Party politics could prove a hindrance in determining what actually happened
GSOC fallout leads to game of political brinkmanship
Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter with Commissioner Martin Callinan. A lot rests on the two men’s response to the crisis. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
All of the main political parties have a lot to gain or lose in the long term over their handling of the Garda controversy even if the public does not appear to be very engaged with the issue at present.
So far Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and his Fine Gael colleagues have broadly defended the Garda Síochána while conceding that some reform is needed. Traditionally the party of law and order, going back to the early years of the state, the natural instinct of Fine Gael TDs is to side with the Garda. This is particularly so when the force is being attacked by Sinn Féin, who still refuse to condemn the murder of Garda Jerry McCabe in Co Limerick in 1996.
The political danger facing Mr Shatter and his colleagues is the charge that they have not properly protected whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, who has made serious allegations about the way the Garda have operated.
Mr Shatter has vehemently denied that this is the case and a review by both the Department of the Taoiseach and his own Department of Justice is currently underway to establish the precise sequence of events and the Minister’s role in the affair.
There have been widespread calls for an independent review of some sort and it is difficult to see how the Government can resist the pressure for this course of action as nothing else will put the matter to rest.
The Labour Party, which is more inclined than Fine Gael to focus on the human rights side of the argument, has a vested interest in ensuring that an independent examination takes place. Otherwise allegations of a cover-up will persist.
While Fine Gael may instinctively be on the side of the Garda, Fianna Fáil has actually had a much closer relationship with the force over the past half century simply because the party has been in power for so much of that time. The party controlled the promotions structure within the Garda and has long had a good working relationship with the Garda Representative Association.
That is what has made the stance adopted by the party and its leader Micheál Martin in the current controversy so courageous, or cynical depending on the perspective. At one level he has risked the friendly relations between his party and the Garda but at another he stands to gain a significant political victory if he demonstrates that Mr Shatter failed in his duty to protect a whistleblower and to stand by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).
Since Mr Martin presented Sgt McCabe’s file to the Taoiseach in a blaze of publicity last week it has emerged that most of the important allegations go back to 2008 and were investigated internally by the Garda and by GSOC long before Mr Shatter was Minister for Justice.
One of the questions that an inquiry will now have to answer is whether those allegations were raised at a political level with the Government of which Mr Martin was a member in 2008.
Sinn Féin and the smaller parties and Independents who have made claims against the Garda and the way the Minister has handled the whistleblower’s allegations do not stand to lose as much as the bigger parties over their handling of the issue simply because their stance has surprised no one.
However, if their claims of collusion between the Garda and the Government in covering up wrongdoing are proved to be correct they will gain credibility and potential support as a result.
One important development from the controversy that all sides are now agreed on is the need to strengthen the ability of GSOC to deal with serious problems that arise within the Garda Síochána.
Unfortunately GSOC has not had the legal authority to insist on disciplinary procedures when complaints of serious incompetence in the handling of a number of cases by the Garda were upheld.
The failure of the Garda authorities to act on their own initiative is one of the strong arguments for giving GSOC extra powers when the Garda Síochána Act 2005 is reviewed in the near future by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice.
One way or another there is a need for a serious public debate about the kind of police force that the country requires but there are signs that the public is confused about the issues at stake.
Going by the most recent opinion polls it would appear that the voters have not been swayed in the least by the controversy and that is something the politicians need to take on board.
The controversy has dragged on for so long there is a real danger that political considerations will prove more of a hindrance than a help in getting to the bottom of all that has happened, so the sooner some form of independent inquiry is established the better.