Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Reports of Unlawful Surveillance of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission: Statements
I would like to begin by emphasising the important public role played by An Garda Síochána as the police force in this State and by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, as the independent body with the important remit of investigating allegations of police misconduct. Each is a crucial pillar in our constitutional democracy and each plays a vital role in the public interest. It is of vital importance that public confidence is maintained in each of these bodies and that when carrying out their duties they at all times behave in a manner which is appropriate. Each of them has an important and separate investigative role and it is crucial that this role is exercised with the utmost integrity and any conclusions reached when investigations are undertaken are based on well-founded and solid evidence.
It is of vital importance that both organisations comply with their statutory reporting obligations and communicate clearly on issues of public concern and leave no room for ambiguity. It is also important that each organisation respects the role of the other and is mindful of the service they perform in the public interest. Each must be conscious of how their actions and words may affect public confidence in each organisation but must show no fear or favour when seeking to ascertain the truth on issues no matter how difficult or potentially controversial. This is my basic starting point in my reporting to the House this evening.
I welcome this opportunity to place on the record of this House the facts as they are known to me about allegations that the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission were subject to surveillance. As the House will be aware, these allegations first surfaced in a newspaper last Sunday under the headline "GSOC under high-tech surveillance". It is important to say at the outset that GSOC has informed me that, after an investigation, it concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance of its offices was found. Moreover, it has informed me that its databases have not been compromised. In other words, it has not been established that the offices of the ombudsman commission were subject to surveillance. Some public comment has proceeded on the basis that it is an established fact that the offices of the commission were bugged when clearly it is not.
I first learnt of these allegations from the newspaper report last Sunday. I immediately made contact with my officials and we arranged to meet yesterday with the chairman of the commission, Mr. Simon O'Brien. For reasons which I hope the House will understand, I refrained from public comment on this matter until that meeting was held and I had a chance to brief my colleagues in Government on the matter this morning.
I will now set out the facts on the basis of the briefing which I received from the commission. I want to emphasise that this account is based on the information available to me at present. The House will understand that there needs to be, and is, continuing engagement between my Department and GSOC about this matter. I have requested that I be furnished with the report received by it arising out of the security check on its offices and I await its response to this request.
The issue in question arose following a security sweep, in September 2013, of GSOC's offices in Dublin. I am informed that there was no specific concern which caused GSOC to organise the security sweep, which was carried out by a security firm based in Britain. It was a routine sweep of a nature which had occurred previously. I do not think anyone could argue that it is unreasonable for a body which, of its nature, holds sensitive information to take measures to ensure the security of its communications.
I am aware that, in the normal course, it is not desirable to put in the public domain issues relating to security of technology and communications but, because of the particular public concerns which have arisen in relation to this issue, I will give the House as much information as I can. I am concerned too that some of the public comments which have been made may have inadvertently led to some confusion surrounding this issue.
I am advised by GSOC that the sweep identified what it refers to as two technical anomalies which raised a concern of a surveillance threat to GSOC. I should emphasise that my understanding is that what was at issue were potential threats or vulnerabilities, not evidence that surveillance had, in fact, taken place. A subsequent sweep identified a third potential issue. There was no suggestion that there was any risk of unauthorised access to the GSOC databases and the documentation on them.
The first identified issue arose from a Wi-Fi device, the property of GSOC acquired in or about 2007 or early 2008 located in its boardroom, which was found to have connected to an external Wi-Fi network. Access to this device was protected by a password, and in the absence of this password any connection should not have been possible. In any event, GSOC does not operate a Wi-Fi network, and had never therefore activated this device and does not even know what the password is, but the fact of the connection was a concern. How this occurred is unknown and there is no suggestion by GSOC that it resulted in any information being accessed. I am also advised that the Wi-Fi device was unable to communicate with any of GSOC's databases or electronic systems and that the boardroom is not generally used by GSOC for its meetings.
The second potential issue related to the conference call telephone in the chairman's office which was subject to a number of tests. One of the tests involved sending apparently an audio signal down the telephone line. Immediately after this transmission, the conference phone line rang. I am advised GSOC conducted a number of checks to establish the source of this telephone call, but was unable to do so. I am further advised that checks revealed no additional anomalies or matters of concern. There is no evidence of which I am aware from my meeting with the chairman of GSOC of any phone call made or received being compromised.
