Statement by Niall Collins TD, FF Spokesperson on Justice, Dáil Statements on An Garda Síochána
Published on: 26 March 2014
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to these statements. The administration of justice under the Minister’s watch is in crisis and has been for a long time through a series of the Minister’s actions, inaction and incompetence. That makes the Minister unfit to continue to hold office. We need to recap on the catalogue of events the Minister has overseen. We had the completely bungled handling of the penalty points issue. Were it not for the clear, independent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Minister would have proceeded along the line that there was no issue there. He would have continued in that vein but for the fact that the independent constitutional office of the Comptroller and Auditor General did its work and reported coherently.
We then had the issue on the alleged bugging of GSOC. The Minister immediately moved to turn the potential victim of a scandal into a villain. He put GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien into the dock. He brought in an outside company to second-guess some of the work GSOC did. That undermined GSOC’s role, and people are aggrieved by that. There was the ongoing treatment by the Minister and the Government of the whistleblowers. Is it not the job of any government in a modern democracy to seek to protect the citizens and their good names, reputations, characters and integrity? The Minister failed, and continues to fail, to do that. He is not owning up to his responsibility. Some of the other Cabinet Ministers, the Labour Party in particular and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, are living up to their responsibilities but the Minister, Deputy Shatter and the Taoiseach cannot bring themselves, as two of the most powerful people in the Cabinet, to do right by two decent citizens of this country.
That is a sad day when it is the Government’s job to protect its citizens in the first instance. We then had the situation regarding the Garda confidential recipient and the scandal of his departure. It has never been explained by the Minister or anybody else what exactly the former Garda confidential recipient, Oliver Connolly, was referring to in those taped transcripts. That is very serious. Mr Connolly refuses to elaborate on it and the Minister has been offered many opportunities to elaborate on it but refuses to do so. It is another chapter in the catalogue.
Later today we will discuss the report of the Garda Inspectorate. Before it was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas it was leaked. This shows blatant disregard for the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Minister had a row with the Judiciary. Whom has he not fought with? The Minister had to set up a special quango to mediate between himself and the Judiciary. The Garda Commissioner resigned under the Minister’s watch. We thought we could come in here yesterday and have an opportunity to discuss the Garda Commissioner’s resignation. It does not happen any old day. Yet there was no opportunity to discover it. Now we have the mishandling of the fact that telephone recordings have been undertaken in Garda stations for many years. Nobody is blaming the Minister for doing it, but people are blaming him for the mishandling of the fallout from it.
Every issue turns into a calamity and a crisis. Other people take the blame and responsibility, not the Minister. Yesterday it was reasonable to expect that we would have come in here to discuss the issues regarding the Garda Commissioner and his premature departure. Instead, the leaders of my party and Sinn Féin were summoned to meet the Taoiseach to be briefed on: A new and very serious issue relating to An Garda Síochána. The implications of this matter are potentially of such gravity that the Government has decided to set up a statutory commission of investigation into this matter of significant public concern.
As yesterday unfolded, and as a series of events unravelled, it became clear that the Government knew about this for a long time. Why was this just conveniently dropped in there yesterday? The Minister and the Taoiseach must account for the departure of the Garda Commissioner and their treatment of the whistleblowers, yet this issue was dropped into the political mix yesterday when we know it was there for a long time. The Minister and Taoiseach are getting caught up in their own web of spin and beginning to meet themselves on the way back.
Are we to believe that the Minister did not know about the Garda station recordings until earlier this week? Are we to believe the Attorney General did not inform the Minister at the Government about this until recently? Are we to believe that the Department of Justice and Equality did not inform them? If the answer to all those questions is “yes”, and we are to believe all that, it confirms clearly to us, the Opposition and the public that the Minister is presiding over an Administration that is driven completely by incompetence.
The Minister is a great legal mind and is lauded and applauded for that. He will know that ignorance of the law is no defence in any regard. Ignorance of the facts and events in this instance is not a defence either. While the party leaders were receiving the briefing yesterday, the facts of the Waterford case were in the public domain for weeks, months and years. The Waterford case was one of the first high-profile prosecutions taken by GSOC following an investigation of a complaint in which serving members of the Garda Síochána were convicted and imprisoned. It is not credible that the Minister did not know about it, that the Attorney General and the Minister’s Department failed to inform him.
We can argue the rights and wrongs of whether the Minister should have been informed by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, as the report was available on its website, but for the Minister to credibly state neither he nor his Department was aware of it just does not hold.
GSOC reported in 2013 and the Attorney General set up a working group in November of that year. The Garda Commissioner advised the Department of this by way of letter sent by courier over 16 days ago. Are we to believe the Minister knew about none of these events when, at the same time, a garda can pull alongside Deputy Mick Wallace at the Five Lamps, wag his finger at him for allegedly using a mobile phone while driving, and the Minister has possession of this information for it to be used inappropriately – as it was – on “Prime Time” on RTE? Is the Minister asking us to accept that, on the one hand, he acted in the way he has said and, on the other, that he did not know about the recording of telephone conversations at Garda stations?
It is laughable and the public will ask what the Minister was doing. We have heard that he is a great reforming Minister, but it is clear that there is incompetence at the root. Who is taking responsibility? Will the Minister ever take responsibility for the oversight of the justice system within the Department?
On the penalty points issue, the whistleblowers were at fault, while in the bugging of GSOC, the chairman, Mr. Simon O’Brien, was at fault.
The Attorney General is a member of the Government. Is it not the case that she should have informed the Minister or the Government of these matters? Did she do so? A working group was set up, but who was on it? How many times has it met, if it has met at all? Since the Attorney General became aware of this issue in November 2013, how many Cabinet meetings has she attended? The Minister is not giving us an opportunity to have a series of questions and answers today, despite these questions.
What is the Labour Party’s position on this issue? The Attorney General was that party’s nominee. Is the party happy to have the Minister drop the Attorney General in it and will she become the next fall guy?
The Garda Commissioner is gone and the whistleblowers and GSOC have been blamed. It always seems to be somebody else rather than the Minister.
Why are we not having a commission of investigation to investigate the bugging of GSOC or the dossier produced by the whistleblowers? People died because of related issues, but we will not have a commission of investigation to examine that dossier. The public finds it difficult to reconcile all of this. The Minister did not indicate why he was circumventing GSOC with regard to the policy on and practice of recording telephone calls in and out of Garda stations. Under its enabling legislation GSOC has a remit under to allow it to review Garda Síochána policies and practices, but the Minister conveniently seems to be bypassing that body. It is quite clear that the public has settled on one issue, that the Minister is not the man to oversee the administration of justice in this country. A catalogue of issues have been allowed to escalate into crises, one after another, and it is never the Minister who owns up; there is always somebody else to blame, but that does not wash on this occasion. It is clear that the Government and the Minister should have been or were in possession of the information, but there was a choice made yesterday to drop it into what we now have.
My party never called for the resignation of the Garda Commissioner whom we thank for his service to the State over 41 years. I also take the opportunity, on behalf of my party, to acknowledge the rank and file members of An Garda Síochána who hold the thin blue line for society against the forces of criminality. The Minister is presiding over the erosion of confidence and morale within An Garda Síochána. By virtue of his inaction and incompetence, An Garda Síochána is at the centre of political debate every day, which is down to the Minister’s mishandling of a series of events. I pay tribute to gardaí and thank them on behalf of the people for their forbearance and professionalism in doing their job. It is no thanks to the Minister that they are doing it successfully, as there is no real or meaningful support from him.
I will finish as I started. The Minister’s statements are not credible and it is time for him to leave the ministry of justice.