Garda authorities would be foolish to take high standing of force for granted

Opinion: Just when the controversy appeared to be dying down, the Minister raised the temperature again

Sun, Feb 16, 2014, 00:01

The worrying mystery of whether the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) was or was not under surveillance has been obscured by the way Government and Opposition leaders have turned the issue into a political football.

The result has been total confusion about why the GSOC was worried about potential surveillance and in particular whether it also had grounds for suspicion that the Garda might have been involved.

Instead of trying to get to the heart of the matter the Government focused on the fact that Minister for Justice Alan Shatter had not been informed of the bugging sweep.

Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin seized on it as an opportunity to attack the Minister.

In contrast with the way their political masters behaved, the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight showed a far greater maturity and a genuine desire to get to the truth when it interviewed the three GSOC members on Wednesday.

Committee chairman Sinn Féin TD Padraig McLoughlin ran the hearing in an eve-handed and decisive fashion, and the members generally adhered to his admonition to ask questions rather than making speeches.

It was actually a demonstration of how well Oireachtas committees can work when run by a chairman with the authority and skill who ensures that TDs and Senators do not compete with each other in populist posturing.

At the end of the committee hearing the conundrum still remained whether the GSOC had been under surveillance, but at least its chairman, Simon O’Brien, was given the opportunity to set out his position, including his uncertainties, in a calm and unthreatening atmosphere.

Just when the controversy appeared to be dying down Shatter raised the temperature again when he went on television the following evening to say that O’Brien had given confused and contradictory information to the committee.

In fact the minor contradictions in O’Brien’s evidence, as indeed the different views expressed on the controversy by a range of individuals all week, turn on whether people wished to regard the glass as half empty or half full.

It was clear from O’Brien’s evidence that the GSOC had suspicions that it was under surveillance. It was also clear that the security experts brought in to check the offices had found no definitive proof that this was the case but believed that their checks suggested something untoward had happened.

One Government politician put the position in a nutshell. “Simon O’Brien is saying that GSOC smelled a rat but couldn’t prove it, while Alan Shatter seems to be saying that because GSOC couldn’t prove there was no rat.”

The Minister moved to calm things down yesterday by expressing full support for the GSOC having appeared reluctant to endorse O’Brien’s position in his television interview.

The last thing the Government, the GSOC or the Garda need at this stage is for O’Brien to resign. At the committee hearing he came across as a decent, honest man trying to do a difficult job in trying circumstances.

Unlike many witnesses who appeared before Oireachtas committees or tribunals in this country, he accepted that he had made mistakes in his handling of the bugging controversy that had caused difficulties for Shatter and for Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

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