Point-scoring is obscuring the real issues in the Shatter row

Opinion: In the interests of the Garda itself some form of independent inquiry is now needed

Sun, Feb 23, 2014, 00:01

The political storm raging around Minister for Justice Alan Shatter for almost two weeks has widened over the past few days to entangle Taoiseach Enda Kenny and other Ministers. A number of attempts to bring the controversy to an end have so far failed, and it has now assumed dangerous proportions for the Coalition.

With the scent of political blood in the water, the Opposition is circling Shatter in the hope of inflicting a mortal wound that could do lasting damage to the Government.

Kenny rallied to his beleaguered Minister’s defence yesterday but the controversy won’t go away easily.

The most serious issue to emerge is how whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe’s claims were handled, and it will take more than an internal review by the Department of Justice to put the issue to rest.

Those claims which relate to the actions of some gardaí in Bailieborough, Co Cavan, a few years ago are potentially far more serious than the suspicions of bugging at the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) offices.

The speed with which the Taoiseach responded when Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin presented him with the dossier containing material from Sgt McCabe indicates just how serious the matter is. Kenny reacted quickly and instigated the internal review of how the file was handled by the Minister for Justice and his officials.

This is unlikely to be nearly enough to allay concerns that the matter was not treated with the seriousness it deserved.

There are inevitable suspicions that the Garda and the department behaved in a manner similar to Catholic Church authorities when the initial claims of sexual abuse surfaced. It will be difficult to convince people that the desire to avoid a scandal that could damage vital institutions of the State did not take precedence over the requirement to get to the truth.

That is why an internal review will not be enough. In the interests of the Garda itself some form of independent inquiry is now necessary.

Given that the Government has already appointed retired High Court judge John Cooke to look into the alleged bugging of the GSOC it would also make sense to ask him to look into the manner in which the whistleblower allegations were handled.

Given what is already in the public domain it is hard to see how the judge will be able to come to a definitive conclusion about the GSOC bugging claims but it should be possible to establish precisely how the whistleblower’s claims about Garda misconduct were handled and whether the response was adequate.

Whether Cooke would be willing to take on this extra responsibility is something the Government should explore. If he was agreeable it would take new terms of reference and a significant extension of the current time frame of eight weeks for his review to be completed.

Cook will hardly feel encouraged to take on extra responsibility in the light of the attempt by some Independent TDs to label him in the Dáil as “a Fine Gael judge”. In fact Cooke demonstrated his complete political independence as chairman of the most recent constituency boundary commission which did the Taoiseach and Shatter no favours in the way it redrew their constituencies.

There are signs that in the long run the whole affair could produce some positive results. Writing in this newspaper yesterday, former GSOC commissioner,Conor Brady suggested that a proposed review of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality had the potential to bring about real and positive reform.

The poisonous relationship between the GSOC and the Garda is what prompted the bugging controversy in the first place, and change in the legislation to allow for a healthy level of supervision would be a real step forward.

If McCabe’s claims are properly examined, and are seen to be properly examined, that would be another step to providing for genuine reform in the Garda and for restoring public confidence which may have been damaged by the way the political debate developed.

The problem for everybody is that the longer the controversy goes on the more difficult it becomes to disentangle the really important issues at stake from the raucous point-scoring that routinely dominates so much political debate.

In this context it is worth quoting the words of French writer Paul Valéry: “Political conflicts distort and disturb the people’s sense of distinction between matters of importance and matters of urgency.”

The aphorism is cited in a wonderful new book Keynes in Dublin by Mark C Nolan, which examines the content and context of a famous lecture on national self-sufficiency delivered in Dublin in 1933 by one of the great 20th century figures.

Economic war
In the lecture, which was delivered at UCD on the eve of the economic war between this country and Britain, Keynes quoted Valéry and gently warned Eamon de Valera that it would be “most foolish recklessly to disrupt” the historic economic relations between the two countries.

However, Fianna Fáil pounced on another part of the Keynes speech in which he said he would find much to attract him in the outlook of the government as regards self-sufficiency to claim the great economist had endorsed de Valera’s economic policies. That misrepresentation was repeated by commentators and historians and became the accepted wisdom. Nolan has effectively debunked this interpretation in the book.

It is a salutary warning about the capacity of political controversy to distort the facts. Hopefully, when the mist has cleared from our current political debate, we will have a better and more accountable policing system.

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