Michael Clifford


GSOC controversy highlights the joke of a democratic Ireland

The notion that we live in a true democracy is a joke, judging by the response by Government, gardaí, and parts of the media to suspected bug at GSOC offices, says Michael Clifford

WHO would be a watchdog in a dysfunctional democracy? The events of the last five days demonstrate that in one vital area, this State resembles something plucked from the dark imagination of Franz Kafka, rather than amodern European country.

Last Sunday, The Sunday Times revealed that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s premises had, in layman’s terms, been bugged.

Three different potential security breaches were identified in sweeps last September and October. Modern surveillance techniques ensure that the presence of interception cannot be definitively established. But in one of the three threats, the possibility that it was not bugged was rated at “close to nil” by the counter-surveillance company which discovered it.

In most democracies, this would be a matter of grave concern. Who could be bugging GSOC? Who, other than members of An Garda Síochána, would have any reason to do so? It is possible that highly organised criminals might engage in this behaviour, but surely they would have more interesting targets to bug — the gardaí themselves, for example.

The implications are enormous. Yet among large sections of government, media, and the national police force, a concerted effort was made to divert all attention from a possible assault on the heart of our alleged democracy.

On Monday, the Irish Independent ran with the headline ‘Garda Watchdog to be grilled over failure to report spying probe’. The thrust of the story was that GSOC was in the dock for not reporting that it had been bugged. It was akin to suggesting that the victim of an assault was to blame for the crime because they didn’t report it to the gardaí.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny picked up on the theme. Later that day, he played down the notion of a bugging scandal, and instead had a cut at GSOC.

“Most importantly, Section 80 subsection 5 of the Garda Síochána Act requires that GSOC would report unusual matters or matters of exceptional importance to the minister for justice and that’s a fundamental issue that GSOC needs to explain to the minister for justice,” said Kenny.

Kenny is not noted for his grasp of detail, but here he was quoting the exact provision of a law. Except there was no such law, unless the Taoiseach had, in a Kafkaesque flourish, taken it upon himself to invent one as he went along.

The section he quoted states that GSOC “may” inform the minister if it believes a serious issue warrants his attention. There was no obligation on GSOC to inform Shatter, but Kenny, like others, was seeking some deflection from the real story.

It didn’t matter who had bugged GSOC. What was at issue was the GSOC heads hadn’t informed the minister for justice. If they had, Alan Shatter would presumably have donned a Superman cape and flown off to nab the bad guys.

The chairman of GSOC, Simon O’Brien, was summoned to Shatter’s office to explain why he hadn’t informed the minister. After the meeting, O’Brien issued a statement in which he said he “regretted” not telling Shatter earlier.

Shatter is charged with overseeing justice, security, and policing in this state. Yet his main concern over the breach of surveillance in GSOC was that he hadn’t been filled in.

Shatter effectively carpeted O’Brien. In doing so, the minister dealt a blow to the independence of GSOC. Could anybody imagine Shatter dressing down the Garda commissioner in a similar manner? Since he came to power, Shatter has repeatedly sided with the gardaí when tensions flared between the force and GSOC. Here he was now, putting the independent agency in its place.

The GSOC statement on Monday evening included a line that the security breach unearthed “no evidence of garda misconduct”.

Cue righteous indignation from Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. A few weeks back, the commissioner didn’t mince his words in relation to whistleblowers in the force making allegations about garda misconduct. “Frankly, I think it’s disgusting,” he said then.

Now, with grave suspicions that the offices of an independent state agency had been bugged, the top cop in the country was more concerned with perceived insensitivities towards the force. He lined up to take a shot at O’Brien and his colleagues.

“It is a cause of grave concern that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s statement contains a clear indication that An Garda Síochána was in some way suspected of complicity in this matter despite GSOC’s overall finding that the existence of technical and electronic anomalies could not be conclusively explained,” Callinan stated.

Who did he think might be suspected of bugging an organisation charged with investigating gardaí? Mrs Brown’s boys? Donald Duck? The reference to the gardaí in the GSOC statement was made in the context of the whole country assuming that the person or persons most likely to have bugged the office would have come from Garda ranks. However, Callinan couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a cut. Another blow for GSOC, another chip away at its independence, a few more inches gained in shoving it towards the abyss of irrelevance.

By the next day, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors was calling for O’Brien’s head. Who cares who bugged GSOC? The commission was on the ropes, lined up to hand out another pummelling.

SINCE its inception under the 2005 Garda Síochána Act, GSOC has been held in barely concealed contempt by large swathes of the force.

In the early days, the investigative body made some mistakes. On one occasion, when an officer had taken his own life, GSOC swooped on the station with precious little sensitivity for bereaved colleagues of the dead man. In another instance, a GSOC member left a voice message for an officer which was interpreted as heavy-handed and legally threatening.

Yet, apart from incidents such as these, the main issue is that many in the force still balk at the spectre of an outside agency investigating how it does its business. Both the AGSI and the Garda Representative Association have been highly critical of GSOC at various junctures in the last six years.

This is the context in which the AGSI stuck the boot in this week, calling for O’Brien’s head, which would have undoubtedly further weakened GSOC’s independence.

On Tuesday evening, Shatter told the Dáil there was nothing to see here. There was no “definitive evidence” of a bugging, but the failure of GSOC to tell him about it “is a matter of substantial concern to me”.

Tell him about what? If he was to be believed, there was precious little to report. The main thing, though, was that everybody got off the bugging business. Move along there, now.

By Wednesday, the Indo had the whole thing nailed down: “Watchdog defies call to quit in ‘bugging’ scandal”. It was all about O’Brien limping on in this scandal that required inverted commas. Eyes front. No bugging in sight.

Later that day, at an Oireachtas hearing, O’Brien laid out the reality. He had been highly suspicious that somebody had at least been trying to breach the security of the agency. This position was at odds — certainly in emphasis — with that laid out by Shatter the previous day.

What angle is taken by RTÉ? That a major hunt was now on in GSOC to find out who leaked the story to The Sunday Times. Bugging, what bugging? The story had moved on from the failure to report to Shatter to the hunt for the leaker.

Quite obviously, some reporters who followed this thread have no grasp of irony.

Many crime reporters in this country, with some honourable exceptions, rely nearly exclusively on highly placed leaks within the force for their information. The relationship is grossly imbalanced, ensuring that reporters are reluctant to say or write anything that might not meet with approval in garda management. Yet now the GSOC story was the leak. What dastardly cur dared to leak information from a State agency concerned with security? It was a revealing week.

When faced with the prospect of upsetting their cozy cartel, garda management, government, and elements of the media moved swiftly to eliminate unpalatable truths. A possible scandal drawing in members of the gardaí would just not be tolerated by any of the parties. There is simply too much to lose. Lip service to democratic values is all very well, but when it comes to the crunch, everybody knows where their bread is buttered.

It is almost certain that somebody attempted to, or succeeded in, bugging the offices of an independent agency charged with policing the police. So what?

Those holding the reins of power apparently see their responsibilities purely in terms of their own positions. The notion that we live in a proper democracy is little short of a joke.

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