Gardaí must address culture in their ranks

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan

EVERY now and again, the past rises up to smite the present, and last week presented once such prime example.

The Smithwick Tribunal was charged with investigating whether there was garda collusion in the murder of senior RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in 1989. That matter was dealt with competently in the report published last Tuesday.

However, Peter Smithwick also referenced the current culture within the gardaí, which he had encountered during the investigation. A former chief superintendent, Tom Curran, had given evidence that suggested that senior elements in the force had been negligent in dealing with threats to the lives of RUC officers which he had highlighted.

According to Smithwick, Curran’s evidence about an historic event was greeted in a wholly inappropriate way by the upper echelon in the force today.

“I would have thought he (Curran) is as deserving of the support of the Garda Commissioner as any other former officer,” Smithwick reported.

“However, it seems to me, that because he was giving evidence of which An Garda Síochána did not approve, such support was not forthcoming.”

Smithwick went on: “I regret to say that this suggests to me that there prevails in An Garda Síochána today a prioritisation of the protection of the good name of the force over the protection of those who seek to tell the truth. Loyalty is prized about honesty.”

Commissioner Martin Callinan rejected those findings. He told a press conference that the culture described by Smithwick didn’t reflect his organisation.

“Everything we do in An Garda Síochána is designed to establish the truth,” he said.

Maybe he should take a closer look at the force he presides over. An Garda Síochána is made up, on the whole, of decent men and women who are drawn from the ranks of middle Ireland. It also includes many whose bravery ensures the rest of us can sleep easy at night. But when issues arise that might reflect badly on the force, there is no question but that the truth is relegated below the imperative of avoiding any scandal. In this, the gardaí today represent nothing as much as the Church in its handling of child sex abuse down through the decades.

Look at the treatment of two whistleblowers within the force who came forward with serious allegations about corruption, including the operation of the penalty points system.

One, John Wilson, has retired at the age of 50. He has said that he was effectively hounded out of the job. The other, who has protected his identity, has had his career prospects ruined. He now works on a restricted basis, in which his capacity to function effectively has been neutered. After meeting with this man, Minister for Transport, Leo Varadkar described him as “very credible”, yet Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has not once expressed an iota of concern for his plight.

The two whistleblowers will have nodded wryly when reading about the treatment of former chief superintendent Tom Curran. If you break ranks, irrespective of how noble your motive, you’re toast.

Internal investigations within the force are hardly worth the effort. In an internal probe into the penalty points issue, the two officers making allegations weren’t even interviewed. Can you imagine a routine police inquiry in which a complainant isn’t interviewed? External investigations are treated with contempt. Earlier this year, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) complained bitterly about efforts to stymie its investigation into the drug dealer/informer Kieran Boylan. GSOC appealed to Shatter for greater access, but their cries have largely gone unheard.

The contempt pertains even in relatively minor issues. Last January, independent TD Clare Daly was arrested on suspected drink driving, handcuffed and left in a cell for two hours. Results showed she was well below the legal limit. She felt the actions were related to her role in highlighting the penalty points scandal and she complained to GSOC. Yet a year later, that investigation is still to be completed, largely because of delays in obtaining basic information from the force. If this is the attitude towards an elected politician, what hope is there for the Joe or Josephine Citizen?

Events leading up to the murder of Silvia Roche Kelly in 2008 were highlighted in this newspaper two weeks ago. The case involved what were either cock-ups or cover-ups that resulted in the murderer being free on bail at the time of the killing.

It also involved a victim of a vicious assault being denied her day in court in highly suspicious circumstances. Yet, bar a restricted investigation by GSOC, the matter was swept under the carpet.

The culture within the force does not exist in a vacuum. Repeatedly, political masters have looked the other way. Back in the 1970s, there were serious allegations about Republican suspects being physically abused in custody. Many years later, two cabinet ministers from the time admitted that they had personally received reliable information to that effect. Garret Fitzgerald said the matter faded from his radar due to other pressing issues, while Conor Cruise O’Brien said he had no problem with news that suspects were being beaten up.

Last week, Alan Shatter avoided addressing the concerns raised by Smithwick. He displayed a similar loyalty to the commissioner in dealing with the penalty points matter. And he has been less than enthusiastic in addressing the issues highlighted by GSOC.

Earlier this year, Shatter attended the Garda Representative Association conference and lectured members on their duty to suck up to austerity. He adopted the pose of elected tribune telling the force to get their act together, at a time when morale among rank and file members was on the floor.

His confrontational approach was in sharp contrast to his relations with the commissioner. At that level, the chorus is, “Nothing to see here, folks, now move along”.

The media must also bear some culpability. Only the flimsiest information is handed out from the force through official channels. The real meaty stuff is dispensed unofficially to crime and security correspondents, creating a relationship in which the power balance between reporter and source is skewed towards the force’s interests.

As a result, those who operate the crime beat — with a few exceptions — are reluctant to chase anything that might impinge on precious access.

There was a perception in the wake of the Morris Tribunal, and all that flowed from it, that change was being effected. Everything that has tumbled out in recent days and months suggests otherwise.

Any police force is going to contain within its ranks a few rogue elements. But in a culture where the first instinct is to close ranks rather than deal effectively with issues when they arise, bad practice and corruption will fester.

Neither the commissioner nor the minister for justice believe there is much that requires addressing. This is worrying for both members of the force and for the citizens on whose behalf An Garda Síochána serves. If those at the top are blind to reality, there is little hope of change.

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