Speech of Micheál Martin TD, Dáil statements on the garda whistleblower controversy
Published on: 26 February 2014
I welcome the fact that Dáil Éireann has been allowed to hold a debate on a matter of grave public importance.
Nothing is more important to the work we are elected to do than ensuring that all officers of the state work to protect the public and promote justice for all.
Throughout history a core foundation of democracy has been a willingness to question those who are given the power to administer justice. There is no police force in the world that is completely free from problems and there never will be. I have no doubt that a significant reason why Ireland is now one of the world’s older democracies has been the success of An Garda Síochána. They have built and maintained public confidence through the most challenging of situations, in particular when faced with a private army which viewed itself as the real state and the on-going struggle against lawless gangs who seek to terrorise too many communities.
It is a tribute to the Gardaí that throughout the country people are protesting against the government’s policy of downgrading the links between Gardaí and the communities they serve.
We should all reject absolutely the idea that to raise concerns is in any way questioning the work of the force a whole. When serious questions arise we as public representatives, and the government we elect, have a duty to ensure that they are comprehensively and objectively investigated.
In fact the only way of protecting the standing of the force is to have public trust that failings are actively being sought and dealt with.
We have a duty to act in such a way as to encourage people with evidence of wrongdoing to come forward. Over the years we have all learnt that there are no institutions beyond criticism, scrutiny and accountability and that is what a healthy democracy represents. In this House we have also learnt that setting up an independent inquiry can actually assist with maintaining confidence in the justice system.
The basic background to this debate is that serious questions have arisen on a number of fronts and there is no faith that they have been handled properly. The announcement yesterday of a review of one aspect of the controversy comes two years on from the issues being raised and after weeks of delay and denial.
This is the government that when elected 3 years ago promised that as part of its claimed ‘democratic revolution’ would value, encourage and protect whistle-blowers.
However the evidence available to us is that efforts have been made at various levels to dampen if not squash allegations that were made about some past activities within the Gardaí.
Other matters concerning the possible bugging of GSOC and the dismissal of the Garda Confidential Recipient are absolutely linked to the whistle-blower allegations because they form a central part of how the government is undermining public trust in a vital part of the administration of justice.
Over recent weeks the Minister for Justice has continuously failed to meet the basic test of handling serious allegations effectively. His response and the responses of his colleagues have been to try to end the controversy rather than deal with it.
The on-going campaign to try and blame the last government is as cynical as it is pathetic. The number of Fine Gael Deputies attacking the messenger suggests that the party is coordinating this effort. These attempts to distract from the serious allegations made have not worked and will not work.
After a week’s silence Minister Shatter gave a few exclusive comments to one journalist last night signalling that he was to go on the attack today and that he had been trawling for evidence to support him.
Only the most gullible will have listened to him this morning and accepted that he has tried to give a balanced an fair view of the record. He has a proven track-record of selective quotations and being driven by a need to justify himself. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that he has given us the full and balanced picture of what is in his Department’s files.
While the Minister believes that he has been smeared because others have had the nerve to question him, he should remember that the Taoiseach has explicitly said that I have handled the matter responsibly. He also has to face the inconvenient fact that while he has today announced that he has reviewed the matter and found himself to have been right in everything he has done cabinet yesterday said the matter needs to be reviewed externally.
Or is he expecting us to believe that when the Taoiseach and Tánaiste refer to the issues involved as “grave”, when they say they cannot make up their mind who to believe or when they say the matter needs external review and possibly an investigation they are doing this because they think everything is fine?
There is substantive evidence that there is an on-going and profound problem in how allegations of improper behaviour in the Gardaí are handled. A culture of deep suspicion has developed meaning that the relationships between the Minister, the Commissioner, the office of the Confidential Recipient and the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission are at best dysfunctional and at worst actively subverting the goal of dealing with allegations of improper behaviour.
Minister Shatter and the Commissioner have admitted that these relations are poor. An atmosphere that leads GSOC to hire a UK Company to screen their offices for bugs is one in which the public interest is not being served.
The paperwork around this review is now being reviewed by a former High Court Judge in spite of the fact that Minister Shatter did his level best to dismiss these concerns out of hand. It remains a disgrace that Minister Shatter refused to consult the Oireachtas on the terms of the review and that Justice Cook is not being allowed to check evidence.
It is now a consistent tactic of this government that when a minister is caught in a crisis, something which is becoming more and more frequent, the first priority is to manage the media rather than the issue.
We have seen this in force during the past few weeks.
