Exit of Callinan from public life does not change tough times ahead for Garda

Former commissioner was headstrong and damaged by association with Shatter

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan: One of the brightest and best, he enjoyed a distinguished career before being dragged deeper into a controversy that slowly but surely gobbled him up. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan: One of the brightest and best, he enjoyed a distinguished career before being dragged deeper into a controversy that slowly but surely gobbled him up. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 11:20

The departure from office of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan is simply the latest controversial event to grip the force in recent times.

Far from his exit bringing any of the Garda’s difficulties to a close, his no-warning retirement has prompted reflection on the myriad problems that remain in his wake.

The termination of penalty points by gardaí is now the subject of a major investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). The relationship between the Garda watchdog and the force is at an all-time low.

The recording of telephone conversations at Garda stations for decades is now being examined by a commission of investigation. Separately, the Government is to undertake a major review of Garda oversight. An independent Garda authority is also in the offing.

And to top it all, the Government seems committed to advertising externally to fill the post of Garda Commissioner.

The winds of change are whipping up in a manner not seen since the first Morris tribunal reports of nearly 10 years ago.

Any analysis of Martin Callinan’s four decades as a Garda officer would be deeply unfair without noting he was one of the brightest and best.

He enjoyed a very distinguished career before being dragged deeper and deeper into a controversy that slowly but surely gobbled him up.

Much has been made of the closeness between Callinan and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.

The difficulty for Callinan was that Shatter is largely disliked by Garda members. Many blame him for the fact that overtime budgets have been cut back to nothing, Garda stations have been closed and manpower has continued to fall.

Unpopular things Shatter was responsible for were in some quarters unfairly blamed on Callinan, as if they were inseparable.

When, for example, the Minister decided to close more than 100 Garda stations, he asked Callinan to have a list drawn up of those stations that might close first. He then continually referred to the stations as having been recommended for closure by the commissioner.

Too close for comfort
Some doubted whether Callinan could be forceful with the Government on the need for more Garda resources when he was so close to the Minister delivering those cuts.

Both men are alike in preferring the last word on matters and neither is inclined to let things go.

It is perhaps Callinan’s headstrong streak that resulted in his rhetoric at the Public Accounts Committee where he referred to the actions of the Garda whistleblowers as “disgusting”.

He was also unwilling to find a formula of words to withdraw the word “disgusting” but stood by his central argument: that the whistleblowers were wrong to access and distribute citizens’ personal data.

When the Smithwick Tribunal concluded there had been Garda collusion in the killings of two RUC officers in 1989, Callinan was forced to accept the findings.

However, in follow-up debate, he rejected out of the hand the tribunal’s view that for some in the Garda force, loyalty was prized above honesty and truth. He also dismissed any notion that some of the findings of the tribunal might warrant investigation.

It was over because he said it was over.

When the GSOC last May accused the Garda of deliberately delaying and frustrating its investigations by the very slow release of information, Callinan moved to defend his force. He issued a long public statement outlining the level of co-operation extended to the GSOC and many in the force were pleased he had done so.

On the basis of that statement, he would probably have won the argument.

Public chiding
However, he could not resist publicly chiding the oversight body for failing to send its report to Garda Headquarters for review before publication, as is customary.

When it emerged earlier this year that the GSOC believed its phone had been bugged, the complaints body issued a statement saying there was no evidence of Garda involvement.

Callinan was understandably unhappy that the GSOC had put the force in the frame, but he issued a statement making demands of the commission that looked like opportunism when it and its senior staff were under serious pressure.

He sought clarification as to the “basis for the suspicion of Garda misconduct” and whether gardaí needed to investigate any matters identified. He also wanted to know the “nature and extent of the [bugging] anomalies” and whether a “criminal offence” was suspected.

When it emerged that the security report outlining the possible bugging of the GSOC’s offices had been leaked from within the organisation, it again seemed like he was looking to capitalise. He warned that the leak undermined the commission’s case in seeking unfettered access to the Garda’s Pulse database.

“I think the pigeon has come home to roost to a certain degree,” he said.

Ironically, the last time Callinan clashed publicly with the GSOC, in private he was inviting its chairman Simon O’Brien for a quiet coffee in Garda Headquarters for “clear the air” talks.

He perhaps needed to spend a little more time in revealing that side of his personality and professional approach.