High Court judge to examine claims of Garda phone-tapping

No ‘current concerns’ about abuse of system have been brought to Minister’s attention

It is understood the bulk of the allegations relate to events which occurred in the early 2000s. Photograph: Frank Miller

It is understood the bulk of the allegations relate to events which occurred in the early 2000s. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

A High Court judge is to examine allegations that garda intelligence personnel engaged in illegal phone-tapping of citizens.

The allegations, reported at the weekend, include that a detective working in the Crime and Security Division was sidelined when he raised concerns about the tapping.

The now-retired detective recently settled a High Court action against An Garda Síochána for his treatment while a member of the force. The detective reportedly alleged he was forced to take part in phone-tapping over the course of a decade.

It is understood the bulk of the allegations relate to events which occurred in the early 2000s, well before the tenure of the current garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and current Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald.

A spokesman for Ms Fitzgerald said no “current concerns” about an abuse of the system have been brought to the Minister’s attention.

“And, in fact, judges of the High Court designated to oversee the operation of interceptions have indicated in annual reports that the Garda authorities are in compliance with the relevant legislation,” he added.

Oversight

However, the spokesman said that following the settlement of the retired detective’s High Court case, gardaí brought the matter to the attention of the “designated judge”. This judge, Mr Justice Paul McDermott, is responsible for the oversight of State phone surveillance under the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993.

He reports to the Oireachtas every year. All such reports to date consist of a single line stating the judge is happy the provisions of the act are being met.

“The appropriate person to look into the question of any alleged abuses is the designated judge,” the Minister’s spokesman said.

“It is a matter for the designated judge to decide what, if any, action might be necessary in relation to these matters and can report concerns if that is considered appropriate.”

The department defended the oversight of the system and said it was necessary to fight organised crime and terrorism.

“A minister cannot initiate a warrant and can only act on applications made to them. Before a justice minister can authorise a warrant for interception a nominated officer of her department must indicate that the application meets the requirements of the Act.”

Senior gardaí yesterday defended the use of phone surveillance in the wake of this latest controversy.

‘Keeping people alive’

One senior security source told The Irish Times: “There are thousands of phone calls that are intercepted on a regular basis in the interest of keeping people alive. Phone’s are only intercepted by members of the force if there is a threat to somebody or in the case of a very serious crime.”

Former Minister for Justice Michael McDowell said he had no issues with the surveillance oversight system when he was in office between 2002 and 2007. Mr McDowell said he was not aware what the current allegations refer to.

“It would be a very serious matter if there was a parallel system of unauthorised intercepts. That would be a very serious matter,” he said.

Attempts to contact other justice ministers who served in 2000s were unsuccessful.

There are no plans to change the oversight role, which in many countries is handled by a parliamentary committee. The Policing Authority, said it does not know if it will have any role in monitoring surveillance in the future.

“The general consensus is it would come under national security and wouldn’t be under our remit but it hasn’t really come up as a direct point at this stage,” a spokeswoman said.

Broadcaster Vincent Browne said he is “not surprised” that phone-tapping is alledgedly still taking place in An Garda Síochána. “I think that gardaí were let off the leash a long time ago and the sense of “free to do what they want” has prevailed in the force for a long time,” he said.