The public disclosure that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) had concerns that surveillance had been conducted on its office has prompted a whirlwind of allegation and counter-allegations. A blame game has attempted to label the victim (GSOC) as the wrongdoer in all of this. Whether it's that GSOC did not inform Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, did not notify about a particular inquiry or is giving confusing statements, the Government seems to be addressing everything except the serious concerns as to surveillance.
As I and others have argued repeatedly, it is in itself scandalous that so much effort has been directed towards deviating attention in this way. Indeed, in addition to the key questions of who conducted the surveillance and why, we must now ask why the Government has not focused on those questions.
The narrative that the greatest wrong done was either by GSOC (not informing the Minister) or someone in GSOC’s office (the leak) – contributed to by politicians, garda officials and some in the media – raises concerns about the status of GSOC, its independence, its power and its credibility. And with such concerns raised, one has to wonder whether Garda accountability is in crisis.
Until 2007 accountability of An Garda Síochána was achieved in one of three main ways: through internal disciplinary mechanisms; through the investigation of complaints by gardaí with the oversight of the Garda Síochána Complaints Board; and through questions asked of the minister in the Dáil. Following the start of the Morris Tribunal and developments in other jurisdictions, the second of these was altered; and GSOC was created.
But GSOC has never been the independent body it was sold to us as. Until 2011 it published figures on how complaints were dealt with. Those show just 35 per cent of complaints were independently investigated, usually where criminal activity by a member of the police service was suspected. Less serious complaints were either dealt with by mediation or were investigated by members of the Garda.
The commission should not be understood as providing an independent mechanism of police oversight in Ireland. Why is that? Why do we not have independent oversight of our police force? My argument, which I explore in both The Blue Wall of Silence and Policing Twentieth Century Ireland , is that there is not political commitment to police accountability. Indeed, far from a political commitment to accountability we instead have quite a politicised police force with much control centralised in the Minister. The Garda Síochána Act 2005 is a prime example of this, giving even greater powers to the Minister to make demands of the police.
Now we should start to wonder if political efforts are being made to control GSOC. When scores of complaints relating to the policing of the Corrib gas protests were submitted, GSOC sought to conduct a broader investigation into Garda practices under section 106, rather than focus on individual complaints. It was denied permission to do so. We saw just last month GSOC being used politically when it was instructed to conduct an inquiry into the whistleblowing affair. This did not happen at the outset, only when public pressure became too intense after an unsatisfactory internal inquiry. Then, last week, we had a claim from the Minister that GSOC was legislatively required to alert him of its security concerns when in fact it has a discretion to so do.
This could be read as undermining the independence of GSOC, a worrying development given that this is the independent aspect of police accountability in Ireland. If we consider the other methods, Dermot Walsh's study, reported in his book The Irish Police conclusively established the failures of the Dáil as a method of accountability for reasons that included indirectness, time limitations and political exigencies. Internal discipline is vital but the behaviour on which it focuses does not align with what the public is always concerned about nor is public confidence bolstered by internal investigations. Should GSOC stumble, there would be limited basis for us to be confidence that our police service is being held to account.
Achieving accountability of the police is exceptionally difficult and it is not easy to identify a jurisdiction which seems to have "got it right". Even Northern Ireland, much lauded for its Police Ombudsman, has had it concerns in recent years over the operation of the complaints body. But similarly I struggle to think of another jurisdiction where efforts to conduct surveillance of that body have occurred and the independence of the complaints mechanism has been so compromised.
We should not delude ourselves into thinking that this, too, shall pass. This incident has damaged an already strained relationship between the Garda Commissioner and GSOC. The Minister is now embroiled in this triumvirate of discord. It will take exceptional leadership and commitment to the importance of police accountability for all three to emerge unscathed. The first test of this is immediate: if these men cannot work together to answer the key questions of who attempted surveillance of GSOC, why and what did they access, and an independent inquiry has to be established, then it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that Garda accountability is in crisis.
Dr Vicky Conway is senior lecturer in law at the University of Kent and author of Policing Twentieth Century Ireland . @drvconway