Tuesday 21 May 2019

'GSOC creaking under weight of investigating trivial complaints'

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan listens to a speech by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, left, at an event in the Department of Justice and Equality, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, earlier this year. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan listens to a speech by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, left, at an event in the Department of Justice and Equality, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, earlier this year. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Last week, as my bus stopped in traffic outside Leinster House, I watched a young garda on duty at the gates and wondered what he must think of the politicians pontificating inside. With just his high-visibility jacket and cap protecting him from the torrential rain, the garda was standing bolt upright, not betraying any discomfort, apparently impervious to the appalling weather.

It's not a job I, or most of you, would relish. Certainly not for a starting salary of just €23,000. And definitely not when the reputation of the force has taken such a battering in recent years.

Since late 2013, the thankless and difficult work done by rank-and-file members of An Garda Síochána has been largely erased from public discourse because of a focus on the treatment of whistleblowers.

Take last week, for instance. News of a successful garda operation, in which members of an armed gang were arrested as they allegedly attempted to rob a Securicor van, was buried under an avalanche of fresh accusations about a campaign of intimidation against a whistleblower.

Having called a press conference to bask in the reflected glow of an impressive intelligence-led operation, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan instead found herself fielding a barrage of questions about the latest twists and turns in the whistleblower controversy.

Another positive news story turned to dust as the inexplicable inability of politicians and senior Garda management to adequately address the complaints of a small number of whistleblowers continues to wreak havoc.

In any other country, a scandal like the one that engulfed the gardaí two years ago would have been handled and everyone would have moved on. Here, the controversy lingers, casting a shadow over the entire organisation.

Is it any wonder then that the morale of members is at an all-time low as cuts to pay, poor working conditions and incessant negative commentary combine to make life intolerable?

How can it be that despite the creation of three separate State watchdogs to supervise gardaí in the past 10 years - GSOC, the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority - that whistleblowers' allegations inevitably end up the subject of statutory inquiries?

The decision of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald to immediately appoint former High Court judge Iarlaith O'Neill to investigate the latest whistleblower allegations is an indication she accepts the current complaints mechanism is broken.

Otherwise, why pre-emptively bypass it?

Last year, GSOC was given the responsibility of investigating protected disclosures by gardaí but was not given any new powers of compellability to do its job.

Although gardaí are supposed to comply with requests to furnish information to GSOC within 30 days, there is no penalty if they don't because the State watchdog has no teeth.

Coupled with this, GSOC is already creaking under the weight of protracted investigations into relatively trivial complaints about gardaí made by members of the public.

Speaking at the Oireachtas Justice Committee recently, GSOC chairperson Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring gave an example of the kind of bureaucratic nightmare it faces when investigating mundane complaints, which comprise 20pc of its workload.

In one instance, she said, a complaint by a member of the public that a garda had been rude took nine months to investigate and involved one superintendent, at least one member of internal affairs, four gardaí, two civilians and three GSOC personnel.

Ms Justice Ring pointed out that all of this effort and expense could have been saved if someone in a local station had simply picked up the phone and apologised to the woman if she felt she had been treated in a curt manner.

However, because of the legislation underpinning GSOC, it has no autonomy to kick these kinds of minor complaints back to local stations to be dealt with expeditiously.

If it takes GSOC nine months to investigate allegations of rudeness, what hope does it have of investigating controversial complaints of an alleged orchestrated campaign of bullying and intimidation in a timely fashion?

Last week, the Garda Commissioner herself suggested it was time for a new independent body to take over responsibility for dealing with protected disclosures.

She told an Oireachtas committee it was "time for consideration to be given to some type of independent entity where all of these issues go and where people can have some reassurance that someone is considering these matters independently".

This was a sentiment that was echoed by the president of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI), Antoinette Cunningham, earlier this month when she said the current system was not fit for purpose.

"Whatever systems are in place within the organisation do not seem to be standing up, they do not seem to be providing the security and reassurance to people that they can make protected disclosures in a safe, secure environment," she said.

With everyone in apparent agreement the current system is unsustainable, what is stopping the Government from doing the inevitable and changing it? Or, is it determined to exhaust its entire pool of retired High Court judges before acting?

Speaking recently on 'Today with Sean O'Rourke', former Defence Forces Ombudsman Paulyn Marrinan Quinn suggested what sounds like a logical solution - set up an ombudsman that deals with complaints by members of An Garda Síochána.

Given GSOC's primary purpose is to investigate complaints about gardaí by members of the public, a separate body that deals with internal garda grievances would have the requisite level of independence and authority to restore confidence in what has become a discredited system.

GSOC will still need to be reformed so that it can do its job more efficiently, but at least the creation of a new ombudsman would enjoy the trust and confidence of both gardaí and the public.

With the Government now faced with the unprecedented task of staving off an upcoming strike by sergeants, inspectors and their rank-and-file colleagues, reform of the whistleblower complaints procedure should be relatively easy by comparison.

Irish Independent

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