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Column: There's no credible alternative to an independent inquiry into GSOC allegations

Faith in our national authorities has been badly shaken – the only way to restore it is to hold an independent inquiry, says Mark Kelly.

Mark Kelly

AN INDEPENDENT INQUIRY into the GSOC bugging revelations is needed to staunch the erosion of public trust in the independence and effectiveness of Ireland’s police accountability systems.

Faith in our national authorities has been badly shaken by a week of claims and counter-claims. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) seems not to have told the Minister for Justice its full reasons for launching a spying sweep and, in turn, the Minister may have been editorial with the truth before the Dail. As for the Garda Commissioner, it strains credulity for him to suggest that the possibility of unauthorised spying by members of An Garda Síochána can have been definitively eliminated in the space of a couple of days.

The Taoiseach faltered at the outset of this ongoing scandal, when he wrongly suggested that GSOC had breached a legal duty to report to the Minister. He could show real leadership at this juncture by moving to appoint an independent person to conduct an inquiry under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

Questions remain

What are the unanswered questions that such an inquiry should address?

First, who deployed a level of technology “only available to Government agencies” in the vicinity of the GSOC offices last year? Garda Special Branch, the Defence Forces Intelligence Branch (G2) and the Revenue Commissioners have lawful powers to engage in surveillance. Last June, in his capacity as Minister for Defence, Alan Shatter told the Dail that G2 operatives have a “very close and effective working relationship with their counterparts in An Garda Síochána”, but he has not explicitly excluded their involvement in surveillance activities near GSOC’s Abbey Street headquarters.

Does G2 or Garda Special Branch have access to the “ISMI Catcher” (or “Stingray”) device it seems was used to snoop on GSOC? If so, what are the safeguards, if any, which surround the use of such equipment?

Secondly, has there been authorised interception of the telephone calls of anyone else involved in breaking the GSOC snooping story? Under the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993, it is the Minister for Justice who has the power to authorise such interceptions, based on requests by the Garda Commissioner. Have any such interceptions been sought and/or authorised? If so, why?

Thirdly, and fundamentally, what truly prompted the GSOC security sweep?

Public confidence must be restored

We are very fortunate to have a body such as GSOC, with legal powers to independently investigate police conduct. It is easy to forget that its predecessor, the Garda Siochana Complaints Board included the Garda Commissioner (or his delegate) as a full member, enjoyed virtually no public confidence and, in the words of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture in its 2003 report on a visit to Ireland, failed to contribute to the prevention of ill-treatment by members of An Garda Siochana.

By contrast, when Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg visited Ireland in 2007, he formed the opinion that the recently-created GSOC could “serve as a model to other countries”.

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GSOC itself has expressed the wish to move on from the bugging controversy and to refocus on the important work that it undertakes as an independent statutory agency, but that will not be possible unless public confidence in its work can be restored by the findings of an independent inquiry.

Legislation reform

In the longer term, as former Ombudsman Commissioner Conor Brady and retired Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan have pointed out, reform of the 2005 legislation establishing GSOC will be required. It is ridiculous that a Garda Ombudsman Commission should not have the power to investigate the Garda Commissioner and deeply ironic that it should be precluded – by law – from using the lawful surveillance powers that may have been deployed against it.

After last weekend’s damaging revelations, the nature of the institutional relationship between the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner also faces renewed scrutiny. Following the model employed in our neighbouring jurisdictions, An Garda Síochána should report to an independent Garda Authority, not to an elected politician.

This is both a crisis in confidence in our current policing accountability structures and an important opportunity to strengthen GSOC’s future capacity to engage in genuinely independent scrutiny of policing in Ireland.

Mark Kelly is the Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)

Read: TD’s support for independent GSOC investigation could ‘compromise’ Oireachtas questioning

Read: “It’s called accountability”: Tánaiste defends course of GSOC bugging controversy

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About the author:

Mark Kelly

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