If institutional Ireland were a stick of rock, the words ‘loyalty is prized above honesty’ would run through it. Irish authorities always choose loyalty
Awkward truths: former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, who resigned on Tuesday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Awkward truths: protesters outside Government Buildings on Thursday, calling for the resignation of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Awkward truths: Sgt Maurice McCabe on his way to a Public Accounts Committee meeting at Leinster House in January. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Camera 19 looked away so that it could see no evil. Around 2.30am on January 29th, 2010, Anthony Holness was walking up New Street in Waterford after a feed of pints when he was caught short. He stopped to urinate in a doorway. He was caught in the act by Garda Daniel Hickey, who was on patrol with a student garda. He resisted arrest and was abusive to the gardaí.
Sgt Martha McEnery came to help her colleagues after Hickey radioed for assistance. Holness was blinded with pepper spray, but then Hickey punched and kicked him. McEnery, by her own account, “flicked my right hand a number of times at the back of his neck”.
These things shouldn’t happen, but they do. And in this case the Irish system dealt reasonably well with a sordid little incident. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission investigated. Hickey and McEnery were tried and found guilty of assault. But there was another aspect of this rather banal event that makes it emblematic of the less flattering side of Irish official culture: the movement of camera 19.
While Holness was being arrested, a CCTV camera, operated by Garda John Burke in the control room of Waterford station, was trained directly on what was happening.
When Hickey was beating Holness, the camera swung away for a few crucial seconds. The same thing happened when McEnery got involved. Burke later claimed that he “may have accidentally brushed against” the joystick that controlled the camera at these crucial moments. The jury didn’t believe him: Burke was found guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
Yet Burke could have claimed both precedent and wider sanction for “brushing against” the joystick of camera 19 so that it did not see what ought not to be seen. Camera 19, indeed, deserves a place in the history of iconic Irish objects, along with St Patrick’s shamrock and the Brian Boru harp. The unofficial anthem of America’s Old South, Dixie , swells on the line “Look away! Look away!” It should be spliced into Amhrán na bhFiann .
Haunting Irish politics
As it happens, the squalid event on New Street four years ago returned to haunt Irish politics this week. It was in its report on the Waterford case that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission noted that telephone calls were made between some of the gardaí involved shortly after the arrest of Anthony Holness. “These calls,” it noted in a public report posted on its website last June, “were recorded on the Garda Síochána recording system and a recording was provided to GSOC.”
The prosecution had tried to use some of these calls as evidence, but they could not be admitted, because they were illegal. Perhaps, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission suggested, the Garda commissioner “may wish to re-evaluate his practice regarding the recording of such calls”.
Rather aptly, the official response was to do a camera 19: turning away from the unfortunate evidence until other events made it impossible to do so any longer. As Alan Shatter explained this week, rather astonishingly, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission had not “submitted” its report to him, merely issued it for everyone to read, so his CCTV didn’t pick it up.
The Waterford incident tells us some important things about Irish culture. One of them is that it is perfectly possible for Irish people to behave decently and morally. It is not easy, especially in a police force that relies on collective morale, to tell the truth about bad things your colleagues are up to.
But it should be noted that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission described as exemplary the behaviour of many gardaí in Waterford who were questioned about what they saw and heard. Most of them co-operated with the investigation and told the truth. There may be relatively few Maurice McCabes and John Wilsons out there, willing to destroy their own careers to highlight abuses, but most gardaí, like most priests, most bank officials, most politicians and most ordinary members of any system that becomes corrupted, are decent people who want to do the right thing.