Fintan O’Toole: Garda corrupted by sloppiness, indiscipline and vindictiveness

If you read the O’Higgins report, you will find that at the bottom of so many of its case histories is sheer fecklessness

If you landed in an unknown country and wanted to know what it was like, one of the key questions you'd ask is: are innocent people afraid of the police? The answer would tell you a lot about whether you were in a decent and well-ordered society. For most people in most countries the answer would be "yes". The police are corrupt and bad cops act with impunity. Ireland is one of the fortunate countries where this has not been the case. Compared even with the UK or the US, we've had very few police scandals. And maybe this is why we've drifted steadily and complacently towards a situation in which the answer to that key question is no longer an emphatic "no".

There are different kinds of police corruption. There are deep-seated systems of bribery in which the police are bought by criminal gangs and cops become robbers with badges. There is no evidence that this has happened on any large scale in Ireland. There are also cultures of institutionalised racism, endemic in the US and historically prevalent in some forces in the UK. We have limited evidence of that here. And there are massive, decades-long cover-ups like the one that stemmed from the Hillsborough disaster in England. There's no equivalent in recent Irish history.

But there are other kinds of corruption. One definition of corrupt is "changed from the naturally sound condition, especially by decomposition or putrefaction". An Garda Síochána may be naturally sound but it has been slowly putrefying. Three forces have been eating away at its integrity: sloppiness, indiscipline and vindictive defensiveness.

The least spectacular form of corruption is people not bothering their arses to do their jobs properly. If you read the O’Higgins report, you will find that at the bottom of so many of its case histories is sheer fecklessness – guards who don’t take their responsibilities seriously. No one suggests that these guards are typical, but neither were they so egregiously untypical that their superiors reacted to their fecklessness with outrage and urgency.

This is where the second element comes in – indiscipline. Police should be subjected to the tightest disciplinary regime in the public service. The evidence suggests the Garda’s regime may in fact be the loosest. We can judge this by reactions to the same breach of public trust in different public institutions.

Over the past decade, we've had cases in the Department of Social Protection, in the Revenue and in the Garda of individuals accessing sensitive personal data without legitimate professional reasons. The welfare officials who did this were issued personal warnings. The Revenue officials were downgraded and barred from seeking promotions for two years. These punishments are arguably too light, but at least wrists were slapped.

Disturbing level of abuse

And the Garda? We know that abuse of personal data has been widespread. The Data Protection Commissioner’s 2014 audit of the Garda, for example, revealed a “particularly disturbing” level of abuse of the Pulse recording system. The audit looked at a random sample of Pulse files relating to public figures. Every single one had been “inappropriately accessed” – 100 per cent of the sample.

The case of Clare Daly TD is even worse. A politician who has been critical of the guards was wrongfully suspected of drink-driving. Details of her arrest were leaked, almost certainly by gardaí, to journalists. The Pulse record of her arrest was accessed over the subsequent hours by 24 different gardaí, including one from as far away as Newbridge who claimed to have a "particular interest in traffic-related incidents". One detective garda used this information to send abusive tweets to Clare Daly. Each garda can be identified from the Pulse system. Yet no action has been taken against any of them. Gardaí, in other words, are being held to even lower standards of discipline than other public officials. This systematic failure to impose discipline was exacerbated by vindictive defensiveness.

Systematic campaign

The full extent of the internal campaign against whistleblower Maurice McCabe is still unclear. But on current evidence it seems to have worked through many levels of the force, ranging from attempts to frame him as an incompetent cop who lost a computer, to an attempt to prove him a malicious liar, to the spreading at the highest levels of rumours he was guilty of some unspecified, “vile” crimes. This looks like a systematic campaign to destroy a good cop. Again it seems there has been no serious internal investigation.

This brings us back to that question: do innocent people have reason to be afraid of the police? Clare Daly was innocent. Maurice McCabe was innocent. And as things stand, it seems gardaí can not only take it on themselves to destroy reputations but do so with complete individual impunity. There is no disciplinary action arising from the O’Higgins report and none from the Clare Daly affair. The present commissioner has shown deep reluctance to investigate the attempts to destroy McCabe. People with that level of impunity must always be feared.