IN THE beginning, the penalty points story had some celebrity wattage. A judge was alleged to have been the beneficiary of cancelled points.
A high-profile journalist was also whispered in dispatches. Then there was an Irish sports star of excellent repute. All were understood to have benefited from a system in which it was alleged those on the inside, or the upper echelons, received favours on the basis of their status.
In reality, the celebrity wattage was just a side issue. What was really being uncovered was a system that had been corrupted by the nod-and-wink culture that was supposed to have been consigned to the past. It wasn’t “who you were” that determined whether you got to cheat the law, but “who you knew” in the gardaí.
The penalty points system is credited with contributing in a major way to the plummeting rate of fatalities on Irish roads over the last decade. It was introduced through the Road Traffic Act 2002, and involves the attachment of points for a range of offences, most prominently speeding and using a mobile phone while driving.
It now informs the drafting of insurance policies. Those who have accumulated points can expect to pay higher premiums. In such a system, confidence in its operation is crucial.
Last year, evidence began to tumble out that there was one law for those in the know, and another for the mugs. The evidence originated with two whistleblowers within the force (one of whom has since retired). Initially, they went through the proper channels, contacting the Official Garda Recipient in Jul 2012. This office was set up to receive material from whistleblowers within the force.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter was informed, but very little happened. Frustrated, the whistleblowers approached a group of independent TDs, including Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. They brought their concerns to the floor of the Dáil. Among the allegations was one featuring a motorist who had been involved in a fatal collision a few months after having had penalty points cancelled.
Under pressure, Shatter asked Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan to investigate. On Dec 12 last year, Shatter told the Dáil that the allegations concerned 197 cases of cancelled points, out of 1.4 million notices issued. Any casual observer might see this as the most minor of issues.
The following month, a not-so-minor issue occurred. Claire Daly, who had been very vocal on the penalty points story, was arrested on suspicion of drink driving.
“I was arrested and handcuffed on the side of the road,” she said.
“I objected to being handcuffed and stated that I would willingly go to the garda station. I was told by the arresting garda that this was ‘procedure’. At one point I was placed in a cell on my own. A doctor was called and I provided a urine sample. When I was released a female garda told me to ‘come back when you are sober’.”
As it was to turn out, Daly had been as sober as a judge on the night in question. Her blood alcohol level was well within the legal limit. It would be interesting to know how many women arrested on suspicion of drink driving are routinely handcuffed. As it would be to know how many male members of parliament ever arrested for anything were ever subjected to the application of handcuffs. Daly made a complaint to the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission about the matter. The investigation by GSOC is ongoing.
The internal Garda investigation into the points’ cancellation was headed by Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney, who reported in May. It recommended disciplinary action against three of 113 senior officers found to have cancelled fixed charge notices. It also dismissed the most serious allegation concerning a motorist involved in a fatal accident.
THE Irish Examiner understands that no attempt was made by the investigation team to interview either whistleblower. The nature of the investigation might be summed up by the fact that the two whistleblowers were not even interviewed in the course of the inquiry.
On publication, Shatter backed the inquiry to the hilt. He went on RTÉ’s Prime Time with Mick Wallace, who stated his belief that the investigation was a whitewash. In the course of their debate, Shatter turned his guns on Wallace, pointing out that he had benefited from discretion, just like the thousands who had points cancelled.
All hell broke loose: Was the Minister for Justice abusing his office? Where did he get the dope on Wallace?
It turned out that the Garda commissioner had informed him.
“It was my judgement that it was both necessary and in the public interest that I point out that Deputy Wallace had himself been a beneficiary of that discretionary exercise,” Shatter told the Dáil. Wallace’s offence was to pick up his mobile phone while behind the wheel. A garda pulled up beside him and told him to put it away. Conflating such a minor matter with wholesale cancellation of penalty points at official level reflected badly on a minister who seemed determined to protect his commissioner, come hell or high water.
Later it turned out that Shatter had had his own roadblock issues before assuming his current office, but that also blew over.
The overall thrust of the whistleblowers’ allegations — that a culture existed in some quarters of cancelling notices willy nilly — was not properly addressed in the O’Mahoney report.
An analysis of hundreds of cases of cancelled points published in this newspaper painted a different picture. There were flimsy — and even ridiculous — reasons for cancellations. There was a pattern of repeat offenders receiving cancellations. And there was a recurring issue of officers cancelling offences that occurred outside their immediate bailiwick.
All of these themes cropped up in the Comptroller and Auditor general report into the affair published in late September. One of the whistleblowers had gone to the C&AG on the basis of the monies lost through wholesale cancellations. That report found that one in five notices issued went unpaid or had points attached. One in nine of all offences detected didn’t result in any summons being served or fine paid. The report also highlighted the ludicrous excuses accepted, such as being late for a swimming lesson and a religious ceremony.
Another agency contacted by one of the whistleblowers was the Public Accounts Committee. An investigation by the committee would result in a public airing of the whole affair. Two weeks ago, the chairman of the PAC, John McGuinness, told the Irish Examiner he would like to see both the commissioner and one of the whistleblowers giving evidence on the same day next January. The whistleblower had indicated to McGuinness that he was willing to testify.
Now, the commissioner is demanding a return of the files. Strangely, he didn’t voice any objection to the C&AG’s report based on receipt of a similar batch of files. He has cited data protection legislation to back up his claim, but there are provisions in the legislation for data to be disseminated in pursuit of monies lost to the state.
The whole issue could have been done and dusted by now if Shatter had asked an outside agency such as the GSOC to investigate.
As usual in cases like this, there have been repeated attempts to blacken the whistleblowers. Offered little protection by the State, both men have also been subjected to unflattering characterisations in elements of the media.
But above all, the dragging out of the issue has impacted on confidence in a vital tool of road safety, and morale among those gardaí operating to the best of their ability at the frontline of the traffic corps.
One good thing that has emerged from the year-long controversy is a healthier population of motorists. The most common excuse used in the past for cancelling points was “medical emergency”. Since the airing of the issue, the volume of medical emergencies has plummeted. For those who don’t believe in coincidences, this must represent excellent news about the nation’s health.
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