Rush to vilify GSOC over bugging fears augurs badly

Opinion: The Taoiseach has appeared to have no understanding that the commision does not answer to the Government

The most disturbing aspect of what happened after the Sunday Times claimed that the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) had been bugged, was the alacrity with which senior Government figures sought to consign the story to the rubbish bin.

Within hours, a well-sourced report in a respected newspaper was being turned on its head by the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice.

The Taoiseach’s reaction was particularly disquieting and surely indicative. One might have expected an expression of concern at an allegation that at least potentially strikes at the heart of the State’s regulatory institutions.

Instead we had a castigation of GSOC for not reporting to the Minister for Justice, as, he claimed (erroneously) they had a duty to do under section 80 of the Garda Síochána Act.

It is almost irrelevant at this time that the Taoiseach misunderstood or misquoted the law in relation to the Garda supervisory body. It was the proprietorial, almost dictatorial tone in which he delivered himself that told much.

GSOC had to “level with the Minister” and to account for its shortcomings. It had failed in its legal duty. The Taoiseach seemed to have no understanding that GSOC is not answerable to Government (in the same way as the Garda Commissioner) but to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Chairman of GSOC, former London Metropolitan Police officer Simon O’Brien, did little to reinforce the independence of his organisation by expressing “regret” to the Minister (where he had no need to do so) and emphasising the “kindness” of the Garda commissioner in having a pot of coffee with him later in the week.

Let us put aside for a moment the arcane arguments about "anomalies", "potential threats" and "vulnerabilities". GSOC commissioner Kieran FitzGerald spoke with clarity and shining honesty when he told the Oireachtas committee that the likelihood of a benign interpretation of the sweep by UK consultants Verrimus was "close to zero."

There can be little doubt that somebody bugged, or tried to bug, key offices of GSOC. And they knew their stuff. They went for the fourth floor, where commissioners and senior staff meet for discussion and planning. Rank-and- file GSOC staff have no access to that fourth floor.

So who are the suspects?

Ordinary criminals? Subversives? Media? Foreign intelligence services – MI6 or CIA? A rogue element within GSOC itself? Gardaí who themselves (or their colleagues) may be under investigation by GSOC?

It is unlikely that ordinary criminals or subversives would have either the interest of the capacity to bug GSOC. From its establishment, GSOC has had in place relatively sophisticated counter-surveillance measures (on the advice of consultants that included former senior gardaí).

Thus, members of An Garda Síochána must, at the very least, be potential suspects in any investigation that begins on the premise that an attempt has been made to penetrate GSOC security.

Commissioner Martin Callinan has stated that no Garda surveillance, authorised or otherwise, was in place. With the greatest respect, it is doubtful if the commissioner knows everything that goes on in his force of more than 13,000 officers, as not a few of his predecessors in office found out to their cost over the years.

But it is the rush by Kenny and Shatter to rubbish GSOC's fears of having been bugged that is so disturbing. And it is consistent with a pattern since the establishment of the watchdog in 2005, to limit its capacities, and of apparent efforts to slow the pace and the effectiveness of its operations. This has been particularly evident since the GSOC inquiries into the alleged collusion between some gardaí and drugs importer Kieran Boylan.

Roll back
What we are witnessing here is an intuitive effort by the State – by the political establishment– to roll back the declared objective of the ombudsman sections of the 2005 Garda Síochána Act, to put in place an effective system of independent oversight, on behalf of the Oireachtas and the people, of the work of the national police force.

The guards have not liked it from the beginning. That is hardly surprising after a 200-year tradition in which a centralised police force answered only to government.

So it is up to government to make it clear to the police that accountability means what it says, that when GSOC asks for information it is entitled to get it swiftly and fully and that there must be no holding back or stonewalling. I am not aware that any such message has been delivered by the Government to the management of the Garda Síochána.

Heavy Gang
Yes, there is a problem within GSOC in that someone leaked the story to the Sunday Times . Yet I cannot help but recall the Heavy Gang scandals and finger prints scandal of the 1970s, when
Garda sources revealed systemic abuses that were reported in The Irish Times .

Would anyone now seriously argue that the greater good – including the good of honest, decent members of An Garda Síochána – was not best served by revealing these abuses?

The reality is that the 2005 Act is deeply flawed and must be revisited. It has created lacunae and it entrenches operational shortcomings that are not in the interests of the oversight body, the Garda Síochána or the public for whom they work. They only serve the interests of politicians who can navigate to their advantage within the ambiguities that have been created.

Writing last week, I noted that Alan Shatter had agreed to allow access by Gsoc to the Garda Pulse system in the investigation into the penalty-points controversy.

The Minister’s media department has pointed out that he told the Dáil that where Pulse information is “of central relevance” to any other Gsoc investigation, it will also have direct access to the system.

One hopes that it will be left to Gsoc itself to determine what is of “central relevance” and not anybody else.

Conor Brady was a commissioner of Gsoc from 2005 to 2011. He is a former editor of The Irish Times