Before today, the Minister was unavailable to the public, but active behind the scenes briefing was non-stop.
While the fact that this debate is being held is welcome, we have not been supplied with any of the documents which the Minister has used to try to undermine the allegations and attack others.
If the Minister had meant this to be a genuine effort to allow questioning he would have circulated the relevant reports, especially the report of the Garda Inspectorate and he would have supplied a briefing to the opposition. He might also have provided access to the files he has used to formulate today’s attack. But of course he hasn’t – why would he allow anyone the chance to answer back?
From early yesterday evening the government was briefing the media that Minister Shatter was going to come in here all guns blazing and that he had the evidence to back himself up. If he was so secure in this why has he failed to let anyone else see the evidence? Why has he yet again insisted on trying to deny a fair debate?
For three years Minister Shatter has adopted the strategy that attack is the only form of defence. He has consistently refused to even contemplate the idea that he might be wrong and has repeatedly impugned the integrity of any deputy, senator, journalist or member of the public who has challenged him.
In recent days his government colleagues have chosen to circle the wagons around him by hyping his record and claiming that he is always reasonable. Yet he does not recognise the legitimacy of any criticism. When challenged he is sometimes snide, frequently partisan and always dismissive.
Within weeks of his appointment he started as he meant to go on by withholding from the Dáil essential information about the progress of the Smithwick Tribunal. While pushing through a guillotined bill to limit the time for the Tribunal’s work the minister withheld essential correspondence with Judge Smithwick and, when it was exposed, he attacked anyone who questioned him.
Crucially he did exactly the same thing when he appointed his friend and donor as Garda Confidential Recipient nearly three years ago. He went as far to say that it was “despicable” for anyone to question whether the appointment was appropriate.
In 2011 it was put to him that appointing a friend and donor meant that the Confidential Recipient might not be able to act fully independently of the Minister – and that at very least his performance of the role would be influenced by his connection with the Minister. These fears have been fully realised.
The Minister’s firing of Mr Connolly has shown that he is willing to lay down his friends to protect himself. It is absolutely not true that the transcript which Deputy Wallace and I brought to the public’s attention clears the Minister.
What it confirms, again and again, is that Mr Connolly and the Minister were in regular contact about the allegations. It includes a direct statement by the Minister’s friend and donor that he, the Minister, might not be acting fully independently of the Commissioner.
It appears from the statement Minister Shatter released from Greece and answered no questions about that Mr Connolly was fired because he told a whistleblower “if Shatter thinks you’re screwing him you’re finished”. This has been described by various government sources as an outrageous reflection on Minister Shatter making Mr Connolly’s departure inevitable.
At no stage was Mr Connolly given the opportunity to give his side of the story.
Mr Connolly is quoted in the transcript, which is clearly authentic, as saying to the Garda McCabe:
“Shatter would have read your report in detail, I know he did, he communicated with me and he will have read all of your exhibits, which I actually labelled them numbered one to nine in the actual in the order they were highlighted so he did know. And you know I redacted, the only thing I redacted was your name. Alan studied everything in fact I know he did”.
Before today the minister’s only comment about the transcript was on February 6th before he saw it.
As always, and as we have witnessed once again today, attacking people is Minister Shatter’s standard operating procedure. This is a Minister who still sees nothing serious in how he used a confidential briefing from the Garda Commissioner to falsely attack a Deputy for hypocrisy.
This is a Minister who can express disinterest in how information was leaked against another Deputy to try to discredit her.
This is a Minister who thinks it’s an outrage that people ask him about avoiding a breath test using an excuse not available to others – and is unconcerned that no records of the incident can be found.
This is also a Minister who can accuse a group of treason for having the temerity to challenge one of his personal obsessions.
What we are dealing with here is not an isolated example – it is a consistent pattern of behaviour built up over three years. For Fine Gael to defend one of its own is not surprising, the length to which Labour is willing to accept this becomes more incredible by the day.
If the contents of that transcript are serious enough for Mr Connolly to be fired then they are more than serious enough for Minister Shatter’s position to be equally untenable. All the transcript does is reveal how he has been operating and a week on from its publication not one single factual statement in it has been rebutted.
To say ‘ah sure, I was going to get rid of the office anyway’ is a ridiculous defence, especially as the Minister has been indifferent to the treatment of GSOC and its reports during his three years.
The manner in which the government and minister have established the review into the possible bugging of GSOC again suggests that he has prejudged the issue. He has sent Judge Cook documents which involve a conflict of evidence but has provided him with no means of testing that conflict of evidence. While government TDs constantly refer to an ‘investigation’ it is nothing of the sort. The minister has refused to consult on the terms of the review – even sending out spokesmen to ridicule the idea that he would let a Labour colleague oversee a statement.