The third issue related to the security firm reporting the detection of an unexpected UK 3G network in the area in the locality of the GSOC offices which suggested that UK phones registered to that network making calls would be vulnerable to interception. Importantly, I am advised that neither the chairman nor any other member of GSOC or its employees use UK-registered mobile phones, so that the presence of any such device in the locality would not seem to have posed a threat to the integrity of GSOC's communications systems. There appears to be no evidence that what was detected had any direct relevance to GSOC.
As I understand it, those three issues represent the totality of the concerns which arose. I am advised that GSOC proceeded to investigate all three issues, with expert assistance from the security company involved, and, as I have indicated, concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance was found. GSOC decided that no further action was necessary or reasonably practical. I am aware that some people have called for an inquiry into this matter but this seems to overlook entirely the fact that GSOC, which is an investigatory body, carried out an investigation and itself decided that no further action was necessary.
I understand that no connection between any member of An Garda Síochána with any of these matters arose. This is not my conclusion - it is that of GSOC.
It would, of course, be a matter of the gravest concern if GSOC were, in fact, subject to surveillance from any quarter and I am sure the House will welcome the fact that, notwithstanding the conclusions of its investigation, it has since reviewed the security of its IT and communications systems with a view to further enhancing their security. As the Taoiseach already stated this afternoon, should GSOC require any additional resources in this context, they will be provided.
At my meeting with the chairman of GSOC, I took the opportunity to underscore the importance of prompt reporting to me of issues of concern, as provided for under the legislation governing GSOC. I have to tell the House that the failure to make such a report is a matter of substantial concern to me. It is only fair to note that at our meeting the chairman expressed regret at the decision by GSOC not to make such a report.
I have no doubt that the GSOC fully appreciates the need for public confidence in its actions, and that is why I welcome the fact it has agreed to appear tomorrow before a committee of this House to answer any questions about this matter.
I am, of course, aware of comments made by the Garda Commissioner last night following the issuing of a statement by the GSOC. All Members of the House have seen the questions raised by the Garda Commissioner. The GSOC is an independent body and it is for it to determine how to respond to those questions. I am assuming they may be addressed at the meeting of the Oireachtas petitions committee to be held tomorrow, if not before. It is unfortunate that An Garda Síochána has found itself, during the last 48 hours, the subject of what appears to be completely baseless innuendo.
While no information has been furnished to me by the GSOC suggesting that An Garda Síochána was involved in any way in what gave rise to the concerns which arose in the GSOC about its security, it might be useful in this debate to address more general issues which have arisen in regard to the relationship between An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. An Garda Síochána has played a proud role in this State since its foundation. We should never lose sight of the brave men and women of the force who are often called on to take great risks to keep us safe. I believe the majority of people hold the force in high regard, based on their personal experience of dealing with individual gardaí. As Minister, I have been determined to defend the force from unjust attack.
Of course, no organisation is perfect, and when problems arise, they have to be addressed. Both as Minister and before, I have been a strong supporter of an effective mechanism for the independent examination of allegations made against members of An Garda Síochána, which is now the function of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. I believe this is not just in the public interest, but in the interests of gardaí themselves. It is a feature of oversight arrangements the world over that tensions can arise between organisations and bodies which exercise oversight over them, but it is in everybody's interests that no one should lose sight of the fact that the interest of both organisations is common, namely, that persons exercise their powers in accordance with the law and that any wrongdoing is tackled effectively.
I have informed the House previously that I met jointly last year with the Garda Commissioner and the chairman of the GSOC and have put in place mechanisms in my Department to attempt to ensure any difficulties which might arise in regard to their co-operation with each other are resolved quickly. New protocols were put in place only in August last for the workings between the Garda Síochána and the GSOC.
I hope that what I have said today will put in perspective some of the claims which have emerged in recent days. In summary, concerns which the GSOC had in regard to the security of its communications have been investigated by it, no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical evidence or electronic surveillance was uncovered, it deemed no further action was necessary and took steps to review its systems with a view to further enhancing its security. I will, of course, be happy to report again to the House should anything further of significance emerge from the ongoing contacts between my Department and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
There is no doubt the last 48 hours have been a defining period in what is an exceptionally dysfunctional relationship between An Garda Síochána and the GSOC, which is all happening under the Minister's watch. It is a very regrettable situation. To recap, we had the penalty points controversy which dominated the headlines and has served to damage the morale of the force. We also had the spat at the Committee of Public Accounts which did not do anything to improve the image. What we have seen in recent hours is deeply concerning. We have the Garda Commissioner publicly questioning, by virtue of his statement last night, the body which is charged with the independent oversight of An Garda Síochána, which serves to undermine the role of that entity. Today, we have the Garda representative organisations, the GRA and the AGSI, openly calling for resignations in the Garda ombudsman's office. Yesterday, the Garda ombudsman was forced into an apology. All of that serves to undermine public confidence in the two institutions, the Garda Síochána and the Garda ombudsman.
