There’s plenty more fuel in the GSOC crisis tank yet, writes Cormac O’Keeffe
THE pigeon has come home to roost.
It was a phrase that jumped out yesterday in the drama about the surveillance crisis.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan gave us the saying in reference to the Garda ombudsman. While he used it in a specific context — regarding GSOC’s demands for access to sensitive Garda intelligence and his concerns over their handling of it — it is an apt phrase to describe what has befallen the police watchdog more generally.
The agency is now suffering the consequences of its own mistakes, as seen by others. And the repercussions are extremely serious: The independence of the ombudsman and its now severely weakened relationship with both An Garda Síochána and the minister for justice.
The Garda Síochána Act 2005 says the Garda ombudsman “shall be independent in the performance of its function”, subject to the legislation.
The three members who lead it hold office for at least three years, but not exceeding six, unless re-appointed. A member can only be removed for “stated misbehaviour” or for “incapacity” and only after resolutions passed by the Dáil and Seanad.
The minister for justice himself cannot ask a commissioner to resign.
So when Mr Shatter was asked on Prime Time did he have confidence in GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien, and declined to answer, it has no legal standing, though it obviously has political and moral weight.
GSOC has reporting responsibilities to the minister for justice. Some of those are obligatory, others discretionary. The Taoiseach mixed up those requirements this week. There was talk from the Taoiseach and other Government ministers — with notable exceptions including Pat Rabbitte — about GSOC “coming clean” and “levelling with” Mr Shatter.
Mr O’Brien was called, or was summoned, to a meeting with the minister about the unfolding crisis. Afterwards, Mr O’Brien effectively apologised to the minister, “regretting” not informing him about the issue. The apology was seen as weakening the watchdog’s independence.
The entire emphasis of the Government — again with exceptions — was not to react with concern to genuine suspicions within GSOC of possible bugging. Instead it wanted to pour cold water on them, citing the lack of “definitive evidence”.
What is the reason behind this is not clear. The failure to report might be one. The linking of the surveillance to gardaí could be another.
Whatever the reasons, it is hard to imagine the inspector of prisons, the ombudsman or the children’s ombudsman being treated in such a way.
It has also been personal, directed at Mr O’Brien, even though there are two other commissioners.
Even with its handling of the issue, and even given the leak, the ombudsman is a statutory independent body. It doesn’t seem to have been treated that way.
Some efforts were being made yesterday to try and show that the relationship between GSOC, An Garda Síochána, and the minister for justice is still working. Battered, yes, but not broken, was the message.
Mr Shatter tweaked comments he made the previous night on Prime Time to say that he had confidence in the commission and its three members. He declined to specify Mr O’Brien, but didn’t exclude him either.
However, the relationship between Mr O’Brien and Mr Shatter certainly looks as if its broken.
What GSOC has done, or rather, what Mr O’Brien has done, will not be forgotten.
Gardaí believe they were linked to the bugging unfairly and without evidence.
Mr Callinan yesterday said he was “fully committed to working in full cooperation with GSOC”.
But he expressed concerns about GSOC’s ability to protect “highly sensitive personal details” of gardaí.
He specifically mentioned his concerns regarding how GSOC could ensure the safe protection of sensitive Garda intelligence — the kind GSOC demanded access to.
“I think the pigeon has come home to roost to a certain degree here,” he said.
He indicated this would be an issue now. This could result in more stand-offs, just as the sensitive penalty points investigation kicks off.
Not only does GSOC face this problem, but it also faces a furious staff body in the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, which called on Mr O’Brien to consider his position.
The Garda Representative Association has grave concerns over the security of its members’ personal details.
Is GSOC going to be able to restore a basic level of faith in its work from these associations and their members?
This is not to mention the faith members of the public have in the security of personal data they give to the watchdog.
And there’s plenty more fuel in the crisis tank yet.
We have further predicted revelations in tomorrow’s Sunday Times. It is likely these reports contain statements attributed to Mr O’Brien — although denied by him — which reflect badly on An Garda Síochána.
There will be more pigeons, or chickens, coming to roost yet.
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