Changing the Garda culture
There has been some improvement since the Morris tribunal exposed Garda corruption in Donegal a decade ago. But a great deal remains the same: excessive control by the Department of Justice and its Minister of the force; inadequate independent oversight mechanisms and a Garda culture that offers primary allegiance to colleagues, rather than the community. Reported surveillance of the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and the Department of Justice’s handling of allegations involving misconduct, malpractice and the destruction of documents made by Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe are being reviewed. A review of how the Department of Justice dealt with Sergeant McCabe’s various complaints over a two-year period may generate controversy because of criticisms of whistleblowers made by Minister Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan at the time.
Garda whistleblowers, official denials and two determined TDs helped to bring about the establishment of the Morris tribunal. But four years of official denials and ministerial foot-dragging had preceded that development, along with three ineffectual, internal Garda inquiries. Dirty tricks, forged documents and attempts to collapse the work of the inquiry followed. Later, Garda whistleblowing legislation was introduced, with heavy fines or imprisonment for those individuals who dared to step outside of the system.
Reforms intended to provide independent oversight of the Garda Síochána and hold its members to account are not working. Exclusion of the Garda Commissioner and his policing duties from the remit of the GSOC was a major miscalculation. In public life, there can be no such thing as partial accountability within a vitally important agency. When the GSOC began to investigate improper connections between senior gardaí and convicted drug importer Kieran Boylan, some years ago, relations deteriorated rapidly. Information was withheld. GSOC protests followed. A file recommending prosecution of a number of gardaí was eventually compiled but the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to act on grounds of national security.
Events in Donegal showed what can happen when individual gardaí bend or break the rules. Denials, cover-ups and smear campaigns have been the automatic response of departmental officials, ministers and senior gardaí to such unwelcome disclosures. That culture will have to change if decency in public life is to mean anything. The current, many-stranded controversy over Garda accountability has been years in gestation. It flared into life with abuses of the penalty points system before centring on the toxic relationship between the GSOC and the Garda Commissioner. Reforming legislation is urgently required.