There is no doubt the people have immense pride and respect for An Garda Síochána. That respect is hard-earned and is cherished by everybody. However, equally, the people want to know that the independent oversight body, the Garda ombudsman, is supported and properly resourced, with legislation to carry out its oversight remit. What we saw in recent hours was deeply disconcerting. We saw the shift in the focus from the questions that were raised in the newspaper on Sunday in regard to surveillance. A report had been prepared and this was reported in the newspaper. Questions were raised regarding whether surveillance had been undertaken, whether information was intercepted, whether the work of the Garda ombudsman's office was compromised and whether some of the caseload which it is currently investigating is potentially compromised, as well as the prosecutions that may flow from that. What we saw instead was the independent office of the Garda ombudsman being dragged in to meet the Minister. We saw an effort by the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, and the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to shift the focus away from the questions which were uppermost in people's minds as to whether an event occurred and whether the independent office is under surveillance, and the story became why the Minister was not informed.
The Taoiseach was going around the country yesterday saying there was a requirement on the ombudsman's office to report when, in fact, both he and the Minister know there is not a requirement to inform. The legislation explicitly states at section 80(5) that the Garda ombudsman's office "may" inform the Minister. That then became the narrative over recent days. The Government turned the victim of the alleged surveillance and bugging into the villain, which has served fundamentally to undermine the position.
We have spoken about the morale of An Garda Síochána in the House on a number of occasions. The morale of rank and file gardaí is an issue. We know it, we have discussed it and we have addressed the issues. However, without conclusively dealing with this issue in terms of fixing the dysfunctional relationship that exists between the Garda Commissioner and the Garda ombudsman, that morale will be further eroded and further undermined.
We have discussed this on many occasions. It begs the question when the independent commissioners of the GSOC have to take to the public airwaves to ask for additional powers to be given to them. These are fairly reasonable powers on bread and butter issues. The commissioners want unfettered access to the PULSE system, which at present happens under supervision. They want to be able to receive complaints and look into matters which are referred to them directly by members of An Garda Síochána. The Garda Commissioner himself or herself, whoever is the officeholder, is not subject to oversight and to scrutiny under the present arrangement. In the North of Ireland and in Britain, chiefs of police are subject to oversight and to scrutiny, and MI5 and MI6 are also subject to a degree of oversight. However, we have the situation where our chief of police is not subject to any oversight. This weakens the hand of the GSOC when trying to deal with the issues before it, given the chief of the organisation that the GSOC is empowered to oversee is not subject to the same degree of oversight. This is something we, as an Oireachtas, and the Minister and Government, have to take very seriously.
During Leaders' Questions today, the matter of the role of the office of the confidential recipient was raised. It was also raised last week by Deputy Mick Wallace in this House in regard to comments made in a transcript of a conversation with the whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. We did not get a response from the Taoiseach when it was raised by my party leader during Leaders' Questions. I believe it is of fundamental importance, given that this person was appointed by the Minister to this office. It is on the public record that he was also a supporter of the Minister's party. This is a very important officeholder. The whistleblower contacted this man, and got the response he got, which he has transcribed. An audio of this transcript is also available and is held in the office of Maurice McCabe's solicitor for safe keeping. The transcript states:
... and you go in there looking for the numbers and whatever else you want, you get it, and if the stuff was to get out into the public, the print media, it must come with what happens in the courtroom. I'll tell you something, Maurice, and this is just personal advice to you, if Shatter thinks you're screwing him, you're finished.It goes on:
If stuff is to get into print, broadcast media, it becomes public before the court and not any other way. If Shatter thinks it's you, or if he thinks that it is told by the Commissioner or the gardaí, here's this guy again trying another route to put you under pressure, he'll go after you.
This was brought into the public domain last week, was raised again today and I am raising it now.
It is necessary for us to get a response in respect of the comments made by the confidential recipient to the whistleblower. It is simply not good enough. What we have seen in the Minister's statement is a play on words in respect of what the GSOC statement said in respect of whether there was an alleged bugging offence. The Taoiseach quoted the GSOC report and said that no sophisticated evidence of technical surveillance was found. That was what he said this afternoon during Leaders' Questions but that is not what the GSOC statement said. Yet he purported to quote from that report.
