Problem with Cooke report is it has something for everyone
Analysis: report may further undermine relations between the Garda and its watchdog
There is little in the Cooke report that will force either the Garda Ombudsman and the gardaí to change their relationship.
Within hours of the publication of the Cooke report last night, both the Garda and Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) were claiming vindication.
Garda Headquarters pointed to the conclusion by the retired judge that “the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance...took place and much less that it was carried out by members of the Garda Siochana”.
GSOC has been keen to promote those sections of the report that concede that one of the three security anomalies - the technical signs of possible bugging – remains unexplained.
And it has pointed out that in more general terms Judge John Cooke found the “world of covert surveillance and counter surveillance techniques, it is ultimately extremely difficult to determine with complete certainty whether unexplained anomalies of the kinds identified in this instance were or were not attributable to unlawful intrusion”.
GSOC said its own investigation reached the same conclusion and that its finding that its databases were never breached mirrors the findings of the retired judge.
So there is something for everyone in the Cooke report.
And therein lays the problem.
Instead of clear and definite findings that would force the Garda or GSOC to admit they got it wrong, and leaving them no option but to reform as a result of this process, there is enough here to sustain the positions of both sides, should they wish to do so.
The fact we are dealing with “sides” when it comes to Garda oversight has been clear for a long time.
The establishment of GSOC and other Garda oversight mechanisms almost 10 years ago in the wake of the publication of the first reports of the Morris Tribunal into corruption in the Donegal division was resisted from the outset by many in the force.
That sentiment was fed by a subsequent chain of events.
Gardaí were furious with GSOC in its very early days when it delayed reading a complaint from the family of one of two men shot dead by gardaí in a botched armed robbery in Lusk, north Co Dublin.
As a result of the delay, the Ombudsman’s officers arrived late at the inquest seeking to have it halted just before its conclusion after days of evidence.
This was despite the highly-sensitive nature of the process and the fact an unprecedented security operation was in place around the inquest hearings because the dead men were members of an organised crime gang involved in a bitter feud with their rivals.
When a garda took his own life in a Garda station, GSOC officers turned up and closed it off as a crime scene, leading to very high emotions and some of the dead man’s colleagues needing to be physically restrained.
The Garda Representative Association has complained at various times at the tactics used by GSOC, accusing it of being heavy-handed and threatening towards its members during investigations.
The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors recently called for the three-member commission at the head of GSOC to step aside because, they claimed, they were so badly undermined by the detail of the bugging controversy when it first emerged in February.
For its part, GSOC has expressed frustration at the Garda culture it has come up against.
Last year it castigated the force for, it claimed, deliberately delaying and frustrating its four-year probe into allegations that a Dundalk drug dealer was permitted to continue dealing drugs while acting as Garda informer and also had serious drug dealing charges against him dropped.
In his report into the surveillance controversy, Judge Cooke clearly said the general levels of frustration and distrust that characterised the Garda-GSOC relationship heavily influenced GSOC’s decision to launch a major investigation when anomalies suggesting it may have been bugged were presented to it.
At present the systems of Garda oversight provided for by the Garda Siochana Act 2005 are under review and plans are afoot to introduce a new Garda authority.
However, what will define the next stage in Garda- GSOC relations and levels of co-operation going forward is how well the personalities at the top of both organisations gel, and especially the example set by the Garda Commissioner to the rest of the force.
That post is currently vacant and is being filled on an interim basis by Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan.
The Government needs to act as quickly as possible to fill that post, either with O’Sullivan or another candidate, in order that the job of genuinely working on a new chapter with GSOC can get underway in the Garda under a permanent leader.
And in the open competition to fill the post, special weighting such be attached to any plans the candidates have to improve GSOC-Garda relations in order that the right person is found to once and for all establish the trust currently absent from the working relationship.