Engaging with the fundamentals for Garda Transparency and Accountability at all levels:
Recent revelations surrounding An Garda Siochana and the Office of the Minister for Justice cast serious doubt over our democratic assumptions.
When we hear of regime purges in North Korea or witness Putin’s tanks roll into Crimea we somehow take comfort from our belief that such behaviour “would never happen here”. In a western democracy such as ours freedom of speech, personal privacy and public accountability are, to a large extent, assumed, if not wholly taken for granted.
As a society we rely on the state to protect and uphold these democratic fundamentals. Where human nature and malpractice occurs we gravitate somewhere between expecting that these ‘blips’ will be corrected or resigning ourselves to the idea that some level of corruption and incompetence is inevitable.
Personally I stand somewhere nearer the ‘account and correct’ end of the spectrum. Questions arising from the whistleblower and phone recording disclosures are simply too serious to be tolerated. I suspect that others share my concern.
Take phone recording for example. It is fair to say that we are all subject to some surveillance. ‘Surveillance’ sounds a little scary doesn’t it?
Here’s a few familiar examples – bank transactions, phone calls and video footage of our daily commute to the office. Arguably there’s nothing sinister about these daily invasions – banks and mobile phone operators have data protection laws to abide by, CCTV footage deters criminal activity and assists our security and safety.
Surely the same ‘security of society’ logic supports the now confirmed taping of phone conversations in and out of certain Garda stations. No self respecting citizen wants the potentially fatal consequences of a delayed response to a 999 call; who can argue against police recording bomb threats and other terrorist communications?
Emergency calls and bomb threats. The two explanations offered in recent days to justify the practice of recording phone calls. The GRA, being the body representing ordinary members of the force, has confirmed that it was aware of the practice and stated its belief that recordings by senior Garda management were made to get “clarity of what was said and for accountability”.
Accountability to whom? and for what? Senior Garda Management need to answer these questions.
As I said above society expects some deviation from the so called fundamental principles of democracy. Our common law is littered with instances where an individual’s constitutional rights have been recognised by the courts yet displaced by the need to uphold and protect the ‘common good’.
Accountability and the Common Good. Sounds like a healthy mix of principle and pragmatism.
The difficulty arises when we hear allegations of malpractice at the upper echelons of the accountability tree. If tape recordings displace notions of privacy and personal freedom then these exceptions need to be genuinely justified and limited in remit.
We know that as early as June of last year the Garda Ombudsman reported on a specific case where recordings at Garda stations were held to be in breach of statutory law. The report called on the Commissioner to “re-evaluate his practices” in that regard.
From what we are told Commissioner Callinan terminated these practices and informed the Attorney General of their prior occurrence last November. From what we are told he also wrote a letter to the Department of Justice on 10 March setting out his concerns. In this letter, we are told he advised that his concerns be relayed to the Minister. Finally we are told that the Minister did not read this letter until the 25th of March, the day before the Commissioner’s resignation.
We have been told, but do we know?
Hopefully the commission of inquiry will uncover who exactly knew about the extent of illegal (as opposed to justified) phone recordings. Hopefully then we will know the extent of these malpractices and also when certain accountable persons were aware of them. Then, one would hope, true accountability will be delivered.
Today the Minister remains in his office. Who knows whether he will still be there after the commission of inquiry reports.
Who knows what action, if any, will be taken: to remove whoever is found to have acted improperly or with incompetence; and to correct and reform the practices, remit and reporting lines of An Garda Siochana.
Accountability and Reform.
As a society we have a duty to engage with the revelations and hold those in (temporary) charge to account. This state is ours to uphold, this democracy is ours to protect.
What we have is not shared by all on this planet. Let’s not take it for granted.