Flanagan has decided to break his silence on the controversies facing the country's police force and the justice system at large.
Sitting in his ministerial office overlooking St Stephen's Green in Dublin city centre, Flanagan reflects on what he describes as a "very dark chapter in the long and distinguished history of An Garda Siochana".
He was speaking after the publication of an extremely damning internal Garda report which revealed gardai routinely falsified millions of roadside breathalyser tests, while a second report found a Garda blunder resulted in 14,700 motorists wrongly receiving court convictions and penalty points.
The Policing Authority will soon publish the findings of a review into the breathalyser controversy and both the Government and Garda management are bracing themselves for further backlash.
Last week, Flanagan hauled senior gardai into his office to dress them down after the details of the internal investigation became public. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan was not in attendance as she was out of the country on business.
"The practices contained in the reports are wholly unacceptable," Flanagan says.
"I have conveyed my annoyance to the top ranks of An Garda Siochana. These acts are unacceptable and it is essential, not only that these practices never reoccur, but that trust and confidence in An Garda Siochana is fully restored," he added.
The minister wants to see those responsible for what he calls the "misdemeanours" and "negligence" outlined in the reports punished for bringing the force into disrepute.
However, he refuses to acknowledge the behaviour which emerged in the internal investigation is tantamount to corruption.
"I am eager to ensure that there is zero tolerance for unacceptable practices in An Garda Siochana.
"I am not ruling in or out any measure, other than to say I will take appropriate action on receipt of the Police Authority report which I expect in the next couple of weeks," he said.
There has been speculation that gardai will be at the very least disciplined if not sacked over the controversy. Flanagan insists that due process will be followed as part of the effort to establish who is culpable for the failings.
The minister said a superintendent will be appointed over every Garda district who will be tasked with dealing with the fallout and Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn will ultimately be responsible for implementing the reports recommendations.
n on Garda Commissioner noirin o'sullivan
The latest Garda controversy has naturally put renewed focus on Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan's future as head of the force. She has just returned from a five-week holiday, during which it emerged she had applied but failed to get a senior role with European policing agency Europol.
Does the minister understand why political parties and large swathes of the public do not believe O'Sullivan is the right person for the job?
"I think these issues are bigger than any one person. There has been a lot of critical and adverse comment of Garda management. In relation to the Commissioner, many of these pre-dated her appointment as Garda Commissioner," he said.
While the minister expressed confidence in the Commissioner, his responses to other questions throughout the interview will be less reassuring to O'Sullivan.
Does the minister think O'Sullivan will be Garda Commissioner this time next year?
"I have confidence in the Garda Commissioner. My government colleagues have confidence in the Garda Commissioner," he said.
Asked again, will she be Garda Commissioner this time next year?
"Of course, the Garda Commissioner has an important role to play in the reform programme and I expect that of her," he said.
For a third time, will Noirin O'Sullivan still be Garda Commissioner next year in your opinion?
"I deal with the here and now and the Garda Commissioner is at her desk and I expect her to play a leading role in the reform process," he said.
And a fourth time, will she be Garda Commissioner next year?
"I'm not speculating on who'll be in any position next year. Will I be at this seat this time next year? I expect to be; as regards anybody else, I don't know," he said.
But you don't think the Government is going to run out of patience with the Commissioner?
"We have experienced a very bleak and dark chapter in the history of An Garda Siochana. My job is to ensure we move from that to a better place. That will involve pain, it will involve patience, and it will involve reform of an unprecedented degree."
There is understood to be a growing frustration in the Policing Authority with Garda management and the lack of reform despite numerous reports and commissions of investigation outlining a path of change. It is unclear what the soon-to-be-published Policing Authority report will say but it is expected to raise concerns about the senior management levels of the force.
If the Policing Authority says the current Garda management structures are not fit for purpose will the minister take action?
"I have a duty to act on the recommendations of the many agencies that are in place. It is my intention to have a very close, hands-on relationship with these agencies," he said.
Was the minister disappointed that O'Sullivan went for a job with Europol?
"The Garda Commissioner and any senior ranking officer can decide to seek such a position at any time. That's a matter entirely for themselves," he said.
But some might say it shows they are not interested in the current job they have?
"Not necessarily. The Garda Commissioner is now back at her desk. There are issues that need to be dealt with from her perspective and I look forward to working closely with her on the reform agenda."
The minister said he "doesn't have any evidence" to suggest the Commissioner is unhappy with her current job.
"Should she decide to seek a career change, which she clearly did, that's a matter entirely for herself," he added.
Did she tell the minister before she applied for the role?
"I discussed the issue with her. She informed me as a courtesy. I accepted that," he said.
But was he informed before she applied for the job? "I was informed that she was in the course of applying for a job."
Asked a third and final time if he was disappointed that she applied for the job, the minister said: "That's a matter entirely for herself."
n on terrorism
For the first time, the minister acknowledged there is a growing number of jihadi terrorism sympathisers in Ireland. It was recently reported in the Irish Independent that the number of jihadi supporters under surveillance in Ireland has doubled to around 70 in the last year.
"I acknowledge the figures are real. I acknowledge the figures are more than they were this time last year and that's why I am very keen to oversee our preparedness," he said.
"I have no direct evidence of any specific threat to Ireland or its people. Ireland is not immune to terror. We don't have an exemption. We are not in any unique or exceptionable position," he added
The minister believes "multiculturalism" policies have failed across Europe and the integration of people from different cultures into Irish society is the only way to avoid creating a breeding ground for fundamentalism.
"The Irish policy of integration is absolutely essential and we will pursue that, unlike many of our EU colleagues who pursue a policy of multiculturalism which has resulted in difficulties and I refer specifically to France and Belgium," he said.
n on northern ireland
However, Flanagan said Garda intelligence shows that the "greatest threat" faced by Ireland is from dissident republican terror groups rather than jihadi fundamentalists.
"Garda intelligence tell me that in the city of Dublin and along the border areas the greatest threat to the national security of our State is from dissident republicans and that will be a priority under my stewardship," he said.
The minister said the view of gardai and the PSNI is that the threat from dissident republicans in the North is "severe", meaning an attack is "highly likely". The former Minister for Foreign Affairs is "frustrated" by the lack of progress in restoring the powersharing Executive in the North as it means he does not have a counterpart across the border with whom he can discuss this growing threat.
Asked if he thinks his successor in Foreign Affairs is taking a softer approach to Sinn Fein during the Stormont talks, Flanagan said: "Simon has his style and his ways of dealing with these issues."
"Different ministers have different styles," he added.
"I am not going to apportion blame between Sinn Fein and the DUP, I haven't been at recent talks but I want all of the parties to work with Simon Coveney and James Brokenshire with a view to establishing the Executive and the Institutions," he said.
n on TOm Oliver's Murder
On the brutal IRA murder of Louth farmer Tom Oliver, the minister said he does not believe Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has no information on the tragic case.
"Gerry Adams is president of Sinn Fein, he knows everything about Sinn Fein. He knows much from the IRA. There is evidence to suggest that Sinn Fein headquarters in Belfast knew much of the circumstances of the brutal killing of Tom Oliver.
"I find it hard to believe Gerry Adams doesn't know anything about it," he said.
"I call on Gerry Adams to make known to the authorities what he knows about the abduction, torture and murder of an innocent, decent farmer in Co Louth."
n 'I have confidence in Garda Commissioner' n 'MULTICULTURALISM HAS BROUGHT DIFFICULTIES' n 'DISSIDENT REPUBLICANS POSE GREATEST THREAT'