Penalty points scandal - Let’s learn the lessons this time

In the last 30 years we’ve had a plethora of tribunals, commissions, investigations and reports, so many in fact it is hard to understand why we do not live in a perfect society.

Penalty points scandal - Let’s learn the lessons this time

A lot of dirty linen has been washed in public and, therefore, we should be perfectly placed to build an ideal, exemplary way of living, one even the very odd Scandinavian might envy.

Some of those look-in-the-mirror purges, none of them court cases, were: the infanticide-provoked, misogyny-fuelled Kerry Babies Inquiry; the Hamilton Beef Tribunal; the McCracken Tribunal into payments to politicians by Ben Dunne; Mahon and Moriarty — planning and political corruption; Lindsay on contaminated blood; Barr on Abbeylara; Morris on Garda mafiosi in Donegal; the Travers Report on overcharging at nursing homes — the bill, a relatively moderate €500m; Ferns on child abuse; Smithwick on Garda collusion with the IRA; Baker-Tilly into procurement practices at Córas Iompair Éireann; the Ryan and Murphy reports; and far, far too many others, on institutionalised abuse of children and, of course, McAleese on the Magdalen Laundries. On top of all of those there have been reports, investigations, and even the odd commission on health services, education, medical malpractice.

Despite Regling-Watson’s and Holohan’s initial reports we may, in time, have a banking inquiry, even if it looks today that it might be a version of Hamlet without the prince.

We’ve had an inquiry on a train crash — Buttevant 1980 — and even one when the oil tanker Betelgeuse blew up on Whiddy Island in January 1979 killing 50 people. In the context of trying to understand why Ireland is as it is, the influence of the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements are significant too. The Saipan kerfuffle was also pretty revealing.

All of this national self-analysis represents a deep ploughing of how we behave and feel, how we interact and how we modify, or not, our behaviour on foot of conclusions reached by various tribunals. They also reveal our expectations of each other, of Government, of our justice system and of society in general.

Some tribunals have been effective agents for change, others less so. Now we are about to embark on another Commission of Investigation, this time into the seemingly routine tapping of phone calls made to and from some Garda stations. If initial fears around this practice are confirmed, and the indications are that they will be, and the security of some convictions and tribunals’ reports are undermined, the consequences will be seismic.

Already, defence lawyers have begun initiating appeals in some of the most serious cases seen in the country in the last decade. Should this appalling vista be made real it will cast a dark shadow over the legacy of those Garda officers who facilitated this phone tapping. Unfortunately, it will also have an impact on how the general force, the great majority who were not even aware of this practice that may have strayed into illegality, is perceived by the public.

Government is at long, long last to establish a policing commission to stand between An Garda Síochána and politicians. This must be a decision everyone caught in the crossfire of recent days and weeks will welcome. For far too long, the relationship between some senior gardaí and some senior politicians has been inappropriate and sometimes downright dangerous.

All the tribunals of recent decades had a retrospective focus, they sifted through evidence to establish or discount wrongdoing. Is it just possible that the time has come to have a forward-looking tribunal, one that would involve all stakeholders, to try to prevent a recurrence of the events of recent weeks? Maybe even bolt the door before the horse escapes? Remember these events achieve little enough other than deepen division, undermine our institutions, engender cynicism and distract from more important issues.

If the commission were to begin its work by holding hearings, along the lines of the constitutional convention say, and agree a blueprint for a police force acceptable to all, then recent events might have a lasting benefit. We have the police force the Government and Garda officers imagine we need, even if that is not the one ideally suited, structurally or culturally, to winning the support of the great majority of people. This seems a perfect moment to rebuild what is an essential relationship, but before that can happen another resignation is required. Nothing that has happened this week does anything other than strengthen the view that Justice Minister Alan Shatter has lost the credibility demanded by his office. Will we have to wait until another senior civil servant is sent to make an after-hours house call?

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