Monday 19 February 2018

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has 'absolute confidence' in GSOC

Gardaí are mindful of press freedom, says commissioner

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan listens during a speech by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald at the publication of the ‘Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021’ in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan listens during a speech by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald at the publication of the ‘Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021’ in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Caroline Quinn
The probe is to be carried out by former attorney general Mr Justice John Murray. Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins

Kevin Doyle and Donal O'Donovan

Taoiseach Enda Kenny says he has confidence in the Garda Service Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) following revelations that investigators at State authority snooped on the phone records of journalists and others.

"I have full and absolute confidence in GSOC, and in the chairing of GSOC by Justice Ring," Enda Kenny said in Davos, Switzerland this morning.

Neither the Taoiseach or Department of Justice has any details about individuals who's phone records have been accessed, he said.

Former Supreme Court Justice Murray's review into existing legislation that allowed the Garda Ombudsman service to snoop on journalists and others, will examine the need for considerations including privacy and protection of journalistic sources, and will report in three months he said.

With the economic mood darkening here among delegates attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual conference, the Taoiseach said Ireland had a long term economic plan that will help insulate the country, to some extent, form global trends.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland Enda Kenny said he would like to see the Transatlantic  a trade Talks between the US and European finalised

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan has flatly defended the practice of snooping on phone records, saying it is "justified" in thousands of cases every year.

The garda chief broke her silence on the controversy yesterday in an interview with the Irish Independent in which she said "exceptional consideration" was given to every application for communications data.

"Everything that we do is proportionate, it's balanced, it's justified and it's relevant to the investigation that is under way," she said.

Asked if she had an issue with releasing figures on the number of times gardaí sought data from telecoms companies for personal data, she replied: "In terms of general high-level numbers, absolutely not."

However, a request to the Garda Press Office for details was still met with a negative response, leaving it to the Department of Justice to finally release the figures last night.

In 2014, gardaí sought telephone-related data 5,513 times, while internet data was provided to gardaí in 2,753 cases.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald insisted: "There is no widespread snooping on private individuals, private citizens' phones or their records."

A review by former attorney general John Murray into the legislation that allows An Garda Síochána, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), Revenue and the Defence Forces to access journalists' phone and email records has until April to report.

The controversy arose after it emerged that GSOC had been spying on the records of at least three journalists.

New figures today reveal that as far back as 2013 it was accessing the phone records of 295 individuals.

There has been an outcry from civil liberties groups that the probe to be carried out by Mr Justice John Murray will only refer to journalists and not to private citizens. However, justice sources have indicated that a wider review could follow at a later stage.

"There is a need for a speedy response in relation to journalists. To broaden it now would delay that hugely," said a source.

It is widely expected in justice circles that Mr Justice Murray will recommend that a judge be appointed to oversee data requests, as happens in the United Kingdom.

Ms O'Sullivan declined to comment directly on the review, but said: "What I am focused on is making sure we have the lawful and proper tools in place to investigate crime, terrorism and to keep people safe.

"We give exceptional consideration to every single application that we receive."

Under existing laws, gardaí can retrieve phone data from private firms with the approval of a chief superintendent.

"We are also very mindful of the journalistic privilege and the fundamental principle of the freedom of the press," the commissioner said.

"Caller-related data is a very effective investigative tool that is used by law-enforcement agencies the world over.

"Indeed, in this jurisdiction, it has proved very effective in investigating some very serious crime, including a particular investigation in relation to the murder of one of your own colleagues, Veronica Guerin," she told the Irish Independent.

She insisted that the number of requests for data was not disproportionate. "If you take it in a criminal and terrorism context, there is no criminal or terrorist that I know that simply uses one phone," she said.

Since taking over as commissioner in late 2014, Ms O'Sulivan has ordered a series of probes into alleged leaks by members of the force to the media.

Asked if she has taken a heavy-handed approach, she replied: "There is a principle absolutely recognising the freedom of the press and journalistic privilege. But there is also the principle of An Garda Síochána occupying a very privileged place in society.

"We do come into possession of very private, sensitive data in relation to individual citizens. Some of those citizens are indeed people who are going about their lawful business."

Irish Independent

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