herald

Monday 20 October 2014

A force in chaos with morale on the floor – so is there any way back for our gardai? WHO would have thought that the thuggish behaviour of two gardai in a dark, late-night Waterford street would result in a full-blown State security crisis?

Yet, now that the dust is beginning to settle, that is what has come to pass.

The Waterford case, which saw two gardai subsequently convicted of assaulting a man, Anthony Holness, and another with perverting the course of justice, should have set off the alarm bells in Garda Headquarters and in the Department of Justice.

During the course of the trial it emerged that phone calls in and out of Waterford Garda Station had been recorded.

The Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission reported on this matter last June, in the wake of the conviction of the three gardai (a fourth officer was cleared).

The GSOC report, posted on its website, questioned the legality of recording calls in this manner.

TAPING

Despite being publicly available, this report went under the radar, it seems, both at Garda HQ and the Department of Justice.

It subsequently emerged that last November then Commissioner Martin Callinan (right) became aware of the widespread practice of the taping of calls at a number of garda stations, which had gone on since the 1980s.

On March 10, he wrote to an official at the Department of Justice to notify Minister Alan Shatter of the matter. Incredibly Shatter says he was not made aware of the letter until March 25.

When the Taoiseach was informed of the taping, the Secretary General at Justice, Brian Purcell, was sent to the Garda Commissioner's home, on March 24. Callinan was told of the Government's grave concerns.

He resigned the following day – the first victim, in my opinion, of the issue.

As a garda who served in the 80s and 90s I must confess that I was as shocked when I heard of the widespread recording of calls. I was aware that all 999 calls are recorded. I was also aware that during The Troubles calls to garda divisional headquarters along the Border were recorded. Given the amount of paramilitary activity during those years, this it was justified.

But since the Good Friday Agreement, there was no reason why this should have continued, at any garda station.

Put bluntly, the taping of calls between prisoners and their solicitors is illegal.

But I do not agree with recent alarmist reports that it will lead to the widespread release of dozens of killers and gangsters.

But there are serious concerns in a separate matter, that of Ian Bailey's case against the State for wrongful arrest.

It now emerges that 133 recordings and transcripts were made in relation to the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder case, which Bailey is seeking copies of. What's on these tapes could prove to be very serious indeed for the force and the administration of justice.

Taken as a whole, the revelations have plunged An Garda Siochana into an ever deepening crisis. The penalty points' fiasco, the whistleblowers' controversy and now the garda bugging scandal have shaken the force to its core.

Public confidence is at an all time low, morale among members is on the floor, it's reported. This week, Taoiseach Enda Kenny branded the structure of the force as "chaotic". Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Possibly.

The establishment of a statutory Garda Authority is a vital first step to repairing the force.

It will free it from political interference. An Garda Siochana, and the citizens it serves, needs it and needs it now.

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