WHAT is Martin Callinan afraid of? The Garda Commissioner has written to the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee demanding back files that the committee’s chairman, John McGuinness, has taken possession of and wants examined in public.
Is the commissioner uneasy about what may tumble out?
The files were handed over to McGuinness by a whistleblower within the force and pertain to the operation of the penalty points system for road safety. This story has been rumbling on for over a year since two whistleblowers went to TDs in frustration after their allegations gained little purchase through the normal channels.
An internal Garda report published last May dismissed many of the allegations and suggested that the cancellation of points was a relatively minor issue. A report compiled by the Comptroller and Auditor General published last month presented a picture of a far more widespread culture, but it has received little purchase.
The whistleblowers disputed the findings of the internal report, and at some point in the last few months, one of them went to McGuinness on the basis that cancellations had cost the exchequer millions of euro.
The Irish Examiner reported on Nov 9 that McGuinness received a “box of evidence” and was eager for the matter to be investigated. He suggested that the committee could hear evidence from both the whistleblower and the commissioner on the same day.
Now, citing that Irish Examiner story, the commissioner has written to McGuinness demanding that the files are returned. Mr Callinan has also contacted the Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, who has also written to McGuinness, suggesting that the receipt of the files may be a breach of the Data Protection Act.
But is the law on the side of both commissioners? Under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, a member of the force is entitled to reveal confidential information to “a member of either of the Houses of the Oireachtas where relevant to the proper discharge of the member’s function”.
The whistleblower has done just that. McGuinness, as chair of the PAC, has the function of keeping an eye on public monies, which have undoubtedly been lost through the maladministration of the penalty points system.
Both Callinan and Hawkes suggested in their respective correspondence with McGuinness that taking possession of the files may be a breach of the Data Protection Act. Again, the law may beg to differ.
Under the Data Protection Act 1988, (section 8 (b)), disclosure of data may be permitted “if required for the purpose of preventing, detecting or investigating offences, apprehending or prosecuting offenders or assessing or collection any tax, duty or other moneys owed or payable to the State”.
In this context, the data in question pertains to “moneys owed or payable to the State”.
Have the commissioners consulted the various acts in any great detail? There is also great irony attached to an attempt to retrieve the files from McGuinness.
Under the Garda Síochána Act cited above, another subsection allows for the disclosure to the Comptroller and Auditory General. The C&AG’s report was compiled on foot of such disclosures from the whistleblower. There was no objection to that disclosure. Months ago, when the whole affair blew up, another recipient of files about the operation of the penalty points system was none other than the Data Protection Commissioner.
Is McGuinness less entitled to view such files? Would somebody prefer if the whole matter did not get a public airing in front of legislators? Sitting on the sidelines, cheering on Mr Callinan, is none other than the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter. He has backed his commissioner to the hilt through this whole affair.
When last questioned about the issue in the Dáil earlier this month, Shatter said anybody who was unhappy about the internal garda report could go to the Oireachtas justice committee.
Instead of that committee, one of the whistleblowers went to the Public Accounts Committee. Surely Mr Shatter can’t have a problem with that? Surely not, particularly when his colleague, Leo Varadkar, stated publicly in June that he found the whistleblower to be a highly credible individual? Surely the minister wouldn’t like the whole affair to just go away?
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