Shatter’s intervention amplifies questions over capacity of PAC inquiry

Decision for Garda Ombudsman investigation came only in the face of turmoil

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter: “The reality is that there are legal and practical constraints on the ability of the PAC to determine the veracity of claims made in relation to individual penalty point cases.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter: “The reality is that there are legal and practical constraints on the ability of the PAC to determine the veracity of claims made in relation to individual penalty point cases.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tue, Jan 28, 2014, 01:00

After months of controversy over the penalty points affair, Alan Shatter’s call for a Garda Ombudsman investigation has seized the political initiative from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The committee’s next move is unclear, but the intervention by the Minister for Justice serves to amplify questions over the committee’s capacity to conduct an adequate inquiry into the matter.

More significant still is the Minister’s move to empower the ombudsman to investigate complaints made directly to it by gardaí. While the exact scope of these powers remains to be seen, the objective is to remove an obstacle in the way of independent investigation into matters such as the penalty points affair.

If that seems like an obvious move, it begs the question as to why it did not happen sooner. The Garda authorities insist their own inquiries have found there was no wrongdoing. However, questions about the credibility of gardaí investigating gardaí persist.

It was, of course, open to the Minister to send in the Ombudsman at an earlier date. This he signally did not do. His intervention came only in the face of turmoil within the committee over breaches of its legal remit and the prospect of court action by the Garda Commissioner against the committee hearing evidence next Thursday from a serving Garda sergeant.

Shatter took a swipe last evening at the committee and some of its more outspoken members. “The reality is that there are legal and practical constraints on the ability of the PAC to determine the veracity of claims made in relation to individual penalty point cases,” he said.

“Serious allegations have been made against many unnamed members of An Garda Síochána which it seems some members of the committee wish to promulgate publicly without those against whom allegations have been made being in a position to examine the allegations or defend their reputations.

“The rolling nature of the allegations is such that the Garda Commissioner, prior to his appearance last week before the committee, was given no reasonable time to conduct a detailed examination of new allegations made.”

The Minister said this could lead to a situation in which the committee was used as a platform for unsubstantiated assertions on which the committee would not be able to come to a reliable conclusion. Such a situation could be very damaging to individual gardaí and private citizens, he added.

Whatever the actual merit of the claims made by the two Garda whistleblowers, Shatter’s intervention highlights concern that the committee cannot really be the correct forum to investigate allegations of the abuse of Garda powers through the scrapping of penalty points.

True enough, committee members argue that their examination centres on a loss of State revenue resulting from the cancellation of fines and that this follows on from work already undertaken by the Comptroller & Auditor General. In one line of argument, there would be nothing improper in a PAC hearing which simply confines itself to that narrow issue.

But that is not the full picture. If such work raises claims about the alleged abuse of police powers, questions might well be asked as to the adequacy of an examination which does not delve into that matter. This question is either relevant to the inquiry or it is not. If it is, then it should be examined fully. Whether the committee can do that properly must be in doubt.

This helps explain some of the anxiety within the committee itself. Legal advice from its own expert suggests it risks straying beyond its formal remit, leading to doubt as to whether it could withstand a court challenge from the Garda Commissioner. Could the committee reasonably expect to persuade a judge to allow it to hear evidence of alleged Garda wrongdoing from a serving member of the force if the committee’s legal adviser warns of mission creep beyond its own powers?

The immediate question now is whether the committee stands back from its inquiry to facilitate an “unhindered” investigation by the ombudsman.

Whatever the ombudsman eventually concludes, the debacle points to serious deficiencies in the reforms introduced after the Morris tribunal.

The overwhelming sense remains that the penalty points question should have gone to the ombudsman much sooner.

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