In his evidence to the Oversight Committee last week he stated that there is a conflict of technical evidence which he is not competent to judge – even though that is exactly what he has repeatedly done in trying to bury the whole controversy.
Now, as before, an inquiry which is allowed to interview people and seek evidence is the only way of comprehensively and finally dealing with the issue.
The eagerness of some to use the fact that GSOC carried out the sweep for bugs to attack the Commission, to call for resignations and to threaten the continued withholding of access to basic Garda information is striking. This is something else the Minister and government are silent on.
The fact that GSOC recommendations on misconduct cases are being ignored has been known for two years. The Minister has only now, and under pressure, shown any interest in.
Protecting the independence and supporting the work of GSOC is an issue Fianna Fáil firmly believes is the correct thing to do. Deputy Niall Collins has already published a Bill to allow for strengthening GSOC and we will be bringing it forward as a private members bill. If the government is sincere in its new position of showing concern then it will support this legislation.
In bringing the whistle-blower allegations to the attention of the Taoiseach I have been very careful not to make specific allegations against identifiable persons. In this I have been very conscious of the fact that not all of the allegations made to the Morris Tribunal were sustained and that we have an obligation to do what we can to allow people due process. Minister Howlin addressed this issue well in his speech at the conclusion of Morris when he said it was absurd to expect a Deputy to investigate allegations before seeking their investigation.
I welcome the Taoiseach’s acknowledgement of the appropriateness of how I have handled this matter – though the comments of some of his colleagues are partisan politics at its worst.
Even though the government has chosen to commence a review and the Taoiseach has said he is willing to consider going much further, the approach of the Minister has again been to effectively rubbish the idea that there is anything to be concerned with.
He has spent the last week reviewing files not open to others and has come in here to declare that the has handled everything well and there is nothing to be concerned with. Then why is there to be a review? Did the government actually decide that because everything is fine it needs to start a review process? When the Taoiseach said yesterday, that he “doesn’t know who to believe” how can this be translated, as the Minister has done, into “everyone believes me”.
The appointment of Sean Guerin yesterday is an acknowledgement that there is legitimate reason for concern. Limiting his work to a review and placing on his shoulders the decision about a full investigation is wrong. It reeks of the search for a way out.
I wish him well and hope that he is able to produce a substantive report and guide a future investigation. It is however unfortunate that the Government decided to appoint a Senior Counsel who has only recently been appointed and who has had significant links to one of the government parties. Once again, it would have been more advisable to request a nomination from an independent body – just as the Presidents of the various courts are frequently asked to nominate inquiry heads.
The allegations contained in the documents I have seen, and the concerns which I have heard from a number of people including Garda McCabe and the family of Sylvia Roche-Kelly are serious enough that the only thing which will firmly deal with them is a full inquiry. This will not change.
A related issue is the repeated claim of the Minister that Garda McCabe refused to cooperate with the inquiry of Assistant Commissioner O’Mahony into his allegations about the handling of penalty points. For some reason, still unclear, the Minister has chosen to specifically criticise and stand by his criticism of Garda McCabe. He went out of his way to criticise him in the Dáil and he has now spent a week trying to justify the criticism.
Yet again, the absolute refusal of Minister Shatter to play an impartial role or to admit error has become a central issue.
The evidence available to the public is that Garda McCabe was not, as is claimed, “directed to cooperate” with the inquiry. In fact the relevant direction was focused on stopping him from accessing the information in the manner he had used to make his initial complaint.
Whether it is his personal pride or some other unexplained reason, the Minister refuses to treat this issue in a detached or objective manner.
The undeniable fact is that Garda McCabe was not interviewed as part of the investigation into an allegation he made.
This was extraordinary and it was known to the Minister when he claimed that the whistle blower had failed to cooperate.
Equally the Minister is fully aware that two independent bodies, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Road Safety Authority have expressed deep concerns about the financial and safety aspects of the case. Yet he will not acknowledge this.
If the Minister maintains the same approach he has shown today then there is every reason to doubt that this affair will soon come to an end. The resistance to an independent inquiry with the powers to get to the bottom of all elements of the different cases appears as strong as ever.
But this will not go away. The need to protect public faith in the administration of justice is as strong ever. The need to vindicate the rights of victims and their families remains absolute. The need for the government to face up to its responsibilities is still unaddressed.