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.

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