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Column: Pride, arrogance and the impotence of political leadership in GardaGate

This is the arrogant nature of permanent government. It gets too used to running the show and always being right, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

TIMING IS EVERYTHING in life, and this week we have become obsessed with matters of time. A cynic might view it as interesting timing that a scandal involving the Gardai with potentially wide-ranging legal ramifications hits the airwaves just as a crescendo is rising on various previously simmering issues.

The timing of the Garda recording scandal is fascinating. It is intertwined in a long-running series of events that have involved whistleblowers, penalty points, the handling of criminal cases and the relationship between the force and its watchdog.

It’s difficult not to imagine that An Garda Síochána is at an inflection point in its history. The integrity of the leadership of the force has been compromised at a time of widely-reported discontent from within the ranks. Public confidence is being tested. Clearly, things need to change in the way the force operates both for its own benefit and for the benefit of those who are asked to trust it unconditionally.

Bad attitude

So much of what ails the Gardai seems to come back to attitude more so than anything else. As police force scandals go, our problems are fairly minor insofar as major corruption of members is not on the table. The permanent government of those who serve the state regardless of politics seem to have ambled themselves into a series of operationally unnecessary troubles. They have done so because they seem to feel that they can act with impunity and strong arm aside anyone who would suggest otherwise.

It is right and proper that any organisation have robust mechanisms to allow whistleblowers to highlight potential wrongdoing. It is the sign of a healthy organisation to accept and work with such people, even if one doubts the veracity of their statements. It is the sign of a weak organisation, or one not fit for purpose, if it jealously guards the right to investigate itself and write its own performance review.

By insisting that any scandal be dealt with in a manner that is clear to any outsider to be designed to whitewash, the Gardai and the Department of Justice created for themselves a rolling thunder of trouble that was never going to end any way other than in resignations and ignominy for otherwise good careers.

Pointless

The most interesting thing about most of the scandals that have afflicted the Gardai in recent times is just how pointless most of them are. The rigmarole has been caused more by the reaction to the hint of even minor wrongdoing than the original sin.

Wiping penalty points is something that should be available to Gardai on discretion. However, there should be strict procedures and reviews in place to manage the process. Any old idiot could have told you that when the system for points and PULSE came together. Even had that original sin not been avoided, when it all came to light the Gardai could have allowed an independent investigation that didn’t immediately scream of internal whitewash, taken their lumps and changed their procedures. This being Ireland, let’s face it, nobody would have lost their jobs over it.

Attacking whistleblowers and throwing around words like ‘disgusting’ when discussing them – whatever the retrofitted PR explanation for what you really actually meant – is only going to work if the whistleblowers are genuinely malicious or stupid. If they’re good men acting honestly, then you will come off as the bad guy before too long.

Cooperating like a teenager

Fighting your official watchdog, the Garda Ombudsman, and cooperating like a teenager being taken on a caravan holiday is never going to make you look good. Whatever catharsis there is in flipping the bird at your parents, anyone watching will just think you’re a bit of a prissy prig really.

In constantly battling anyone who would dare criticise them, the leadership of the Gardai and their backers in the Department of Justice have simply managed to make themselves look shifty in the eyes of many.

This is the arrogant nature of permanent government. It gets too used to running the show and always being right. The permanent branches of government dislike things such as freedom of information and accountability, and they are big fans of self-managed discipline and silence. They are the type of people who respond “Yes” to the question “Do you know what time it is?”

Poor old Alan Shatter learned just how selective his officials can be when he, the Minister for Justice, became next to the last person in government to find out that the Gardai have been recording telephone calls in and out of police stations for nigh on 30 years. His officials sat on a letter from the Garda Commissioner – that specifically requested he be told about the matter – for a fortnight.

Serious implications

It’s amazing in the first place that this practise has continued beyond its inception during the exceptional times of The Troubles. Anyone told of this practise can immediately grasp the implications, with any legal case that involved an individual using a telephone in a Garda station potentially being open to review.

I would personally sincerely doubt that the Gardai may have used privileged information, such as conversations between a solicitor and his or her client, that was garnered without their knowledge or any sort of warrant or other normal legal protection. But who knows for sure?

Someone had to set up, maintain and authorise this programme over a 30-year period. According to the various Ministers for Justice contacted by this publication who served over that time, including the serving Minister for Finance, it wasn’t any of them.

That the permanent government can pull this off speaks volumes to either, or both, the impotence of political leaders and their wilful blindness to the backwards things that government administration is capable of.

We might think about ways to break open the permanent and conservative structures of government, such as breathing in fresh air with political appointments to key administrative roles; such as we see in the US. It’s not a perfect system either. But a totally closed shop seems a bad idea.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

Read: Judges given advice on Garda taping as solicitors ask for records

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