Garda Ombudsman needs enhanced powers

Thu, Feb 20, 2014, 01:00

Ten days of damaging controversy have shown that legislative arrangements designed to deliver effective oversight and accountability of the Garda Síochána are ineffective. That failure has affected public confidence in the Garda Síochána, in the Garda Ombudsman Commission and in Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. To remedy the situation, the Government should give the GSOC enhanced powers of oversight and investigation at the highest level, such as exist in Northern Ireland.

There are indications the Government is, somewhat reluctantly, moving in that direction. Separately, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has made grave allegations that must be addressed, and promptly.

The appointment of retired High Court judge John Cooke to review the reported bugging of the offices of the GSOC became necessary because of public disquiet over differing interpretations of what transpired from Mr Shatter and GSOC members. A potentially more significant development, however, has been a Government request to the Oireachtas justice and defence committee to examine whether GSOC powers should be strengthened.

The present controversy has its roots in a failure of nerve by a previous minister. Even as that government advocated the establishment of an independent police authority and a powerful ombudsman to oversee RUC actions in Northern Ireland, he was reluctant to act at home. Investigations by the Morris tribunal into Garda wrongdoing changed that. But the ensuing legislation was extremely limited. It excluded any actions or decisions by the Garda Commissioner from its remit and tightly circumscribed its investigative powers. .

Since then, successive ministers have sided with the Garda Commissioner on issues of accountability and transparency, rather than with the ombudsman commission. Mr Shatter is no exception. That is not surprising in view of the politicised nature of the police force and the control exercised by the Department of Justice. The situation will have to change if public confidence in equality before the law and official accountability is to be maintained.

Former ombudsman in Northern Ireland Nuala O’Loan believes that, to become an effective oversight body, the GSOC should be strengthened. She recalled her suspicion that the RUC special branch and chief constable were operating an information system they had not disclosed to her investigators and her ability to send in computer experts to detect it. That could not happen here under existing arrangements.

The judge will review reports into potential surveillance of GSOC offices and other related issues. His findings will be of considerable importance. But, as Mr Shatter accepted yesterday: “It is my job to ensure that GSOC can do its job properly.” He knows what is required.

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