A former police watchdog has said there is strong evidence An Garda Síochána has a blue wall which acts as a cover-up for wrongdoing.
Nuala O’Loan – the North’s first police ombudsman - called for a clearer, more accessible declaration of what the public can reasonably and legally expect from the force and what is classed as malpractice within the ranks.
“Where there is a culture of cover up, where officers are encouraged to protect one another from accountability for their wrongdoing, there will be what is generally called a ’blue wall’,” she said.
“I have seen it in every police service I have encountered. From what I have read of the recent reports on Garda whistleblowers, I would be fairly sure An Garda Síochánais no different from any other force.”
O’Loan made the call at a seminar on justice reform in Farmleigh, Dublin attended by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and interim Garda commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan along with scores of concerned groups and individuals.
It was confirmed that recruitment for the next commissioner will begin next month, including international adverts for the open competition for the first time.
Ms Fitzgerald said she wants to see the new Garda Authority, which will not be in place until the end of the year, have some role in the appointment.
She said the forum had been organised on the back of the Cooke report into bugging allegations at the Garda Ombudsman’s office, the Guerin report into the handling of whistleblower allegations, the wrongdoing exposed by the officers involved and the long-running controversy over the wiping of penalty points.
She said these were issues of deep regret.
“The concerns that have emerged are not just confined to specific matters or individual cases but they also point to broader systematic failures which have called into question the capacity of the Garda organisation to function properly and to carry out its core tasks,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
Ms O’Sullivan said she wanted to reiterate commitments she gave when she took over from Martin Callinan following his retirement in March on the back of reports of recorded phonecalls at Garda stations.
“Openness isn’t just a word to me. It’s real,” the senior officer said.
“I’ve stated – and I’ll state it again here – that An Garda Síochána needs to craft a new relationship with our ’critical friends,’ internal and external. That kind of openness doesn’t weaken us. It strengthens us. And an important ’critical friend’ and future partner will be the independent police authority.”
She said working with the new authority, the Garda Ombudsman and the Garda Inspectorate can only enhance public confidence in the force.
“I’m pushing for massive change – not all of which will be welcomed within the organisation, inevitably – and I’m pushing for continuity, too,” she said.
A raft of changes are under way in the state’s policing and justice system including a judicial inquiry into the recording of phone calls at Garda stations, the establishment of the authority, a Commission of Investigation into the whistleblower allegations, a Garda Inspectorate review of serious crime investigation and management and review issues from the Guerin report, a Garda Ombudsman inquiry into the penalty points saga, an independent review of the Department of Justice due next month and new whistleblower rules to protect and support officers.
Ms Fitzgerald said: “Very clearly, the confidence of the public in the Garda Síochána has been seriously undermined. It is essential that this confidence is restored.”
The Garda Ombudsman is to get new powers as part of the wider reform agenda with the commissioner to fall under its remit while its investigative powers will also be enhanced and it will be allowed to review practices and procedures in the force on its own initiative.
In a lengthy address to the seminar, Ms O’Loan drew on her international experience of police forces and warned that the Garda Ombudsman is not properly empowered, resourced or independent.
“Introducing independent investigation of allegations against police officers is not easy, but the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. You have a moment of opportunity now. It will be challenging and difficult. If you follow through and seize the moment Ireland will have better structures of governance overall,” she said.
During her years as the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland up to 2007 Ms O’Loan’s office dealt with 21,000 investigations and 35,000 allegations involving a force which had around 13,000 officers plus civilian staff when she took over in 1999.