Gardaí in crisis - We all need a rejuvenated police force

Yesterday’s startling events, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan’s resignation and Cabinet revelations about widespread Garda telephone bugging, came as close to rendering the acronym GUBU insufficient as any scandal since double-murderer Malcom McArthur was arrested in the home of then attorney general Patrick Connolly in the summer of 1982.

Gardaí in crisis  - We all need a rejuvenated police force

The day’s first upheaval, Mr Callinan’s resignation, was inevitable but unfortunate. It destabilises the Government and further undermines An Garda Síochána. Unless the departure is the catalyst for the reform that should have followed the Morris and Smithwick reports it may in time, sadly, be seen as just another empty gesture. The announcement of an independent Garda authority is welcome, but judgement will have to wait until it is seen it can act with autonomy. This caution is unavoidable because of Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s sidelining of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

The second Gubu-esque moment, unexpected and sinister, came with the disclosure that a system existed in many Garda stations to record all telephone calls as recently as November. This just adds to the momentum undermining the force, one that fuels the dispiriting sense that another cornerstone institution of society is imploding. That sense is exacerbated by the fact that just as then Commissioner Callinan was being so very critical of Garda whistleblowers for revealing what he termed “personal details” around penalty points, many of his officers were, it seems, sanctioned to record phone calls without the knowledge of those being recorded. A charge of hypocrisy is the very least that can be levelled. The tradition of selecting a commissioner’s successor from within the senior ranks of the force must now come into question.

Mr Shatter will answer questions in the Dáil tomorrow and it is imperative he should say when he knew of the Garda phone tapping and what his response was. He has no wriggle room left on this and anything less than a plausible, convincing response must bring his ministerial career to an end. This revelation shows the allegations around bugging the GSOC in a new, more disconcerting light. The immediate establishment of a statutory commission to investigate the phone tapping is appropriate but that too will be another empty gesture unless it provokes the changes so obviously needed.

Mr Callinan’s decision does not bring the penalty points saga to anything approaching a conclusion. It represents, like so many facets of this tawdry affair, a symptom rather than a solution. It raises as many suspicions as it allays, one being why did Mr Callinan sacrifice a four-decade career rather than modify the vocabulary he used at the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee? This question is relevant as it is believed he immediately recognised the inappropriateness of the word “disgusting”. His inflexibility on one of the very minor aspects of this affair is perplexing. His decision will concentrate attention on Mr Shatter whose role in the affair very much mirrors the behaviour that led to Mr Callinan’s decision to resign. If the Coalition agrees, even if under duress, to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to pass, three imminent reports into Garda behaviour ensure that the affair will run for quite some time. Whether Mr Shatter’s robust self assurance, and the support offered by the older members of Cabinet can withstand that period of intense scrutiny is questionable — as is his position as justice minister. Indeed, if the roles of Mr Callinan and Mr Shatter in the penalty points affair are compared, it is not difficult to argue that the wrong man has resigned — despite Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s assertion to the contrary.

There are two other points worth considering on foot of yesterday’s events: Had Mr Callinan’s PAC testimony, and the bile that animated it, not been seen repeatedly on television he might still be commissioner. This must be an argument for broadcasting more of the pivotal events, ones like the Anglo Irish Bank trial say. Another is that Transport Minister Leo Vardakar’s intervention, apparently criticised by Fine Gael backbenchers was entirely warranted. Those who criticised him might consider how their don’t-rock-the-boat position sustained the behaviour that has done so much to undermine the Government and the gardaí.

This is a complex and growing scandal centred on a deeply demoralised and under-resourced police force that is sometimes too close to government but, ironically, a solution can only come from our political establishment. Clarity, integrity, a robust objectivity and a determination that we have a police force that we can all respect must be the objective. Yesterday’s events underline how very great a challenge that has become.

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