Wednesday 23 January 2019

Garda watchdog may have blown our trust for good

When Alan Shatter appears on the Late Late Show tonight, it is unlikely to be for a cosy chat about writing steamy novels.

Instead, the former Justice Minister - famously depicted as a vampire by Oliver Callan - may be out for blood.

Over four months since he resigned from cabinet, Shatter is bitterly resentful of his treatment by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission - and even his critics must admit that this time he has a point.

To put it bluntly, how can we trust GSOC any more?

As the State's official police watchdog, its staff have to deal with very sensitive information every day of the week.

There is now good reason to suspect that this information is liable to leak - which should concern any citizen who wants to make a complaint about garda conduct.

Last February, the justice system was shaken by a claim that GSOC headquarters on Abbey Street had been bugged.

According to a Sunday newspaper, emails, wi-fi systems and phone calls were all hacked by "government-level technology". You did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to realise that the Garda Siochana themselves ranked high on any list of suspects.


Thanks to an official investigation by retired judge John Cooke, it now seems that the newspaper's allegation may well have been a ball of smoke.

However, the other mystery of who divulged GSOC's original suspicions still remains.

This week, chairman Simon O'Brien (left) sheepishly confirmed that another inquiry had failed to uncover evidence of any internal leak - leading to a 32-page report that could be summed up as: "We give up."

Despite this embarrassment, O'Brien and his fellow commissioners have no intention of falling on their swords. In fact, they are about to become even more powerful.

Under new legislation introduced by Frances Fitzgerald, GSOC have been given important new functions - including the right to investigate the Garda Commissioner and direct access to the force's computer system, PULSE.

This surely makes it more important than ever that Irish citizens have complete faith in GSOC's leadership.

Unfortunately, we can't. Since this scandal broke, O'Brien's public appearances have been weak, hesitant and often confusing - and his fellow commissioners don't inspire much confidence either.

Alan Shatter himself outlined one of GSOC's most glaring failures in the Dail last week. By their own admission, the watchdog's three commissioners began to suspect a possible bug in October 2013.


They had a statutory duty to inform both the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner of those suspicions, but for reasons that have never been fully explained it took an inaccurate newspaper report four months later to blow the lid off the affair.

Luckily for GSOC, the spotlight quickly moved elsewhere. A whistleblower scandal claimed the heads of Commissioner Martin Callinan and Minister Alan Shatter. But the awkward truth remains - GSOC allowed highly confidential information to leak and they cannot offer any reassurance that it will not happen again.

Alan Shatter is facing an open goal on the Late Late Show tonight. By tomorrow morning, GSOC's battered reputation could well be beyond repair.

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