Legislators and GSOC have failed - Snooping on journalists

IT is entirely appropriate that Taoiseach Enda Kenny should rebuke the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission for secretly examining the phone records — and possibly emails — of journalists over a minor complaint in a case that had absolutely nothing to do with State security or organised crime.

It is entirely appropriate too that the legislation which facilitated such an ill-judged, counter-productive misadventure is to be immediately reviewed, though an imminent general election means that any legislative change depends on the priorities of the next Government. Even if legislation is long-fingered it is impossible to imagine that GSOC, or any other State agency, will use current regulations in such a cack-handed way again. Or at least it should be.

GSOC is no stranger to controversy, controversies that unfortunately undermine its potential to be an agent for change and reform within our insular, conservative police force. Set up as a watchdog to deal with complaints against the gardaí the body set in train a chain of career-ending events two years ago when it claimed its offices were bugged. The subsequent controversy, in one way or another, cost the then Justice Minister Alan Shatter and the then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan their jobs. Those allegations were found to be groundless by retired High Court judge John Cooke who, after an extensive investigation, concluded there was no evidence of bugging by any person or group, and “much less” that the gardaí might have been responsible.

Another controversy had far more tragic consequences — a garda in Donegal took his life because of the strain of a GSOC investigation into a fatal traffic accident. Tragically, the man had been cleared of wrongdoing before his suicide but had not been made aware of that conclusion by GSOC or anyone else.

It is of course unfortunate that GSOC should have squandered its credibility but the parliamentarians who agreed to legislation that facilitated such a haughty indifference to privacy rights have a case to answer too — and Mr Kenny’s, and his cabinet colleagues’, admonishment of the agency must be seen in that light. This weakness might have been identifed if the legislation was properly considered and then debated by the Oireachtas — a situation that would have been possible if the promises on Dáil reform were honoured.

Be that as it may this controversy may be the catalyst needed to update legislation around how an individual’s electronic communications might be reviewed by the State. It is an opportunity to establish a central authority that uses, as required, very senior legal, policing, and civil liberties professionals who will assess, and have the final say on, applications to secretly review citizens’ electronic communications. As our real lives are virtually adjuncts to the lives we lead online ever more State agencies will have legitimate reasons to do this. The great tragedy of this sorry affair though is the comfort it will offer to those diehard gardaí who resent, oppose, and stymie the work of agencies asked to reform the force. That is the real price of the poor legislative oversight and GSOC’s very poor judgement.

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