The primacy of parliament

Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 01:01

A confrontation has arisen between Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee over its right to conduct hearings into allegations of administrative abuse and possible corruption. It is a sensitive and complicated matter, given the place of the Garda Síochána within society; Mr Callinan’s responsibility for internal discipline; a need to ensure equality before the law and the enhancement of public accountability. The authority of parliament should, however, take precedence.

That authority brings balancing responsibilities. In the past, Oireachtas committees exceeded their remit in the conduct of investigations. Members displayed political bias or engaged in cheap, publicity-grabbing behaviour. Recently, reforming legislation enhanced committee powers and helped to bring greater maturity and influence.

Old habits die hard, however, and some TDs have been accused of behaving like “ambulance chasers”. Their legal adviser has criticised such conduct. Mr Callinan has objected to the hearing of evidence from two garda whistle-blowers on the grounds that it would undermine his authority and encourage other gardaí to ventilate grievances in this fashion. His determination to resist such a development was reflected in a threat to take legal action against the committee.

The Garda Commissioner is in a hard place, presiding over a disgruntled, even rebellious, police force because of reduced allowances and working conditions. Additional pressures have arisen from investigations initiated by the Garda Ombudsman Commission and complaints of inadequate co-operation on disciplinary matters.

The commissioner has insisted there is no question of “circling the wagons” in response to allegations concerning the improper extinguishing of penalty points and fines. He also declared that whistle-blowing gardaí would not be harassed or intimidated. Reality does not, however, accord with his evidence. Denial was the initial response to allegations that discretionary powers had been abused. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter appeared more concerned by the publication of names than by the substantive issue. But official confirmation that senior gardaí had been too liberal in responding to public requests or had breached established procedures followed. So also did changes in regulations.

The prospect of such abuse recurring – there was no evidence of corrupt payments – is vanishingly small. But official treatment of whistle-blowers is a live issue. The Commissioner indicated the actions of gardaí at the heart of this controversy may attract disciplinary action. Such a response would shake public confidence in the reforms put in place since the findings of the Morris tribunal.