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GSOC commissioner Kieran Fitzgerald and chairman Simon O’Brien ahead of an appearance in Leinster House in Dublin. Photo by: Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland

Who is policing the Irish police?

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GSOC commissioner Kieran Fitzgerald and chairman Simon O’Brien ahead of an appearance in Leinster House in Dublin. Photo by: Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland

In my day we did Latin in school so we all knew the meaning of the phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I suppose the inherent conundrum contained in the question appealed to our young brains. Who polices the police? On in the Irish context, who guards the guards?

A lot of people have been asking the same hoary old question here in the past week.   This followed the revelation over a week ago that the offices of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) in Dublin may have been bugged.

And that, of course, raised the intriguing question of who might have been doing the bugging?  Criminals? Subversives? The Brits? Or, as seemed most likely, the guards themselves?

If you’ve been following the Irish media over the past week you will be aware that this issue has blown up into a major dispute here, filling pages and pages of the newspapers.  But before we get into the claims and counterclaims, let us first have a look at what GSOC is.

The police in Ireland are called the Garda Siochana (Irish for guardians of the peace) and in everyday language they are called “the guards.”  There are around 15,000 of them.

With that many in the force, there will always be a few bad apples and a few bullies, and this used to be dealt with by a complaints board which used guards to conduct investigations into their colleagues, which was close to allowing our police to police themselves.

In modern democracies this is regarded as unsatisfactory, so in 2007 the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission was established and began its work.  The GSOC has its own investigators, made up of former police officers from Ireland and abroad.

Since 2007 it has grown into a substantial and busy organization with a budget of nearly €9 million a year, investigating complaints against members of the guards. As well as the three commissioners, the chairman being a former senior British policeman, it has a staff of 80, more than 30 of who are in the investigations unit.

Most of the complaints they get are what you would expect -- discourtesy, bullying, abuse of power, some criminality.  

In 2012, for example, they dealt with over 5,000 complaints, but the vast majority of these were not sustainable and only a few dozen led to any action. Most of these resulted in warnings or loss of pay, and only 13 ended in prosecutions.  

And this fits with the general perception of the guards here as trustworthy and considerate.  There is strong public support for the guards and appreciation of the work they do.  

All you have to do is walk through our cities and towns on a weekend night after closing time to see the disgusting behavior they have to put up with. And frequently “they” are just a couple of young guards facing a drunken, drugged and violent mob out of their heads and looking for trouble.    

There is also the fact that crime in Ireland has become much like anywhere else, with shootings and stabbings now commonplace.  On top of that we have the remnants of the Republican gunmen and heavily armed drug gangs, sometimes working together.  

In spite of this the police here are still an unarmed force, although they can call up mobile armed Emergency Response Units when needed.  

Overall, it would be fair to say that most people here hold the Garda Siochana in high esteem.  But there have been problems in some areas (Donegal, for example, where some of the force went rogue some years back, and there is the ongoing controversy over driving penalty points being quashed and other issues.  

So there is no doubt that we need the GSOC there to investigate individual guards when things go wrong.   Unfortunately this idea of an outside body looking into their affairs has never been fully embraced by the guards themselves.  Even at the top level in the guards lip service is paid to the GSOC and the right noises are made, but cooperation can be minimalist.  
 
Ordinary guards caught abusing power or involved in criminality are dealt with by the GSOC with the support of the force.  But once the issue involves higher ranks or Garda policy or a systemic problem (like the cancellation of driving penalty points) the guards appear to resent the intrusion into how they do things.

All of this is by way of background to the current controversy.  The most likely buggers of GSOC would be the guards themselves, something that has been vehemently denied by the Garda commissioner.  But that does not rule out bugging by rogue individuals or groups within the force.  

According to the revelations in the media here, what happened is that the GSOC became concerned some time ago that they were being bugged.  This concern was prompted by a number of incidents and one in particular in which a senior Garda officer at a meeting appeared to know about secret GSOC material.    

Without telling either the guards or the minister for justice, the GSOC called in a specialist security company from the U.K. which carried out a sweep of its premises and equipment in central Dublin.  This uncovered three “anomalies” which could indicate that bugging had taken place.

The lack of certainty is part of the modern world of surveillance.  The days of finding a tiny camera behind a picture or a microphone in a telephone handset are long gone.  In this Wi-Fi era it’s incredibly hard to know when bugging is happening and even harder to find out who is doing it.  

The cautious use of words by the GSOC when they confirmed the story last week was immediately jumped on by both the guards and the minister for justice to rubbish the possible bugging.  The Garda commissioner said no guard had been involved, and the minister said there was no “definitive evidence” that bugging had happened.

Both appeared to be angry that the GSOC had called in outsiders to investigate instead of calling in the guards.  Even Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny got involved, saying that the GSOC had failed to follow the law which required it to report the matter to the minister.  This was later found to be incorrect because no such requirement exists in our law.

But the message was clear.  The powers-that-be were not happy.  Some sections of the media managed to turn the story on its head by slamming the GSOC’s handling of the matter.  

At the end of a week of claims and counterclaims, we were left none the wiser.   Except that most people you talk to here think that it had to be the guards, whether the commissioner knew about it or not.  

And they think that not telling the minister was understandable because ministers for justice in Ireland are always very close to the Garda Siochana.

So what were the “anomalies” that GSOC said were discovered?  When the conference phone line of the chairman of GSOC was being tested for bugging by sending a ping down the line it stimulated a connection from an unknown outside phone which could not be traced (and the fact that it could not be traced is itself suspicious).  

A Wi-Fi device in the GSOC offices was connecting to an outside Wi-Fi network, again unknown.  And a sophisticated bugging mechanism capable of bugging U.K. cell phones was being used somewhere close to the GSOC offices (the former U.K. police officer who chairs GSOC has an Irish cell phone but U.K. cells phones have been used by others in his office). Some of the technology and equipment involved in the “anomalies” is at a level normally only available to government agencies.

However, this is one of those stories that keeps changing.  In the latest twist in the tale it has been suggested that the internal Wi-Fi network in the GSOC offices was innocently connecting to a new Wi-Fi network in a street level coffee shop in the same building.  

It has also been suggested that the U.K. phones in GSOC offices that were compromised belonged to the U.K. technicians who were doing the sweep.  Both of these suggestions appear to have come from Garda sources, and both have now been contradicted by the security company.

None of this, as the minister told the Dail (Parliament), is “definitive.”  But as my granny used to say, if it waddles when it walks and it quacks, it’s probably a duck, no matter how many people tell you it isn’t a duck.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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