Garda oversight system has become downgraded under Alan Shatter
Row over GSOC bugging is part of a wider rot that Minister needs to address
Former London Met officer Simon O’Brien was appointed chairman of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission in 2011. Photograph: Eric Luke
The report compiled for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) by a UK firm specialising in counter-surveillance quite clearly contained enough information for the commission to believe it had been bugged.
But unable to confirm the strong suspicions flagged by the UK security company, the GSOC decided to keep the findings to itself.
The tailspin it has been in since the first report on the matter appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend suggests that decision late last year was a wise one.
Subsequently pulling the Garda into the controversy was unfair to the force, not to mention baffling.
However, the fact it felt unable to even informally flag its bugging suspicions to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter or Garda headquarters last year suggests the agency feels isolated and trusts neither the Garda nor Government.
The commission had a difficult birth in 2007, created after the Morris tribunal into Garda corruption in the Donegal division recommended its establishment.
The current bugging confusion aside, Shatter has done no favours to the GSOC. Any time he could have made it stronger, he has weakened it.
It was originally chaired by the later Mr Justice Kevin Haugh. The appointment of a member of the judiciary created the impression that the office was being treated seriously by the Government and its independent status valued.
In 2011 former London Met officer Simon O’Brien was appointed as chair.
One source who advised the Government on the establishment of the watchdog told The Irish Times at the time the decision against appointing another member of the judiciary devalued the GSOC.
Last year the commission complained that the pace and thoroughness of its investigations were being hampered by not having unfettered access to the Garda’s computerised Pulse database. It must instead access it under the supervision of Garda members.
It told Shatter if the integrity and independence of its work was to be safeguarded, and if it were to be sure the force was not holding back information and evidence, it needed to cut out the Garda middleman.
Shatter declined that request. Yet in recent weeks he has made it clear the GSOC would have unfettered access to Pulse when it investigated the penalty points debacle.
He accepts that for a thorough penalty points investigation, the GSOC must not be impeded. But he is unwilling to trust the watchdog in the long term.
The real trouble for Shatter is that other key areas of Garda oversight introduced in the wake of the Morris tribunal are also floundering.
The Garda Inspectorate, established to recommend reforms and oversee their implementation, has almost completely disappeared from public view.
In the 7½ years it has been in operation, it has produced only nine reports; just three since April 2009.
Shatter conceded the Office of the Confidential Recipient, also established post-Morris, was not working.
The one-person, part-time post was created as a point of contact for gardaí who wanted to blow the whistle on corruption. The intention was that gardaí could approach the office holder and pass on information for investigation without their identities ever becoming known.
Shatter said last week when a matter was reported and investigated, the process was still open to question. However, he perhaps only has himself to blame, having done nothing to make the office more workable since becoming Minister.
He appointed the incumbent, Oliver J Connolly.
Garda headquarters each year compiles a report for the Minister on the workings of the Office of the Confidential Recipient, a report Shatter has never published.
That secrecy means serving gardaí have no idea how often the office is used or how thoroughly it investigates allegations brought to it.
There is a danger the reforms ushered in after the Morris tribunal are now going the same way and that that lengthy, expensive and painful process will become squandered.