Scandals overshadow everything else for An Garda Síochána

Caroline O’Doherty details the litany of headline-grabbing incidents involving An Garda Síochána over the past number of years.

They’ve risked breaking the law to go on strike, tackled the bloodiest gangland war ever seen in this country and lost two of their members to vicious murders.

Yet when it comes to headlines for An Garda Síochána these past few years, scandal eclipses everything else.

During the most shocking days of the Morris Tribunal hearings, it would have been hard to imagine things getting worse. This was a tale of faked evidence, false allegations, intimidation of those who tried to speak out, blind eyes turned by senior members — indiscipline run riot.

However, as Morris was issuing his report in 2008 — perhaps even inspired by the hope that the tribunal would change the culture in the force — Maurice McCabe was raising for the first time his concerns about botched criminal investigations in the Cavan-Monaghan division — and was learning very quickly that his observations were not welcome.

The efforts he made to have the failings he witnessed addressed, and the extent to which senior figures sought to silence him, only began to be hinted at in 2012 when the penalty-points fixing scandal emerged.

Over two years there were separate inquiries into that scandal by Garda HQ, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee and the Garda Inspectorate, each concluding in one way or another that the force had questions to answer.

In return, the treatment of Sgt McCabe and fellow whistleblower John Wilson worsened and in January 2014 Commissioner Martin Callinan labelled them “disgusting” at a PAC hearing he had wanted to block Sgt McCabe from attending. His comments cause a political row and public furore.

By March, Callinan was gone, having taken ‘retirement’ but his departure, preceded by a late night visit to his home by a senior civil servant sent by the Taoiseach, caused unease and led to the setting up of the Fennelly Commission.

Fennelly wasn’t just looking at irregularities in the ending of a police chief’s career, however, but also the simultaneous revelation that phonecalls in Garda stations had been routinely recorded for years, flouting solicitor-client confidentiality.

However, that wasn’t all. It emerged that GSOC, the Garda complaints body, had brought in security experts over suspicions that its premises was being bugged. The inference was that only gardaí could have carried out such surveillance, but an inquiry by Judge John Cooke, found no such evidence — although he said the sophistication of modern bugging equipment meant it could not be ruled out.

Meanwhile, those issues Sgt McCabe had tried to raise in 2008 had emerged again. A litany of examples of flaws, failures and flouting of basic procedures in criminal investigations, including a murder, they led to the appointment of barrister Sean Guerin to carry out a scoping exercise to see if a full inquiry was warranted. It was, and the O’Higgins Commission was set up.

So just to recap, the line-up of scandals by mid-2014 was penalty-points fixing, abuse of whistleblowers, potential abuse of power in the sacking of a Garda commissioner, illegal recording of citizens’ phone calls, possible bugging of the Garda complaints body and shocking failures in criminal investigation in the Cavan-Monaghan division.

There followed at the end of 2014 a Garda Inspectorate report on criminal investigation by the force generally which showed shockingly poor standards in training, management, supervision, procedures, resourcing and attitudes. That should have signalled that whatever was left to come from the outstanding inquiries needed to be published, accepted and addressed without delay so that attention could return to the business of policing.

However, the publication of the Higgins Report, and particularly the leaking of selective parts of it where questions about Sgt McCabe were raised before release of the full report which backed Sgt McCabe, ensured that scandal would dominate the agenda once again.

It emerged this was just the latest, and not the worst, attempt to blacken the whistleblower. Through the protected disclosures of former Garda press officer David Taylor, the O’Neill Report and now the setting up of the Charleton Commission, we know there’s another very unsavoury chapter ahead.

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