Why does the Minister not properly empower the GSOC to carry out its role and remit? What has he against setting up an independent panel of suitably qualified people to carry out a review into this? The question is being asked about whether the GSOC did not go to the Minister with the information in the first place. The reason it did not go to the Minister is because it could not trust him and because it has been looking for increased powers to carry out its remit. It did not go to the Minister and it could not go to the gardaí because it has oversight of An Garda Síochána. It would be proper to have an independent panel that includes a judge, an expert in surveillance technology and possibly some suitably qualified person from outside the jurisdiction to look into this and to make all the documentation available. It has been pointed out here that the report commissioned by the GSOC is its property and does not have to be made publicly available. This is a matter of fundamental importance.
The Oireachtas set up the Office of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission through the Garda Síochána Act 2005. Unfortunately, the GSOC has told us that its ability to do its work is being compromised. It cannot ask the Minister for increased powers because it seems to be falling on deaf ears. We need to get all of the information out into the public domain as soon as we can. In his response to us, will the Minister undertake to address our party's call to establish an independent committee, which has been made by other parties? Will he outline to us what are his intentions regarding the modernisation and updating of the 2005 Act in terms of additional powers for the GSOC? Can he tell us what is the situation regarding the confidential recipient of information from whistleblowers? Given the content of the transcript of his conversation with the whistleblower, is he a fit person to hold that office? Has the Minister concerns about this because we have not heard from him? Can the Minister make any of the reports he has internally available to us to inform the public and have public discourse on it?
The report in The Sunday Times was disturbing and alarming for citizens across this State. To put it kindly, we have had a problematic 18 months in terms of public confidence in the Minister's ability to preside over and assist, depending on what body it is, the GSOC or An Garda Síochána. When previous issues came into the public domain relating to the GSOC, the Minister's instinct was to defend the system. What I found remarkable was the fact that the Department wrongly briefed the Taoiseach yesterday and again today about section 80(5) of the Garda Síochána Act. It does not require the GSOC to pass on that information It says it may pass it on. It is at the GSOC's discretion.
The GSOC has a responsibility to report to this Oireachtas and does so, as the Minister knows, through the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. The GSOC was established under the 2005 Act and followed the Morris tribunal in my home county of Donegal. This tribunal revealed gross abuses of power by some gardaí, from the rank and file up to senior level. It demonstrated the need for change in areas like the handling of informers and false arms finds. Another issue was the terrible ordeal of the McBrearty family. This is the context in which the Garda Síochána Act, the GSOC and the Garda Síochána Inspectorate were introduced. From the outset our party argued very strongly that the GSOC did not have the requisite powers to do its job. For example, it does not have oversight of the Garda Commissioner, as is the case with the ombudsman and the chief constable in Northern Ireland. The GSOC did not have access to the PULSE system to get directly to issues without somebody looking over its shoulder. Another issued related to the confidential recipient. Gardaí did not have the ability to report matters of major concern directly to the GSOC.
In case there is any doubt the GSOC did not have the requisite powers, we can see the issue in its own publication. Last year, the GSOC completed its public interest investigation into the handling of informers by An Garda Síochána and our intelligence services. It was a painstaking investigation that took years to complete although it did not need to take so long. In this report, the GSOC revealed the appalling lack of co-operation from senior Garda management with this very important investigation. What was it about? It concerned the dropping of charges against a major drug dealer without explanation and this person allegedly being handled by An Garda Síochána to entrap others. Those were the allegations in the public domain. They could not have been more profound yet in some cases, the GSOC never received documentation and in other cases, it took years.
What the GSOC revealed was outrageous. It also revealed that the lessons of the Morris tribunal had not been learned in respect of the handling of informers, which was a core issue at the tribunal, and the retention of contemporaneous notes where people could check what had happened and where it could be clearly demonstrated if one was innocent. These were significant issues. When that was revealed, the Minister did not say a word of criticism regarding senior management in An Garda Síochána but kept schtum. When he was challenged repeatedly by my party, he kept schtum. He said he was waiting on the response from the Garda Commissioner. It took months.
People will argue that the Minister has too close a relationship with the Garda Commissioner and that the system of policing in this State is not healthy. The relationship between Government and senior Garda management is too close. The Government has the ability to appoint senior Garda management, which is an issue. We need to see a truly independent policing authority with its own independent budget allocated, of course, from taxpayers' money. That policing authority would then be accountable to this Oireachtas and a policing board, as is the case in Northern Ireland. We need to change our policing model, which is unhealthy. We have seen repeated examples of resistance to change and criticism - serious criticism in some circumstances.
