Justice minister should proceed with caution as shine fades on bright new era

In May, the justice minister stood in the Dáil and said the new system of reporting wrongdoing in the force was going well. Keith Harrison begged to differ. Yet his disclosures to the minister were not acted on, writes Michael Clifford
Justice minister should proceed with caution as shine fades on bright new era

KEITH Harrison was taken aback when he read what Frances Fitzgerald had said in the Dáil. The justice minister was speaking on the publication of the O’Higgins report into Garda malpractice last May.

She told the chamber the new system of reporting wrongdoing in the force was going fine. “I have discussed this subject on a number of occasions with Garda management and it is operating fully in line with legislation,” she said.

“There is no question but that it needs ongoing monitoring of the issue and to be vigilant to ensure that whistleblowers are dealt with properly.”

Harrison was of the strong opinion that he wasn’t being dealt with properly. He felt harassed, bullied, and isolated; what was more, he had written to the minister on that score nearly two years previously.

Harrison’s problems began when he arrested a colleague for alleged drink driving. He reported another colleague for what he believed was collusion in drug dealing, a claim that has recently been substantiated.

He finally made a protected disclosure when he saw little chance of respite from the intimidation he claimed he was being subjected to.

Soon after hearing the minister claiming a bright, new, shining era, he instructed his solicitor to write to her about her “recent extraordinary public comments about whistle-blowers”.

The letter painted a picture that suggested there was nothing new in how those who reported wrongdoing were treated.

“He has been the victim of a smear campaign by his superiors within the organisation and with the sole purpose of bullying our client into silence and to undermine his credibility,” according to his solicitor, Trevor Collins.

The reply was the cursory three-letter standard, acknowledging receipt and assuring the correspondent that the matter “is receiving attention”.

That was it. The issue was handed over to the gardaí. Over three months later, the solicitor wrote again.

“Our client is most disappointed that he has not had the courtesy of a full reply from the Minister as his ultimate employer. For the avoidance of any doubt as far as we are concerned, the state has failed in its duty to our client and continues to do so on a daily basis.

“The recent public utterances by you and Commissioner O’Sullivan regarding the treatment of whistle-blowers is a misrepresentation of the facts, false and misleading. It has caused our client and his family significant upset and has added further insult to injury.”

Once more, the response was that the matter was being given attention.

Under normal circumstances — or at least those that prevailed for decades — the minister could wash her hands of any of this stuff and merely dispatch it to the head of the force for resolution.

The minister’s role vis a vis the gardaí is akin to that of a chairperson of a corporate body, with the commissioner acting as chief executive. The allegations of harassment and intimidation are operational matters for which the commissioner is primarily responsible.

But these are not normal times. Fitzgerald owes her position to the political demise of her predecessor, Alan Shatter. One of his failings was how he placed trust in the management of An Garda Síochána even when alarm bells should have been ringing.

In this, he was no different from all those who went before him in the Justice brief, but he got unlucky.

Keith Harrison
Keith Harrison

Fitzgerald has seen first hand what happens when persistent cultural problems within the force spill over into the political domain. She couldn’t have believed that those issues were adequately addressed by the replacement of Martin Callinan with Nóirín O’Sullivan.

Callinan did not instigate the culture within the force, and O’Sullivan did not land in the commissioner’s office from Mars. She was her predecessor’s deputy, schooled and experienced in the same ways and means that had persisted for decades. If change was to happen under her watch, the biggest job on her hands would have been to attack her own professional DNA.

Fitzgerald, or at the very least, those around, should have been aware of all these issues. So when individual gardaí who have blown the whistle on wrongdoing wrote to her office — as Harrison and his colleague Nick Keogh did — the minister should have taken a keen interest in how their cases were progressing.

If alarm bells didn’t go off when Harrison corresponded through his solicitor in 2014, they most certainly should have two years later.

In any event, Fitzgerald was being kept informed of the plight of whistleblowers in the bright, new shining era in the chamber of Dáil Éireann.

Independents4Change TD Clare Daly brought up the matter 19 times over the last two years and her colleague Mick Wallace wasn’t far behind her. What did Fitzgerald think was afoot? Did she believe the two TDs were exaggerating? Did it not occur to her to properly examine what was going on in the force?

Yesterday in the Dáil, Wallace asked her why now, after all that has unfolded, was she insisting there be no rush to judgment. “How in God’s name can you say you are dealing with these matters?” said Wallace.

“You talk of a rush to judgment; two years?” he said, referencing how long Harrison and Keogh have been condemned to the wilderness.

“Nothing has changed, minister, nothing,” concluded Wallace.

He may be right and the minister would do well to proceed with caution.

Maybe she should call up Shatter and ask him to advise her on what not to do now that she finds herself in a similar position to what he faced a few years back.

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