Whistleblower row could be wasted if we learn nothing

Northern Ireland provides a template for an accountable, modern police force

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan is under increasing political pressure to withdraw remarks about two Garda whistleblowers. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / THE IRISH TIMES

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan is under increasing political pressure to withdraw remarks about two Garda whistleblowers. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / THE IRISH TIMES

 

The Garda Commissioner is appointed by the Government and is responsible to the Minister for Justice, who, in turn, is accountable to Dáil Éireann for the activities of An Garda Síochána.

According to the Garda website: “The Garda Commissioner is responsible for the general direction, management and control of An Garda Síochána. While the Minister for Justice . . . is responsible to the Government for the performance of An Garda Síochána, it is the commissioner who runs the organisation on a day-to-day basis.”

Add to this apparently simple set of reporting lines a miasma of inquiries and quasi- inquiries into allegations made by two Garda whistleblowers and the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and things start to get confusing.

The current commissioner, Martin Callinan, is under increasing political pressure to withdraw remarks about two Garda whistleblowers that he has already “clarified”. In clarifying what he meant when he described, before an Oireachtas committee, the actions of the two men involved as “disgusting”, the commissioner has failed to stem the understandable disquiet that exists, not just in political circles, about the treatment of whistleblowers.


Scepticism
This has been exacerbated somewhat by scepticism in relation to an internal Garda inquiry into the same matter (the O’Mahoney inquiry); the confirmation of this scepticism by a Garda inspectorate report; and the dismissal by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter of Garda confidential recipient Oliver Connolly in circumstances not yet conclusively explained.


Damaged reputation
While some good reforms may result from all of this – in the form of enhanced powers for the GSOC and possibly a radical overhaul of the governance structure of An Garda Síochána by the creation of a policing board similar to that for the PSNI – the episode has damaged the reputation of An Garda Síochána. That is to say nothing of its ongoing toxicity at the highest level politically.

It is more likely that, in the best Irish tradition, we may “waste” this controversy by keeping heads down and learning nothing from the narrative jigsaw that will result from the reports of the various inquiries.

For this reason it is instructive to look objectively at what the structure of a policing service in a modern democracy should look like. Despite some positive reforms, the Garda Síochána Act 2005 was disappointing in the way it confirmed and emphasised political control of the policing function in the State. Instead of establishing a policing board at one remove from politics, as exists in Northern Ireland, the Act went into considerable detail in emphasising ministerial control.

This failure to provide an independent layer of accountability within the governance structure was and remains regrettable.

Of course, a policing board could have been created and then compromised or undermined by political interference. This is an argument for careful design and not one to be made in support of the status quo.


Template for success
We are, thankfully, no longer in a time where a Garda commissioner such as Eoin O’Duffy could speak without blushing of bringing “the power of Satan on Earth . . . to naught” or where another commissioner such as Ed Garvey could be dismissed in the late 1970s following a litany of controversies. What is clear, however, is that we now need to mature in the manner in which we provide for a credible, effective and accountable policing service in the State.

The template for success is north of the Border. It should not be beyond the imagination of a reforming Minister for Justice to appreciate this and start to move on from current controversies by introducing a range of modernising reforms to salvage the reputation of policing in Ireland. Both the commissioner and the Minister have steps to take to create the conditions necessary for such reform.

In the meantime, we await the outcome of an investigation by the GSOC into the series of events described by the commissioner as “disgusting”.

l
Prof Donncha O’Connell is h ead of the school of law at NUI Galway. The views expressed in this article
are personal

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