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Andrew Lynch: Suicide of Sgt Galvin could leave GSOC's credibility in ruins


Sgt Michael Galvin

Sgt Michael Galvin

Sgt Michael Galvin

Sergeant Michael Galvin could not take the strain any longer.

 Under investigation by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) for a crime he had not committed, the former GAA manager picked up a handgun in Ballyshannon Garda Station last Thursday and took his own life.

His suicide is not only a desperate tragedy for the wife and three children he leaves behind, it also raises some serious questions that could end up destroying GSOC's credibility for good.

Any watchdog has a difficult balancing act to maintain. It must be tough enough to scare off wrongdoers but wise enough to recognise somebody who means no harm.

The organisation set up to keep our police force on the straight and narrow also has to remember that "innocent until proved guilty" is a fundamental principle of the Irish justice system.

According to many gardai, GSOC has got this balance all out of whack. At an emotional press conference on Tuesday, Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) general secretary John Redmond complained that his members often feel "traumatised and dehumanised" when under investigation.

Even more worryingly, Sgt Galvin's family feel that GSOC bears at least some of the moral responsibility for their loss, creating a tense stand-off that only the Government may now be able to resolve.

This story begins with another tragedy, the death of a young woman in a road accident in Ballyshannon last New Year's Day. Sgt Galvin, who was not even meant to be on duty but covered for a colleague, had driven past Sheena Stewart earlier that morning.

While his report stated that Stewart was standing on a footpath, CCTV footage showed she was actually on the road itself.

This small anomaly ended up causing a whole lot of trouble. Galvin became the subject of a GSOC inquiry, suspected of making false statements and perverting the course of justice.

Friends say he spent weeks living in terror that he might lose his job or even be sent to jail.

In fact, GSOC's investigation concluded on May 27 and found no evidence of any criminal offence. Unfortunately, nobody notified Sgt Galvin since officially a file must be sent to the DPP.

Twenty-four hours later, Sgt Galvin was dead. At his funeral last Sunday, his widow, Collette, called GSOC's behaviour "horrendous and unnecessary", and received a standing ovation from the 3,000 mourners present.

So now the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission has an even more delicate job. It is required to investigate the circumstances of Sgt Galvin's suicide, which is a bit like asking a watchdog to chase his own tail. Not surprisingly, the AGSI is deeply unhappy and wants Enda Kenny to set up an independent inquiry led by a High Court judge.

Whatever happens now, this episode has soured the already poisonous atmosphere between gardai and the state agency that monitors them.

Memories are still fresh of last year's bizarre controversy over whether the GSOC headquarters in Abbey Street had been bugged. If true, it would have been a deadly serious crime - and the Garda Siochana itself was high on some people's list of suspects.


As it happened, an inquiry by retired judge John Cooke found that the claims had no basis in reality. Even so, the incident combined with other garda-related scandals to create a paranoid atmosphere that forced both Commissioner Martin Callinan and Justice Minister Alan Shatter to resign.

Many garda representatives felt GSOC's three commissioners should fall on their swords too - an invitation they declined. Clearly, we cannot go on like this.

A certain tension between watchdogs and the people they investigate is only natural.

To take two examples, the Press and Children's Ombudsman offices carry out effective jobs without alienating everyone else, so why has GSOC so dismally failed to do the same?

Nothing can bring Michael Galvin back. However, if his shocking death forces GSOC's leaders to put their own house in order, at least it will not have been entirely in vain.