Coalition blind to big picture behind GSOC reticence

The Government’s rush to demand explanations from the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission as to why it didn’t tell them of its concerns that its offices were bugged is another example of the Coalition’s attempts to deflect attention away from its own responsibilities.

Garda Síochána Ombudsman chairman Simon O'Brien arrives for a meeting with Justice Minister Alan Shatter yesterday. Pic: Niall Carson

It misses the bigger picture: That the watchdog’s decision to ask a foreign private company to investigate whether it was the victim of spying — without telling either the Garda Síochána or the Minister for Justice — is a sign of just how little trust the vital independent body has in several institutions of State.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s initial reaction yesterday to reports that GSOC was bugged was not to reassure the public that those responsible would be found out.

Instead, he wrongly interpreted the Garda Síochána Act 2005, to criticise GSOC for not fulfilling their “requirement of the law” to inform the minister.

He urged the watchdog to “level with” the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, while Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said it was highly unusual that the alleged incident was not reported to Government.

Mr Shatter met with the Garda Ombudsman Commission yesterday to seek a “full report” on its decision to hire a British security company last year to investigate if it had been placed under electronic surveillance.

However, as the Cabinet meets to discuss the issue today, it must face up to its own role in what appears to be a breakdown in trust between the Garda watchdog and the Justice Minister taking hold over the past year.

In some ways, this could be traced back to October 2012 after allegations first surfaced that gardaí have been involved in improperly canceling penalty points.

Mr Shatter chose to overlook the independent Ombudsman’s office and decided instead to ask Assistant Garda Commissioner John O’Mahoney to investigate the matter.

Mr Shatter eventually agreed to refer it to GSOC last month.

The minister hasn’t explained why he initially believed public confidence was better served by asking the gardaí, rather than the GSOC, to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by gardaí.

An indication of why an examination of the issue by GSOC might have been difficult came when — at the same time of the publication of the O’Mahoney report — a public row broke out between the police force and its watchdog.

After a protracted four-year investigation into allegations that members of the force colluded with convicted drug dealer Kieran Boylan in the supply of drugs, the watchdog slammed An Garda Síochána for “withholding evidence and information”.

It described the failure by the force to respond to requests for information as “highly unsatisfactory”, saying: “We’ve had to wait for some requests for over a year.”

Mr Shatter’s response was to call both sides to a meeting to resolve their differences, saying it did not “serve to encourage public confidence in GSOC for difficulties or arguments to persist privately or publicly”.

This resulted in the agreement of new protocols between both sides, which require gardaí to provide information to the ombudsman within 30 days in all but exceptional circumstances.

It also requires gardaí to provide the Ombudsman with access to the Pulse computer system — through a garda officer attached to the Ombudsman’s office.

Publicly, the GSOC welcomed these measures. But asked in a recent Morning Ireland interview if they were working well, GSOC member Kieran Fitzgerald said: “It’s a little bit too soon to say if they are working well or not, the indications are very neutral at this stage.”

And asked if they would be sufficient to ensure the Garda will have to respond to its latest investigation on penalty points, he said: “I’m afraid you are going to ask me that question in a few months’ time.”

Questions have also been asked about Mr Shatter’s treatment of GSOC in the examination of the role of gardaí in the removal of two children from their Roma families in Tallaght and Athlone last October.

The minister again chose to bypass GSOC and referred it to the Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan, who had to be granted special powers by Mr Shatter to investigate the force, which is outside her remit.

GSOC wrote to the minister seeking the Garda report on the case, but was told they could not have it until Ms Logan’s inquiry was completed.

While GSOC declined to comment on the matter at the time, a legal source and observer of its work described the treatment of the Garda watchdog as “shocking”.

He told this newspaper last November: “GSOC would have expected to get the report at the same time as the minister gave it to Emily Logan’s office, not after she finished her investigation.”

Given its historical dealings with Mr Shatter, the Government, and the Garda, it is hardly surprising that GSOC chose not to turn to them with concerns that they were being spied on.

What’s even more worrying is that, instead of offering reassurances over the very serious claim of covert surveillance at the watchdog of our police force, the Government has chosen to use this as an opportunity to raise questions about GSOC itself.

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