Saturday 7 December 2019

John Downing: Another attempt to 'park' a major issue until well after the General Election

Joan Burton. Photo: Tony Gavin
Joan Burton. Photo: Tony Gavin
John Downing

John Downing

So we have yet another neat piece of pre-election parallel parking by the Taoiseach and his Government.

The issue of monitoring journalists' phone records and emails will be examined by an eminent person who will report inside three months.

Mr Justice John Murray personifies eminence as a former Chief Justice, a member of the EU Court of Justice and Attorney General.

But allowing a time-span of three months will take things far beyond the General Election and any potential political harm.

The timeline on this one speaks for itself. Last Thursday, we learned that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) had been examining journalists' phone records as part of its investigations into alleged garda leaks of investigations.

Let's note again that this GSOC work is perfectly in line with the law and it turns out that a total of five institutions of State are entitled to do this.

The other four endowed with these powers are: An Garda Síochána; the Defence Forces; the Revenue Commissioners; and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

The reaction of the Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was rather low-key when asked last Friday. She said the process was subject to an annual review by a High Court judge and there was also a complaints procedure.

But the very next day, the Justice Minister said she would commission a review or more specifically "a scoping exercise".

Was it a mere coincidence that Leo Varadkar, possibly after being at the truth serum again, had described the GSOC practice as "a little bit odd and sinister" and potentially an "infringement of freedoms"?

The Public Expenditure Minister, Labour's Brendan Howlin, later suggested adopting the UK practice of independent supervision of this scrutiny by a judge.

That UK process includes informing the person involved and a right of appeal to the courts.

But it took until Monday, at a big bells and whistles jobs announcement, near Naas in Kildare, for real movement.

Then there were strong statements by both the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Joan Burton on the importance of journalists having the ability to receive information confidentially for the health of our democracy and the upholding of citizens' rights.

Both Mr Kenny and Ms Burton promised an announcement following Cabinet yesterday. Thus, we got the announcement of the review by Mr Justice Murray last night. All a slow build-up to a pre-emptive strike to take this one out of the public glare until the election is over and done.

This one goes way beyond journalists' rights and privileges. The point is that other issues such as lawyer-client privilege and citizens' rights to privacy appear to have been seriously called into question.

The five institutions may need these powers to do their jobs and uphold the greater good for all citizens. But such huge powers need proper supervision.

GSOC insists that it already mimics the external supervision with an internal process which puts access decisions in the hands of its chairman, Judge Mary Ellen Ring. But internal processes do not always guarantee public confidence that external supervision would do.

Irish Independent

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