Judge Smithwick finds force where ‘loyalty is prized over honesty’

The Garda has less to fear from closer scrutiny than it thinks

 Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan  speaking about the Smithwick report yesterday. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan speaking about the Smithwick report yesterday. Photograph: Alan Betson

Thu, Dec 5, 2013, 01:00

The report of the Smithwick Tribunal could be dismissed as the shining of a light on a Garda culture that has long since passed.

However, Judge Smithwick’s belief that, when under close scrutiny, the Garda still circles the wagons means it applies to the current era as well as 1989 when the dreadful events his tribunal was established to investigate occurred.

He said the Garda remained a force where “loyalty is prized over honesty”. It was “disheartening and depressing” that such a culture prevailed.

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan has rejected this analysis, saying it is not an accurate depiction of the force he leads. The tribunal is not a court of law and so it is not burdened by having to prove facts beyond reasonable doubt. It was unable to find direct evidence of Garda collusion. All of these things weaken its findings.

Closing ranks
But the allegation that the Garda has a culture of closing ranks when questioned has been voiced by other bodies, though Judge Smithwick accepts it is a problem across Irish life and not confined to policing.

The Morris tribunal came to the same conclusion when it investigated Garda corruption in the Donegal division.

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission also made a broadly similar charge when it concluded a four-year investigation earlier this year into allegations that a Co Louth-based drug dealer, Kieran Boylan, had been permitted to continue selling drugs while acting as a Garda informer and that drug charges against him were dropped.

The commission bemoaned the fact that for years the Garda set about frustrating its investigation; insisting on asking the reasons why certain pieces of evidence were being sought and only complying with such requests at a very slow pace.

Callinan has insisted that all requests were met. The commission pushed Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to allow it unfettered access to the Garda’s Pulse computer database system to overcome any similar problems in the future. He refused.

All the while, nobody knows what happened in the Boylan case. The commission was unable to find any evidence to substantiate the allegations at the heart of the case and felt unable to publicly release a report on the investigation because it was so sensitive in nature.

It leaves allegations hanging in the air – neither confirmed nor disproven – against senior officers at the centre of the case, some of whom would be regarded as the brightest and most effective in tackling serious crime in the force.

The outcome also means that the commission, the most significant agency to spring from the Morris tribunal and the first in the history of the State to independently investigate gardaí, was unable to make any substantive findings after four years of investigation.

The penalty points debacle that rumbles on is not dissimilar. Serious allegations have been made against the force. And while many of the cases have been disproven by Garda investigation, left hanging in the air is the suggestion that the Garda as an institution acted badly – some say corruptly.

And because the Garda itself investigated the matter, there remains the perception that there was widespread wrongdoing; a damaging allegation never conclusively put to bed one way or the other.

The commission established to investigate the Garda does not appear to have the powers it needs and its relationship with Garda headquarters is fractured.

The result is a body whose progress on investigations can be controlled by the Garda holding the upper hand on what information the commission gets access to. This needs to be addressed.

The inclusion of the Garda under the Freedom of Information Act would be another positive. The organisation is made up almost exclusively of dedicated and honest members, with just a tiny percentage of corrupt colleagues.

It has less to fear from closer scrutiny than it thinks.

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