Vacancy at head of Garda hindering recovery in oversight systems

Action commissioner O’Sullivan keen to present interim tenure as new broom rather than continuation of old regime

Acting Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan: has her eyes fixed on securing the job on a permanent footing. Photograph:   Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Acting Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan: has her eyes fixed on securing the job on a permanent footing. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Fri, Jul 4, 2014, 01:02

Faced with a barrage of questions on recent scandals, the chairman of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, Simon O’Brien was keen to focus on the future. At the launch yesterday of the Garda watchdog’s annual report for 2013, O’Brien said it was futile to continue poring over the events of recent months, during which the spectre of the Garda spying on his staff was raised.

A commission of investigation later and some of the allegations have been left lingering in the air. Mr Justice John Cooke, who carried out the inquiry, was unable to completely rule out the possibility that some form of surveillance had taken place by unidentified parties.

However, there emerged some detail yesterday that could pass for a new beginning. O’Brien said that while previously only three in 10 requests for information and evidence made by the GSOC of the Garda were complied with in the time frame stipulated under law, that was now up to 80 per cent.

He suggested that under the acting Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, the first green shoots of an easier relationship marked by increased co-operation were beginning to emerge.

Just 12 months ago, the GSOC alleged the Garda’s deliberate efforts to frustrate and delay its investigation into allegations of collusion between a convicted drug dealer and Garda members had rendered the investigation impossible.

The then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan stood his ground, saying any information requested had been surrendered. He added that any delay that had arisen had come about only because the force wanted to act responsibly with what was highly sensitive information about informers that would put their lives at risk if it fell into the wrong hands.

It was around the time that the GSOC was preparing to make its remarks criticising the non-co-operation from the force that its distrust of the Garda grew to such an extent it suspected it may be under surveillance. It eventually had a sweep of its offices carried out.

The emergence in the media of the results of that sweep created the bugging scandal that the commission is now so desperate to recover from. The apparent increased willingness of the Garda to co-operate with the GSOC in a more timely fashion is attributable to a number of factors.

Firstly, O’Sullivan has her eyes fixed on securing the job on a permanent footing and is clearly anxious to present her interim tenure as a new broom rather than the seamless continuation of the old regime. Before Callinan’s departure, she was his deputy commissioner, his second in command.

Secondly, with the Government having bestowed additional powers on the commission, including unfettered access to the Garda’s Pulse computer database, the power of the Garda to frustrate its watchdog is waning. It will be weakened further when other planned reforms come into effect. These include extending the GSOC’s remit to investigating the Garda commissioner and using bugging equipment against gardaí it is investigating when warranted.

The Ombudsman Commission will also soon be able to conduct a wider range of inquiries of its own volition rather than needing ministerial permission to examine Garda procedures and policies.

Legislative changes aside, though, it is the strength and ease of personal relationships between those at the head of the GSOC and the Garda that can deliver a sea change in the troubled relationship between the two bodies.

However, while the Garda force is led by an acting commissioner, that progress is in limbo. The fact that the Government has not decided the process by which the next permanent commissioner will be selected is a concern in that regard, especially since Callinan is gone from office 3½ months.