Tough questions over Garda commissioner’s resignation remain

Opinion: A lost opportunity for Oireachtas justice committee

‘Was it pure coincidence that this political difficulty for the Taoiseach Enda Kenny was solved on the Tuesday morning by the commissioner’s resignation?’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

‘Was it pure coincidence that this political difficulty for the Taoiseach Enda Kenny was solved on the Tuesday morning by the commissioner’s resignation?’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 06:00

This week the Northern Ireland committee at Westminster held hearings into the process of how on-the-run republicans came to receive letters reassuring them they were not wanted by police for paramilitary crimes committed before the Belfast Agreement.

In a powerful display of how parliament should hold government to account, the Westminster committee heard dramatic testimony from some of those who were at the centre of policing at the time, countering the Northern Ireland Office’s slant about the errors that gave rise to the halting of the trial of John Downey for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing.

These Westminster committee hearings were held notwithstanding the fact that British prime minister David Cameron has separately ordered a judicially led inquiry into the immunity letters.

At about the same time as the Westminster committee was asserting itself, our own Oireachtas justice committee was ducking and diving trying to avoid what should be its central parliamentary function.

For weeks now our political system has been convulsed by significant issues in policing and justice, culminating 11 days ago with the dramatic revelations about the recording of phone calls at Garda stations and the simultaneous resignation of the Garda commissioner. When it finally got around to considering these events on Wednesday of this week, the Oireachtas justice committee decided that it did not need to get around to inquiring into them, at least not yet.

It is ironic that this Government, which has so often denigrated the judiciary and the legal profession, has had to rush so frequently to the Four Courts in search of judges, former judges or senior counsel to deliver dispassionate examinations on the most sensitive of matters.

While lawyerly inquiries may be the most appropriate way to examine the sensitive legal aspects of controversial policing issues, it is parliament which should be exploring the political dimensions of how the Garda commissioner came to resign and how the Government came simultaneously to publish the story about phone recordings at Garda stations.


Out of the loop
Why was it that Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter were not brought into the loop when Taoiseach Enda Kenny first sought to assess the legal implications of the phone recordings at Garda stations?

In what circumstances did the secretary general of the Department of Justice end up being instructed by the Taoiseach to visit the Garda commissioner at home for the purposes of letting him know the Taoiseach’s “grave concerns” on the matter? What were or are the Taoiseach’s “grave concerns” and how did they in any way relate to the Garda commissioner?

Was the Taoiseach actually up to speed at that point with commissioner Martin Callinan’s correspondence dealing with the phone recordings and, if he was, how come the Minister for Justice wasn’t shown this correspondence until after the commissioner had resigned?

How did the Taoiseach propose to deal with the fact that Ministers Leo Varadkar, Joan Burton, Ruairí Quinn and Gilmore had undermined his authority over the previous days by publicly commenting on the commissioner’s attitude to whistleblowers? Was it pure coincidence that this political difficulty for the Taoiseach was solved on the Tuesday morning by the commissioner’s resignation?

Until these types of questions are answered, the suspicion will linger that the Taoiseach cynically exploited the timing of the release of information about the Garda station phone recordings to address a Cabinet management problem.

After so much Government distracting, distorting and dissembling and after a week of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice avoiding media interviews, the justice committee was the obvious forum to bring some clarity to these political events. In a couple of afternoons, the committee could examine and cross-examine the relevant officials; question the Minister for Justice and Taoiseach; and invite in the former Garda commissioner.

Even though it cannot make findings of fact, the committee can in publicly televised proceedings ask the important political questions, and the public can make up its own mind.


Doing nothing
Instead, this week the Oireachtas justice committee decided to do nothing for the moment, and merely to inquire of the Taoiseach what the terms of reference of the proposed commission of inquiry might be. As Claire Byrne succinctly put it to the committee chairman, Fine Gael TD David Stanton, on Thursday’s Morning Ireland : “Is writing to the Taoiseach the most dynamic thing you could have done?”

The justice committee’s decision to do so little was made with only Independent TD Finian McGrath dissenting. It seems Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin acquiesced in the initially meek approach in the hope the committee will be more robust if the key political events are not included within the commission of inquiry.

Stanton was himself in the chorus of Fine Gael backbenchers loudly singing Shatter’s praises in the Dáil during Wednesday night’s no-confidence motion.

His Cork North Central colleague Dara Murphy told the Dáil the only discord over these issues at the Fine Gael parliamentary party recently was when many backbenchers expressed disappointment they would not get speaking time to support the Minister for Justice in the no-confidence debate. Fine Gael TDs might have been less enthusiastic to get their backing for Shatter on the parliamentary record if they had realised then that his and the Taoiseach’s handling of the recent revelations was costing the party so heavily in the polls.

The reality is that the Government is unlikely to ask or allow the commission of inquiry to examine the events proximate to the Garda commissioner’s resignation. This will be apparent when the terms of reference are published.

The Oireachtas justice committee should then immediately organise its own hearings on that aspect of the affair. Stanton and his colleagues may yet get a chance to redeem themselves.

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