GSOC genie well and truly out of the bottle and an inquiry is essential

Simon O'Brien gave evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions on Wednesday.
Simon O'Brien gave evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions on Wednesday.

WHAT an extraordinary few days it has been. There is a temptation to reach for the term GUBU-esque in relation to what has unfolded with this blockbuster tale of bugging, surveilling, investigating and leaking.

What has made it all the more grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented is the effort that has been put into manipulating our reaction to this controversy concerning the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

It’s no surprise to see Government attempting to “feed” a line on a situation. But the audaciousness of their spinning in the last few days has been breath-taking. Added to this, and very disappointingly so, has been the reporting of the issue by significant sections of the media, and the manner in which this dodgy Government line was simply swallowed and regurgitated.

Listening back to Justice Minister Alan Shatter in the Dáil on Wednesday night, in that tone he employs which drips condescension and tedium at having to offer an explanation to the “plebs”, a casual listener might deduce this affair was a storm in a teacup; that the GSOC was suffering from hysteria and was guilty of terribly poor judgement.

By mid-week Minister Shatter and Taoiseach Enda Kenny must have thought they got away with the “nothing to see here” approach after the talk of “no evidence” found “during the routine sweep of a nature which had occurred previously” and been prompted by “no specific concern”. The Taoiseach wanted to “move on”.

But on Wednesday evening Commission chairman Simon O’Brien gave evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. Listening to him as he explained the security sweep, what had prompted it, and what he had concluded afterwards, one wonders what on earth had gone on at his meeting with Minister Shatter on Monday.

Are we to conclude the chairman said very little, was allowed to say very little, or wasn’t listened to in what was billed as his “dressing down” at the Department of Justice. Or did the Minister simply choose to present his own version of events subsequently?

O’Brien made clear he felt the policing watchdog had been under surveillance and that there was some evidence of some sort of security breach at the GSOC headquarters on Dublin’s Upper Abbey Street. Its actions had been proportionate and justifiable, he said.

This controversy has the added gravity of the Taoiseach stating, on more than one occasion, that the Garda Ombudsman was legally obliged to tell the Government about their suspicions concerning the bugging of its offices.

Anyone who has looked at the relevant section — Section 80.5 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 — could tell this was wrong. Either the Taoiseach told a massive porky or had failed to look at it himself, or he did and failed to grasp it, or else he was seriously poorly advised by those around him who are paid handsomely to know better.

He added a whole new level to our political discourse when he finally acknowledged that the wording of the legislation did not require the GSOC to report to the Minister [for Justice], but that the provision in law meant that the commission may report to the minister.

“If my words were excessive in their meaning then I regret that.” Apart from it being a triumph of a non-apology apology, it was complete codswallop after the Taoiseach had continued over a number of days to pedal patently inaccurate information.

At the end of a particularly damaging few days for transparency and accountability in Irish life, one is left in absolutely no doubt why the GSOC did not report its suspicions to the Justice Minister, or go to the gardaí. In fact you could argue that the Commission served the taxpayers better by not doing so.

There is clearly another issue at play here concerning a high level GSOC leaker, and it is understandable why it should investigate this matter. But as time moves on, we may find ourselves even more sympathetic to the motivation behind this leak. The Commission had reason long before this week to tread carefully over who it should trust. Yet the political line was fed out, and swallowed seemingly unquestioningly by large sections of the media, that the more interesting fact of all of this was its non-communication with Minister Shatter.

How strange was it that the thrust of the follow-up to the Sunday Times story was this angle, rather than the far more interesting, and indeed racier fact, that the people charged with policing our police force had good reason to believe they had been bugged.

There is an expectation when it comes to crime reporting that there is a certain level of give and take in the relationship between a crime journalist and a Garda source. These reporters, who operate in a highly competitive area, are hugely reliant on the Garda as a source and know they risk suffering from a “blu flu” of information if they are seen to step too far out of line. Needless to say, this operates at different levels with different reporters and different organisations. It’s no huge surprise, for instance, to see the anti-GSOC coverage in the Irish Independent in recent days, but the extent of it from the RTE newsroom this week was very surprising.

WE CANNOT be in any doubt about how much we need the GSOC, how much we need a body with independence, authority and determination to oversee our police force. It goes without saying that it is a fine force, but it is also one that has found itself under serious criticism on a number of occasions and which patently has a problem with transparency and accountability.

In his recent report Judge Peter Smithwick made it clear he found there remained a habit within the Garda to circle the wagons, that “loyalty is prized over honesty” and that it was “disheartening and depressing” to find such a culture remaining.

This week the situation has been particularly acute, but it is noteworthy that the response to some previous Commission investigations from “official Ireland” have been considerably more muted than one would have expected.

Not only does official Ireland seem to want the GSOC to punch within its weight, it also seems required to do so without boxing gloves.

The GSOC was established in 2007 under inadequate legislation by a previous Government, and as such could only ever have limited success.

We are nowhere near discovering the full background, or motivations to this story. An independent inquiry would be welcome.

It doesn’t seem over the top to think the Government is rather unconcerned at irreparable damage being done to the reputation of the GSOC.

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