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


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.

He said that in the light of the way the controversy had developed he had considered resigning.

His main mistake was not informing the Minister of the surveillance report but O’Brien gave compelling reasons for why he made that decision.

He rightly said that if he had reported the matter at the time the controversy that we have seen over the past week would have developed at an earlier stage.

O’Brien’s handling of the affair does not remotely warrant his resignation, particularly as such an outcome would jeopardise the necessary work carried out by the GSOC and would in the long term damage the credibility of the Garda.

The entire episode could even have a positive outcome if it enables the GSOC and the Garda to start again and put their relationship on a professional footing.

Callinan and the GSOC chairman met over a coffee on Tuesday in an attempt to clear up some of the misunderstandings that had developed, and hopefully that will lead to better relations in the future.

One of the clichés trotted out by various participants in the events of the past week is that the Garda is held in very high esteem by the Irish public but it actually happens to be true.

An Ipsos MRBI poll conducted for The Irish Times two years ago measured public trust in a range of Irish institutions. Some 80 per cent of respondents said they had trust in the Garda, with just 19 per cent saying they did not trust the force.

Trust rating
Gardaí were second only to doctors, who had a 90 per cent trust rating, but they were ahead of judges who had a rating of 71 per cent, civil servants who were on 60 per cent, and well ahead of journalists who were trusted by 42 per cent of people.

Bottom of the pile were Irish politicians who were trusted by just 17 per cent.

The high esteem in which gardaí are held probably explains why the controversy that has raged in the political and media worlds appears to have had little impact on the wider public. However, the Garda authorities would be foolish to take that high standing for granted.

The GSOC was set up following scandals involving gardaí in Donegal to ensure the future credibility of the force.

If a proper working relationship cannot be established with its statutory watchdog the biggest loser in the long run will be the Garda.

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