Commission of investigation’s terms of reference leave no area of concern untouched

Analysis: inclusion of du Plantier case surprising but logical

Mr Justice Nial Fennelly: became involved in drafting the terms of the Commission of investigation. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mr Justice Nial Fennelly: became involved in drafting the terms of the Commission of investigation. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Government has been severely – and justifiably – criticised over the past two months for the manner of its response to the series of crises affecting An Garda Síochána.

We have seen partial explanations, gaps in information, deeply partisan versions of events and liberal use of the fog machine.

Such criticisms cannot be levelled at the terms of reference for the commission of investigation into the practice of routinely recording telephone calls to and from Garda stations.

The terms agreed by Cabinet yesterday are as wide, comprehensive and inclusive as could be expected.


Sufficient powers
It is certain the chairman of the commission Mr Justice Nial Fennelly (who became involved in drafting the terms) has sufficient powers and scope to include every matter that has caused public controversy and concern.

There is one slightly surprising inclusion, but it is a logical one: the commission will conduct the first full formal inquiry into the Garda handling of the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case. Its inquiry won’t be confined to considering the many phone conversations from Bandon Garda station that were recorded.

In themselves, these conversations are “explosive”, as Department of Justice general secretary Brian Purcell said last week.

But given the 17-year-long saga this case has become, the inclusion of this aspect is warranted and necessary.


Improper conduct
Specifically, the commission will be empowered to establish if there is “any evidence of improper conduct” by gardaí.

As expected, the terms will include a thorough examination of the origins of the tap- ing practice and how its use was widened to capture and retain recordings of routine phonecalls as well as emergency and terrorist-type communications. It will also establish the level of knowledge within other institutions of State, including the DPP’s office, the Attorney General’s office, and the Department of Justice.

On the political front, there is a specific term inquiring into the events leading up the retirement of former Garda commissioner. This will bring Ministers – including the Taoiseach – into the picture. But it dates only to the letter of March 10th and not to earlier events.

The other criticism is the commission will take a year. But commissions are far less unwieldy than tribunals, and as the Murphy and Ryan reports into clerical abuse of children and the Nyberg report into the banking crisis have shown, they can be very effective vehicles.

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