That Minister for Justice Alan Shatter was able to tell the Dáil last evening that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission had informed him there was no evidence that its offices had been under technical or electronic surveillance is a very welcome development.
In reality it is much more than welcome. It is essential that the minister was in a position to do so because the integrity of our policing and justice systems would have been questioned — justifiably — had he and the GSOC not offered that steady-the-ship clarification.
The Government’s commitment to accountability and openness, already strained by the responsibilities of power but still a priority of the electorate, would have been another casualty of the affair. Mr Shatter’s announcement makes it possible too to be less concerned, though not entirely unconcerned, about how our legislature, An Garda Síochána and the GSOC interact. The episode also points to the reality of how very difficult it is to lead cultural change and impose new ideas and obligations on organisations once almost independent, unquestioned fiefdoms operating as satellites of the State.
The furore, and how it revealed the beliefs and characteristics of some of the central players, may in time be seen as a three-day wonder. Nevertheless, it leaves many questions unanswered and some realities unaltered — and that assertion stands despite last night’s clarification.
One of the questions must be why, if the GSOC concerns were provoked by a routine communications check, was the minister so very agitated that he was not informed of the inconclusive details? His response seems at least disproportionate as it must be assumed that very many Government departments or agencies are from time to time targeted in such a way.
If some of the uncomfortable realities that animated the last few days were accepted, confronted and resolved then some good may yet come from the episode. The stark fact is that the allegations and all of the suspicions it fuelled — justified or otherwise — would not have got traction had an atmosphere of doubt bordering on suspicion not existed already.
Last night’s announcement does not alter the fact either that Mr Shatter has, on at least two occasions, very inappropriately sidelined the GSOC. Once when he sanctioned an internal Garda investigation into the driving points scandal, second, when he extended the remit of the children’s ombudsman to investigate the Garda role in seizing Romanian children in Dublin last year. Both of these cases were precisely the kind of situation the GSOC was set up to investigate. That the minister chose a different path undermined the GSOC publicly and gravely. Those decisions, even if tacitly, also encouraged that minority of gardaí who felt free to treat the agency’s democratically endorsed remit and investigations with contempt. So too does the fact that the GSOC has been denied unfettered access to the Garda computer system, a limitation that makes effective and prompt investigations all but impossible.
Speaking during Leaders’ Questions, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was important that there’s “clarity leading to confidence regarding the institution of the GSOC”.
That is another welcome declaration but he and his ministers, as the last few days have shown, have a lot to do before that point it reached. And until it is, public perception will remain a fertile source of the scepticism and suspicion so obvious in recent days.
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