The new Garda Anti-Corruption Unit is designed to "protect" and "shield" gardaí, a senior officer has told Garda Representative Association officials.
Deputy Commissioner Anne Marie McMahon made the remarks at the GRA's annual conference following criticism of the rollout of the unit by association president Frank Thornton.
“Over the past 12 months we have watched as Garda management called urgent press conferences and told the public that they would ‘root out corruption within the force’,” Mr Thornton told delegates in Killarney, Co Kerry.
He said management spoke of missed 999 calls, the cancellation of traffic offences and sexual coercion under the banner of anti-corruption while providing “little or no figures, data, or evidence of the same”.
Addressing Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, the president said these claims and statements have gone unchecked in her absence and that must change. “We need you to challenge and investigate these claims before they are announced publicly for both the protection and morale of our members and the protection of public confidence which is of vital importance for our daily responsibility to protect and serve.”
Ms McMahon said she wanted to assure delegates that the new unit is “here to protect us by building a positive, well-functioning working environment”.
"It will shield all of us from the harmful effects of potential corruption. Because, as you know, the vast majority of us work with ethics and professionalism in mind," said Ms McMahon, addressing the conference in place of Commissioner Drew Harris who is abroad at an Interpol conference.
Mr Harris’s absence led to expressions of frustration from delegates, with Mr Thornton saying the anger of members “needs to be heard by our commissioner”.
He criticised the commissioner on several fronts, including for making public statements which he said showed a lack of support for gardaí.
Mr Thornton said the manner in which ongoing cancelled 999 calls controversy has played out in the public arena “has been nothing short of shocking”.
‘Called into question’
Gardaí and the Policing Authority have been investigating the alleged widespread cancellation of emergency calls. Garda management recently said its investigation has shown the issue to be limited to just a handful of cases. However, the Policing Authority is awaiting the results of its own investigation.
The GRA has criticised Mr Harris for his public comments on the issue, which it says misrepresents what is alleged to have occurred.
“The women and men who look to their commissioner for leadership have had their professionalism and dedication called into question and this has not been helped by a rush to comment on sensationalist headlines in the absence of facts,” he said.
"Our members are used to criticism and negative commentary, we accept and embrace oversight and accountability, we do not dispute facts but there is something fundamentally wrong when the Policing Authority Chair and the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána are making statements that damage the reputation of our members and undermine public confidence in advance of facts being established or reports being issued."
In her address to the conference, Ms McEntee praised the work of gardaí during the pandemic, particularly its response to domestic violence.
“Lost ground” in the recruitment of additional gardaí caused by Covid-19 will be made up next year with the hiring of 800 new members, she said.
The Minister said this means the force is still on track to meet the target of 15,000 gardaí by the end of 2022.
This number is not a cap, she said, adding that Garda numbers will be kept under review and will be further strengthened if needed.