Trust an issue as Garda fortress shut to 'outsiders'
OPINION:A change of mindset is required so the Garda ombudsman can discharge its most important function
FIVE YEARS ago this month, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) opened its doors for business, holding out the promise of a new era in the accountability of the national police force.
The commission has broadly the same powers as the Garda Síochána. Its three commissioners are warranted at the highest level of authority with which the State can invest its office-holders. Nominated by government, approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas, they are appointed by the President of Ireland.
A High Court judge, the late Kevin Haugh, became the first chair.
The body was established at a time when the Garda Síochána’s reputation had been tarnished by problems in the Donegal division. The political establishment was unnerved. Gardaí were bruised and defensive.
Some initial interactions were tense. Gardaí were sometimes resentful of what they saw as intrusion into what had been their traditional preserves. There was particular disquiet at the commission having powers to investigate their off-duty conduct. Some GSOC officers, accustomed to working in other jurisdictions, found it difficult to get their bearings culturally and procedurally.
Members of the public were sceptical of the commission’s capacity to have errant gardaí prosecuted. Judges, lawyers, coroners and others had to adapt to working with this new element in the criminal justice system.
But things settled down. Local Garda management, to its considerable credit, adapted quickly to the reality of GSOC teams operating in their areas. Co-operation in simple but important matters, like the preservation of incident scenes, providing office space or even parking for commission vehicles was quickly forthcoming.
Some problems persisted. Many gardaí were willing to speak up where colleagues had engaged in misconduct. But others seemed to be afflicted by vision loss, deafness or amnesia. No surprise. This unhappy phenomenon may also occur where doctors, lawyers or even journalists are asked to take the stand in criticism of colleagues.
Similarly, although the representative associations were declared supportive of GSOC, some of their members on occasion displayed singular adroitness in delaying GSoc investigations. In one case it took 26 months for a member to furnish a voluntary statement in relation to a death in custody.
Five years on, however, the single most problematic aspect of relations between the Garda Síochána and GSOC is in the sharing of information on crime and intelligence and the organisational decision-making around these.
Because the Garda is both the national police force and the primary security service, it has always been able to cite “State security” to prevent light being shone into places where it would prefer there should be none. Invocations of “State security” facilitated malfeasance within the Donegal division, enabling certain officers to operate without effective scrutiny or supervision.
Where GSOC has sought what the gardaí consider sensitive information, (for example, regarding informants, who are now referred to using the acronym CHIS — Covert Human Intelligence Source) it has frequently found it impossible to get what its officers require in order to conclude investigations in a timely or complete fashion.