Garda and Defence Forces must retain separate roles
Independence of the two security agencies has served the State well in the past
Whatever about terrorism, it may be asked if it is appropriate for the Defence Forces to see themselves developing a “critical capability” in intelligence relating to drugs or organised crime. It might have been thought that these areas are more logically the preserve of the civil police, operating under the many checks and balances of the criminal justice system. Perhaps we may gain some insight into official thinking if we bear in mind that the Criminal Justice Surveillance Act (2009) authorises not just the Garda but also the Defence Forces to bug private conversations and to break into premises to plant monitoring devices. We do not know if they actually do so.
There are obvious advantages in having the police, the military and indeed other enforcement agencies work in close collaboration. Indeed, given the reality of the security threats adumbrated in the Green Paper, it is an imperative. Countering seaborne drug smuggling, for example, requires Naval Service support for the police.
But there are also dangers. Keeping a healthy distance between the Garda’s security sections and the military’s intelligence branch has served this State well in the past. In 1970, when Military Intelligence (G2) became embroiled in the plan to import arms for the IRA under the cover of a government-approved operation, it was the Special Branch that foiled the plot. And when rogue gardaí were subverted, it was picked up on at least one occasion by G2.
It would not be healthy for our democracy to allow some convergence of roles, however tentative and however well-intentioned, between the Garda and the Defence Forces.
Without questioning Alan Shatter’s integrity or ability, it is probably not a good idea either to have one individual hold the two ministries of Defence and Justice. It has not happened before that both Garda and military answer to a single minister and that all security intelligence, criminal and otherwise, should land ultimately on one desk.
It is a model that may be appropriate, indeed necessary, for a country facing a particular crisis but it is potentially a dangerous precedent to set for the future. Not all of our ministers for justice have been of unimpeachable integrity and not all of our ministers for defence have been models of prudence. It is better to keep the roles separate.
The Department of Defence says that the White Paper will be published in 2014. Perhaps in the interim Alan Shatter might consider putting out another Green Paper, this time on criminal justice and policing. These are topics no less vital than defence and, indeed, impinge more immediately and more frequently on the daily lives of the population. No such exercise has ever been undertaken in respect of the national police service. If the people are to be consulted about their military defence, should they not also be entitled to have their say on how their policing services operate?
Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times