State lost control to private company in GSOC affair

Analysis: Inquiry welcomed as first step in restoring public confidence in police accountability

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s offices: the commission is just one of several State agents damaged by the surveillance affair. Photograph: Collins

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s offices: the commission is just one of several State agents damaged by the surveillance affair. Photograph: Collins


There has been a broad welcome for the announcement that an independent inquiry is to be established into the bugging scandal surrounding the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties was among a wide range of groups to speak in support of the development, describing it as “a necessary first step to restoring public trust in our police accountability mechanisms”.

The Garda watchdog body will now emerge from the examination process either discredited or vindicated in its suspicions of bugging. And if it is to be the former, then reform of the organisation will be needed. Resignations may follow.

If bugging is proven, that fact may have major ramifications for those parties responsible, if they are ever identified.

At present, not even the GSOC itself can be sure whether it was actually bugged, despite British security company Verrimus conducting sweeps at the commission’s offices last year and reporting its findings.

The closest the GSOC has come to being definitive was in statements by its chairman Simon O’Brien and one of its three commissioners Kieran Fitzgerald that there was a “remote to zero” chance of anomalies found on O’Brien’s office speaker phone being anything but evidence of bugging.

Shouting down
The approach by Government, especially Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, has been to shout down the chorus of (mostly) reasonable voices seeking an independent inquiry.

As early as last Tuesday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was greeted with hoots of laughter in the Dáil when he expressed the hope that “we could all move on”.

When asked whether there should be an independent inquiry into the growing mess, Shatter said last Thursday that the GSOC had made its own inquiries and found no matters arising.

“My question is: what is to be inquired into?” Shatter said. “It suggests that we don’t have confidence in GSOC if there is a need for someone else to inquire into GSOC’s own inquiry.”

What must be said about the suspected bugging at the GSOC offices is that there is no evidence of any description, from any quarter, that the Garda or rogue members of the force placed the ombudsman under surveillance.

However, fixed squarely in the debate since is the narrative that the GSOC was bugged and that gardaí were somehow involved.

If that damaging allegation was not enough to persuade Shatter that an independent inquiry was needed to, at the very least, test the veracity of the findings of Verrimus, then the words from the mouth of the commission chairman should have been.

O’Brien told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions last Wednesday: “GSOC was operating at the limits of its technical knowledge and on information only from security professionals.”

The fact remains that the only investigative work to date aimed at establishing whether or not bugging took place has been carried out by a private security company.

This is despite the damaging impact of the affair on a range of agents of the State, including the GSOC, the Garda, the Department of Justice, Shatter and the Government itself.

At least the U-turn by Shatter, in signalling that an independent inquiry will now take place, affords the State the opportunity to regain the control it should never have lost to a private company in whose hands the GSOC put itself.

Pressing need
The need is now pressing for the retired judge who will head the new inquiry to be given access to specialists in bugging techniques to objectively and expertly review the work of Verrimus.

Retired Irish Army personnel skilled in surveillance would perhaps be seen as more neutral than retired Garda technical experts.

They might in the first instance put order on the tsunami of misinformation and rumour that has been facilitated by Government dithering in clouding the truth of what surveillance took place, or did not take place, in the GSOC’s Dublin offices last year.