The difference between last week’s big story — Pantigate — and this week’s — the alleged bugging of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s (GSOC) office — is about 100 yards.
That’s what separates Miss Bliss’s Panti Bar on Dublin’s Capel Street and the GSOC office. Whether those near neighbours are in the habit of borrowing a cup of sugar from each other, I don’t know. It will hardly be the point at issue today when GSOC appears before the Joint Oireachtas committee on Public Service Oversight and petitions.
My first thought on reading John Mooney’s account in the Sunday Times, of the alleged bugging was that whoever was listening through the keyhole couldn’t hear a blessed thing with all the caterwauling up the street. What else could they do except bug.
I have done a bit of surveillance on the GSOC myself. It’s strategically situated opposite a kebab shop I occasionally patronise; a pit stop for soakage on the way home. I never saw anything suspicious then, and I remain to be convinced of anything to the contrary on the basis of information in the public domain, that there is anything suspicious now.
Not, mind you, that I would go so far as to say ‘move on, there’s nothing to see here’.
Capel Street is almost singular in Dublin in being one of the last shopping streets not to be colonised by chain stores. All of life can be observed on that corner of Capel Street and Upper Abbey Street. It is the junction of a faintly gay triangle by night and the legal quarter of the Four Courts, Bridewell and barristers’ chambers by day.
This bugging issue is a disturbing story that leaves a lot to be explained. For now most of the reputation at risk belongs to the GSOC. From Sunday morning there was a gathering expectation of an explosive scandal at the heart of the State. Should any involvement by any member of An Garda Siochána in bugging or attempting to bug the offices of the GSOC emerge it would be nothing less. For now, however, there is no proof, only suspicion. That suspicion was accentuated not allayed by the statement issued by GSOC after their meeting with Justice Minister Alan Shatter on Monday.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan certainly thought so and immediately, in barely coded language, demanded the GSOC put up or shut up. It absolutely has to do either. Regardless of how the mêlée between An Garda Siochána and the GSOC ends, it has seriously damaged both bodies.
Authoritative institutions now enjoy more suspicion than loyalty. Tribunal reports like Morris and Smithwick have dented trust in An Garda Siochána. The ongoing row over penalty points and how they were discharged for some people remains an unresolved issue and a cause of public concern. The Garda Commissioner’s appearance at the Public Accounts Committee on the issue, though he probably had more of the right of it than his critics on the committee, further dented public support.
At least three critical questions are outstanding. Firstly was there an attempt to bug the GSOC? John Mooney’s story plainly said there was and he amplified that view in media interviews. The GSOC referred in its statement after meeting Minister Shatter to “three technical and electronic anomalies” in its communication systems. For now the public has a newspaper report about what a technical investigation supposedly found. Given the enormity of the issues of trust, and their consequences for accountability in our democracy, we have a right and the GSOC have an obligation to substantiate the nature of the “electronic anomalies” discovered.
The second question to be asked is if there was an attempt to bug the GSOC who is responsible? Suspicion immediately turned towards An Garda Síochána and more especially a possibly rogue element within it. This, should it materialise, would be an Irish version of the “appalling vista” Lord Denning spoke of in relation to the Birmingham Six. In that instance the “appalling vista” materialised. The British police and justice systems proved to be rotten from the core for those defendants. In this case we should remember a similar right to the presumption of innocence and not pre-empt it. There is not, as of now, a shred of evidence in the public domain to link any Garda element to any alleged bugging of the GSOC’s office.
The third question to be asked is every bit as serious for the GSOC. The manner in which Sunday’s story emerged into the public domain is deeply disquieting. This is not an issue as yet addressed by the Ombudsman Commission. But it must. If it is logical, should there have been a sophisticated bugging operation, to ask if there was any Garda involvement, it is equally logical to ask if the GSOC or sources within it were the basis for John Mooney’s story. As a respected journalist with an obligation to his source he can be expected to give no assistance. But the implication for the Ombudsman Commission is that it is incapable of dealing confidentially with the most sensitive issues within its remit.
Whatever the intention of the source of the story in speaking to Mooney, the fact of the leak seriously undermines confidence in the operation of the body.
The point has been well made that the GSOC was under no obligation to inform government of its concerns about whatever bugging event it suspected had happened. The shambles on Monday of being summoned by the minister for justice and its subsequent craven expression of regret about not having informed him sooner, further undermined the credibility and critically the independence of the GSOC.
For now we know there may possibly, but no more, have been a very serious attempt to bug a body charged with an essential duty of oversight in the State. Over the years of its existence it has clearly been frustrated by a willful lack of cooperation from An Garda Síochána, and a lack of legal power and qualified resources. Frustrated and under-supported the GSOC is now between the crosshairs of an insinuation originating from itself about the police force it is established to oversee and which remains unsubstantiated. This is simply untenable.
I do not rule out the possibility that a combination of attrition over a long period has been followed by an attempt at outright sabotage. Whatever the truth, the GSOC has a serious responsibility to clarify in public today what the truth is. GSOC needs to ask itself, and it needs to answer in public, the question of whether it has the capacity, the internal cohesion and the credibility to exercise the commission it was given in law in relation to An Garda Síochána.
If not, it should consider returning that commission to the State and let the consequences fall where they may.
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