GSOC committee appearance may impact pressure for public inquiry

Meeting could increase clarity or add to sense of confusion on bugging affair

The Garda Ombudsman office at Abbey Street Upper in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

The Garda Ombudsman office at Abbey Street Upper in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Wed, Feb 12, 2014, 14:12

At issue right now is whether the Garda Ombudsman’s appearance before an Oireachtas committee this afternoon casts light on what exactly went on in the bugging affair or simply adds to the sense of confusion and ambiguity. This may well have a major bearing on whether pressure builds for a public inquiry, something the Government is reluctant to call.

Difficult as it is to predict how the little-known Committee on Public Oversight will conduct the hearing, it is clear enough that two discrete questions are in play. First is the exact sequence of events that led the Ombudsman chairman Simon O’Brien and his colleagues to seek a security sweep of its premises and the precise findings that emerged from the exercise. Second is the Ombudsman’s actual response to the findings.

Whatever its motivation, it is fair to say that the Ombudsman’s decision not to inform the Government has soured its relations with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.The same is true of the Ombudsman’s already difficult dealings with the Garda, made much worse by the Ombudman’s public declaration that there “no evidence of Garda misconduct”. This was received by Garda commissioner Martin Callinan as an implicit and wholly improper slur on the force, although the Ombudsman said its motivation was to prevent finger-pointing in the direction of the Garda.

The Ombudsman has conceded a mistake in respect of its failure to notify Government, insists its inaction was “in good faith” and expressed regret. The damage is done on that front and Mr O’Brien’s appearance in Leinster House today is unlikely to undo it.

All of this has obscured the more fundamental question as whether the Ombudsman was put under surveillance at all and, if so, by whom and why. This is the true import of today’s hearing. The suggestion of any surveillance being carried is as disturbing as it is sinister, though we already know that no “definitive” proof of bugging was found.

Still, an appearance last night on RTÉ television by Ombudsman commissioner Kieran Fitzgerald provided fresh grounds for concern. The possibility of a benign explanation for some of the infamous “anomalies” uncovered was “remote to zero” , he said. What exactly is meant by that and what are the implications?

We can expect questioning as to the precise nature of the anomalies and whether they are seen as high-grade indicators of likely surveillance by professionals or findings simply that open up that possibility .

There may be questions too as to whether the anomalies tally in any way with any suspicions within the Ombudsman’s office that it was under surveillance. But whether the Ombudsman chooses to disclose any suspicions it had is another matter. Given the sensitive nature of its work, it may think the better giving ventilation in a public forum to an unproven hunch.

Mr Fitzgerald made a point last night of saying the Ombudsman will not be releasing the report compiled by the British consultancy which carried out the security checks.

However, it may that the committee asks for the relevant findings to be read into the record. That could be revealing, even in the absence of 100 per cent certainty. If the highly sophisticated nature of modern surveillance is such that it impossible to detect fully,the telltale signs are still likely to be apparent to experts. Was that the case here?

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