Latest debacle puts GRA back in firing line

The Garda Representative Body was subjected to intense criticism over the one million fake breath tests — a year on, little appears to have changed, writes Michael Clifford.

The latest shenanigans to hit the Garda Representative Association might have made a good episode of Keystone Cops. A complaint is made about a senior member of the organisation.

Or at least there is an attempt to make a complaint, but there is no means of doing so. The complainant, a civilian, tries to find out how to make a complaint, but it’s a mystery that would require a good detective to unravel.

The Garda Review, the 95-year-old magazine for the rank and file members, which might be regarded as an organ to air issues affecting the force and its association, is threatened with closure.

The would-be complainant happens to be the editor of the Garda Review. The magazine is 95% owned by the GRA. Maybe this is a coincidence.

Meanwhile, the GRA governing body doesn’t know what to do about it all. The body has 31 members who gather in Dublin the night before a meeting and kick off proceedings at 11am the following morning.

Maybe they need a lie-in to think about what’s ahead of them.

A report from Ampersand Consultants last year said meetings of the body can be “casual discussions that don’t necessarily go anywhere”.

Maybe the Central Executive Council members think their way through a leisurely breakfast to find a purpose for the meetings.

So it goes in the GRA. The individual at the centre of this affair is John O’Keeffe, a former journalist with the Sunday Independent, who lectures in criminology.

Mr O’Keeffe came to public prominence last year in an interview with RTÉ’s Paul Reynolds about the one million fake breath tests recorded in An Garda Síochána.

Mr O’Keeffe attempted to defend the members of the GRA in a manner that was less than convincing. He was subjected to widespread ridicule on social media for his performance.

He was, however, occupying a sticky wicket. Either he accepted that the GRA members bore culpability — never really an option — or he attempted to defend the indefensible. He chose the latter and the reaction was inevitable.

In September, he announced that he was stepping down as the director of communications for the GRA, citing “irreconcilable differences” on policy. Despite the parting, he remained on as editor of the Garda Review on a three-year contract.

A month after he stepped down from the communications role he wrote to the CEC about a complaint he wished to make of bullying and harassment. He wanted to know to whom should he make the complaint.

In most organisations in the developed world there are routine mechanisms, either formal or informal, through which to make a workplace complaint. However, as pointed out in the report by Ampersand last year, the GRA tends to be cocooned from many routine organisational practices.

The CEC did nothing much about Mr O’Keeffe’s complaint. He wrote again and again, but never really got anywhere.

Doing nothing about alleged bullying and harassment in the GRA is not confined to complaints from civilians like Mr O’Keeffe.

Last month, this newspaper reported that a similar complaint from a female garda, against four males, had received little attention for over a year.

Eventually, a human resources firm was brought in to take a look at it, but three of the four male members reportedly didn’t co-operate with the external agent.

When the matter was raised with the GRA by this newspaper, the reply included a request to identify the source of the story. Thus far, there has been no outcome to that investigation.

Meanwhile, back with Mr O’Keeffe’s complaint, the 31 members of the CEC yesterday received further missives from him. Included was correspondence between his solicitor and the legal representative for the Garda Review.

The latter announced that the future was not bright for the magazine, and consequently for Mr O’Keeffe’s three-year contract.

“Please note,” the solicitor’s letter from the board of the Garda Review states, “that our client is currently looking at the viability of the magazine going forward. Your client is already well aware of the fact that significant concerns about its viability have been under consideration since August of this year.”

It goes on to note that if a review of the Review turns up a dark future, that’s curtains for Johnny too.

Needless to say, if the magazine is to be discontinued, our respective clients will have to engage further. That can be done once a decision is made.

The suggested ill health of the Garda Review is curious. Like many print organs it may not be as buoyant as it once was. But according to Mr O’Keeffe’s solicitor’s letter: “We are instructed that it is incorrect to assert that interest in the publication has dwindled. It has in fact increased.”

A member of the Garda’s economic unit should be in a position to sift the evidence from these conflicting claims.

Mr O’Keeffe’s solicitor then pulled a rabbit from the hat. His client’s complaint actually amounted to a protected disclosure, he pointed out. A Protected Disclosure is a form of complaint which comes with a number of legal bells and whistles attached. Specifically, it protects the complainant from any retribution for making a complaint.

“Termination of the Garda Review contract other than in accordance with its terms will be unlawful,” O’Keeffe’s solicitor wrote.

Termination of the Garda Review contract as an act of retaliation/penalisation of our client for the complaint made will only serve to increase the range of legal remedies available to our client.

One interesting angle to the protected disclosure claim is whether it can be made retrospectively. For example, can a “complaint” be retrospectively classified as a “protected disclosure” with all the protections inherent in that?

The question is one that no doubt the GRA’s lawyers will be mulling over.

In broader terms, the whole farrago has illuminated one thing about the representative body.

Since it was effectively branded an organisational basket case by the Ampersand Consultants over a year ago, little appears to have changed.


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