Cooke review of GSOC unlikely to uncover too much

Why did two State bodies come to a condition of deep mutual distrust?

Minister for Justice  Alan Shatter TD and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan in conversation. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter TD and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan in conversation. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 01:00

It is unlikely that the review by former High Court judge John Cooke of the alleged bugging of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) will be conclusive in regard to technical questions.

Modern electronic surveillance systems generally do not leave traces. We will probably be left with one set of assertions against another.

In a way, it hardly matters now. The significant questions to be answered in this saga have more to do with distrust, dysfunctionality and a culture of concealment within important State institutions.

How did matters reach the sorry pass that led the GSOC to suspect that it was under electronic surveillance? Why did relations between the GSOC and the management of the Garda deteriorate to the extent that trust had apparently evaporated?

The terms of reference set for the former judge by the Government require him to establish why the GSOC set up its public interest investigation in the first place.

There are far more important questions than whether a data system in the GSOC’s offices hooked up with the wifi in a nearby coffee bar. Why did two State bodies, their interdependent relationships defined in law, come to a condition of deep mutual distrust and dysfunctionality?

In this context, the proposed review of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality can potentially be at least as significant as the Cooke review – and possibly more so.

The confrontation between the GSOC and the Garda Síochána that we are witnessing was inevitable once the ink was dry on the Garda Síochána Act 2005. The GSOC was to have oversight of the Garda but not of the commissioner. It might be likened to giving the Financial Regulator the authority to supervise the branch network of AIB or Bank of Ireland but putting Richie Boucher’s office and David Duffy’s office “off limits”.

The GSOC began to investigate the role of senior gardaí in the case of convicted drugs importer, Kieran Boylan. This went to the heart of the Garda’s power structure.

The GSOC found that already slow processes began to slow further. Virtually every GSOC request for information was challenged. Agreed protocols for information exchange were not being honoured. The GSOC protested in its annual reports.

There was little reaction from the political establishment although Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, to his credit, insisted that revised protocols be put in place.

Two value systems confronted each other. The GSOC had to get to the core of allegations that some gardaí had protected Boylan improperly. Gardaí believed they had to protect the integrity of the CHIS (Covert Human Information System) informants system.

The Act is weak and ambiguous, allowing gardaí to invoke considerations of “security” to prevent the GSOC having access to information. Gardaí however have a habit – for example in Donegal – of invoking “security” as a cover for irregular activities.

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