The media and politicians here – mainly opposition politicians – have worked themselves into a lather in the past few weeks over issues to do with the Garda (police) and things that are supposedly wrong with the force.
This culminated last week in the retirement / resignation / firing (take your pick) of the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. There was speculation that Minister for Justice Alan Shatter would be next to go. There were even suggestions that the government could collapse.
Of course it suits the media to whip up a controversy like this as much as possible because it fills newspapers, TV reports and radio shows for days on end. And it suits the opposition because it just might destabilize the government and might even make a disgraced party like Fianna Fail look good (and that takes some doing).
But when all is said and done, what exactly was at stake here? Not much, is the answer.
The whole media feeding frenzy has been watched with disbelief and even boredom by most people. It’s fine for the commentariat in the Dail (Parliament) and the media, but ordinary people still have to deal with the real issues in their everyday lives like unemployment, emigration, debt, negative equity and the struggle to keep going. They just don’t have the time, energy or interest to get worked up about what’s supposed to be wrong with the Garda.
If there was something seriously wrong they would be interested. The fact is that most people here don’t think there is anything much wrong with our police.
Irish people have a lot of respect for the Garda and correctly recognize that most of them do a good job. As far as people here are concerned (like people everywhere) the main thing that is wrong with our police is that they don’t catch the bad guys often enough – the robbers, the muggers, the burglars who use extreme violence because they are out of their heads – and when they do catch them the courts let them off too lightly.
People here are also concerned that our police are failing to cope with a lot of the late night anti-social behavior and drunken violence that plagues our cities and towns. They are concerned about the number of attacks on the homes of old folk, often in isolated rural areas. And they are concerned about the way our society in general has become more dangerous and violent, particularly in poorer urban areas.
These are some of the policing issues that people here are really concerned about. But they are not the issues to do with the police that have been making the headlines recently.
The most recent was the revelation in the past couple of weeks that some phone calls into and out of some bigger police stations around the country were being recorded, and that this had been going on since the 1980s.
This is common in other countries, including the U.S. where police tapes regularly feature on TV news reports after major incidents. But here it was being done in secret.
Taping is illegal under our Constitution unless those involved give their consent. This opens up the possibility that some criminal trials in which the prosecution might have used information obtained in this way might be tainted.
There is also the disclosure problem. Full disclosure to the defense of all prosecution evidence before a trial starts is part of our legal system here.
If the contents of police phone tapes were not disclosed that could have serious legal consequences. There were even suggestions last week that notorious criminals might have to be freed and retried.
There were also concerns raised that the private phone calls between arrested people being held in Garda stations and their lawyers might have been recorded and the information used.
Almost all of this is fanciful speculation, and a lot of it was being spouted by “concerned” lawyers who talked ominously about a legal doomsday scenario which could clog up the courts for years. Of course it suits the legal profession to get worked up about this because the more complicated the situation gets, the more money they are likely to make from it.
As we said, most people here find the whole thing a bit of a yawn. Their attitude is, so what? If it means that criminals might be put away more effectively, most people would approve of phone taping.
It also turns out, as far as we know, that the system was only in place in main Garda stations and only in the control room and/or the public office into which 999 calls and other emergency communications would be made.
It’s also emerged that the majority of ordinary Gardai (police officers) in these offices did not even know the system existed. Originally 30 years ago it may have been set up as an aid to allow bomb warnings and other threats to be replayed and checked.
Another theory is that it was set up to allow tip-offs to be replayed and analyzed. Or it may have been to allow senior Garda officers to check on the performance of ordinary Gardai (police) or as a training aid.
In the old days in Garda stations around the country everything was written into the Daybook by hand so things could be checked later. Maybe the new system was brought in as a more modern equivalent of that.
Whatever the reasons, the system has been ticking away for more than 30 years and most people in the Gardai had forgotten about it, if they ever knew it existed in the first place. It’s not clear how much or how little the information on the tapes was ever used.
That has not stopped the frenzy of calls from the opposition for all the details about who knew what and when. When did the minister know? What did the attorney general say?
Does the taoiseach (prime minister) know more than he is revealing? When did the Garda commissioner inform the department? Did he resign or was he pushed? Who said what at which meeting? Round and round it goes, and the public is getting more puzzled with each revelation.
The taping issue is the latest Garda-related quagmire to open up under Shatter, and the opposition think it is one too many. There have been repeated calls for his resignation despite the fact that several Fianna Fail ministers for justice were in office while the taping system was in operation over the years. Did none of them know about it?
As far as the Garda are concerned, the tapes are a two-way sword, of course, because they may reveal things that are embarrassing.
There is already a new focus on the case of Ian Bailey, who was accused of the murder of French woman Sophie Toscan du Plantier at her holiday home in Cork in 1996. There is a strong suspicion that evidence against him was manipulated by local gardai. The tapes could throw new light on what was going on in this and some other controversial cases.
The secret taping revelation is the third in the series of Garda issues over the past few months. First we had the alleged bugging of the Garda Ombudsman’s office (GSOC) which investigates complaints against members of the force. The suspicion was that the gardai were involved.
Then we had the revelations about the quashing of driver penalty points (for speeding etc), which individual gardai have the power to write off. An accumulation of points leads to removal of a driving license, so this is an important power.
The discretion was given to gardai so they could take special circumstances (like racing to a hospital with a sick child) into account. But the system was being widely abused, according to two garda whistleblowers who emerged recently to tell the truth about what was going on.
There were suggestions that thousands of penalty points were being written off, and that if you were in a position of influence or knew a senior garda you could get your penalty points wiped.
The former commissioner, Callinan, had told a committee of the Dail that he thought the way these accusations were being made against gardai by the two whistleblowers was “disgusting.” Shatter appeared to be on the side of the commissioner.
Eventually last week Callinan resigned and Shatter apologized to the two whistleblowers in the Dail. And in the middle of that the taping revelation emerged.
Then we learned that in fact the commissioner had learned about and then shut down the taping system last year and had told the attorney general about it at the time. And even though the attorney general sits in Cabinet meetings as part of the government, we are being asked to believe that no one else knew anything about it until the past two weeks.
The public is not only not buying that, but is deeply cynical about the controversy. Most people believe we are not being told the full truth about any of this.
That is one reason why a national opinion poll last weekend showed a fall in support for the government and a level of dissatisfaction about their handling of the Garda issue. People are fed up with the controversy and want it to end, even though anecdotally they are mystified about why everyone has got so worked up about it and unconvinced that it is all that important.
There’s no doubt that we need much more powerful and independent oversight of the Garda. Their cooperation with the Ombudsman’s office has been minimalist. Left to police themselves, they have developed a culture that resents any interference from outside.
And there have been serious cases, like that of Bailey, which have shown that some gardai have been bending the rules to get convictions or to apply pressure to people they don’t like.
But none of that means that the vast majority of gardai do not act responsibly. The vast majority do their duty honestly in increasingly difficult circumstances as Irish society changes for the worse around them.
As we said in this column before, there is strong public support for the Garda and strong 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 gardai facing a violent mob out of their heads and looking for trouble.
A new independent body to run the police is what we need and what we are likely to get when all this fuss dies down. And the ordinary rank and file gardai will be as happy as anyone else when that happens.