Names of garda informants must be safeguarded
GARDA commissioner Martin Callinan is not a man given to exaggeration – that's what makes his comments to an Oireachtas committee this week all the more forceful.
In blunt terms, he laid out the scenario if sensitive security information was not handled properly by the garda watchdog.
"We will have bodies lying all over the country," he said, also telling the committee: "We have a long tradition in this country of how people feel about informants."
He painted this chilling scenario after being questioned about criticism of the force by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).
This criticism was contained in a report issued by the GSOC last May, which followed a four-year investigation into how gardai handled an informant, drug dealer Kieran Boylan.
The report criticised the force for delaying investigations into allegations of collusion between Boylan and gardai, and accused officers of delaying access to files. The DPP decided there should be no criminal prosecution arising from the Boylan investigation.
But central to Callinan's appearance before the committee was the GSOC's expression of concern at how informants were handled. From my experience, I agree with the commissioner when he describes disclosing informants' identities as "treacherous territory".
I spent 24 years as a detective. In that time, I discovered how complex, risky and problematic the relationship between the garda and the informant is.
But it's a vital job, one of the most important to safeguard personal and state security.
The gathering of intelligence is the bedrock of effective police work. Such information often prevents crimes, which can be more cost-effective than investigating them.
As you read this, gardai are getting information from informants. Some is trivial, some not. Some of it will prove invaluable in the fight against organised crime and subversives.
Over time, this intelligence proves instrumental in preventing gangland assassinations and pipebomb attacks, in intercepting drug hauls, solving armed robberies, preventing kidnappings and aiding in the discovery of arms caches.
There is one golden rule that underpins it all: the informant must remain anonymous.
The commissioner is therefore correct in insisting that protecting the identity of informants is of paramount importance, and intelligence information should only be disclosed when he has had assurances over who will see it and how it will be used.
Informants ("touts" or "rats" as they are known to their criminal brethren) have traditionally been held in contempt by their underworld associates.
If their identities are revealed, they face torture at best – and death in many cases.
I found that trust between the handler and the informant was the essence of this complex relationship.
The informant is placing his life in the hands of his handler. This places a duty on the garda to protect his source's identity.
Of course, there must be oversight. The garda covert human intelligence sources system (CHIS) ensures informants are listed with a central garda unit. This system is subject to annual review by a former High Court judge.
The GSOC was set up to ensure openness and accountability in the workings of the force.
Unfortunately, the necessary secrecy in the use of informants, and the vital role they play in assuring state security, can come up against this at times.
But this is one instance where it is in the public interest that certain matters be kept secret.
No outside agency should have ready access to files containing the identities of informants, or information leading to those identities being disclosed
Given the life and death issues at stake, the commissioner is right to insist on the most stringent conditions before he hands over any such information.