This brings me to the penalty points debacle which we have seen played out in the Committee of Public Accounts. The two whistleblowers were pretty much vindicated by the report from the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Let us go back to the start. Two officers discovered that the system was not working and that a considerable number of people were having their penalty points written off with no apparent explanation. It was one rule for the 70% of people who paid their penalty point fines and another rule for others. Basically, access to friends in certain places could get points written off.
This was a serious matter that the officers reported to the confidential recipient. The transcript read into the record by Deputy Wallace and repeated in the Chamber by Deputy Niall Collins was interesting. I understand that it may enter the public domain in the near future. The officers were stonewalled. The matter went to the Commissioner's office, was investigated and ran on and on until the two whistleblowers eventually approached the relevant authorities. Under the Garda Síochána Act, they were permitted to take the matter to Members of the Oireachtas, as they did. They also brought it to the attention of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Taoiseach.
Finally, the Minister made a decision. It was not to hold an independent inquiry into a serious matter with a significant amount of supporting documentation. Rather, it was to hold an internal Garda inquiry. The police investigating the police is not acceptable. There is no question mark over the integrity of the Assistant Commissioner, Mr. John O'Mahoney, but the perception was of police investigating police. It was a bad decision.
When the publication was reported, the Minister went out to the plinth and, with the Commissioner, was more interested in having a go at the whistleblowers and calling them reckless and wild than in actually dealing with the substantive issues. Of course, that could not be allowed to sit for too long. The subsequent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General revealed that one in five motorists accused of road traffic offences was getting off, that a half of all summonses were not being served and that the scale of the problem identified by the whistleblowers was real and even wider than they had believed.
This was a serious matter, yet the Minister still would not hold an independent inquiry. I challenged him in the Chamber on that after the report's publication. I almost pleaded with him. The matter then went to the Committee of Public Accounts and the rest, as they say, is history. The Minister has finally referred it to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission but considerable damage has been already done. The Minister must reflect on the model of policing and his relationships.
Our party is conducting a comparative analysis between the policing and ombudsman models of the State and the models in the North and elsewhere in Europe. When it concludes, we will introduce the Garda Síochána (amendment) Bill 2014, which will contain proposals for change. Deputy Wallace did likewise last year and I commend him on the significant amount of work he did in that regard. I understand that others are also considering making proposals. We need fundamental change to both of our models.
Let us be clear - the overwhelming majority of members of the Garda Síochána are doing a fantastic job. There is no question mark over them. They are on the front line defending our communities. In many instances, they are heroes. However, they feel let down by the cutbacks and the station closures. This point takes me back to the relationship between the Minister and the Commissioner. The latter echoes the Minister's language. He would call such measures "modernisation" or "smart policing" instead of acknowledging that they were really cutbacks - fewer Garda vehicles, stations and personnel. The number of gardaí will probably fall below the 13,000 template. It is an unhealthy relationship. We need change.
As the Minister knows, the GSOC will appear tomorrow before the committee I Chair. We will put questions to it and seek clarification. For example, why did the GSOC believe it needed to consult its sister organisation in Britain, why did it believe it needed to bring foreign security consultants into the State under the cover of darkness and why did it not trust the apparatuses of the State? One can come to only a single conclusion. We will tease through these questions tomorrow, but the conclusion is that there is a serious level of distrust between the Minister's office, the office of the Garda Commissioner and the office of the three GSOC commissioners. This distrust must end.
Tomorrow, we will probe the protocols of co-operation to see how they are working. I understand there are ongoing difficulties in accessing documentation, but we will tease through that matter tomorrow.
When all of this is over and we have established the facts, what the citizens will need is an independent police force in which they can have confidence from top to bottom. They will need an ombudsman's office that has all of the powers it needs to protect the public and to watch the watchers. Lessons need to be learned.
The only way to know definitively the level of the security breach at the GSOC is to publish the report of the security consultancy firm. I hope the GSOC will agree to facilitate that publication. When we see the report, we can have it independently verified.
We need an independent inquiry into this matter. The public will demand it and need to know the full facts. They feel distrust, as they have seen too many issues arise. The hearings of the Committee of Public Accounts did little for their confidence. I will leave it to the Government to suggest what form the independent inquiry should take, be it a judicial review or an international body, but someone who is truly independent of the GSOC, the Department and the Garda must examine the issue and make a ruling. For all of our sakes, I hope it will be found that spying did not take place.
Regardless of what happens, there must be fundamental change. Our party will put that to the Minister and engage constructively with him.
At this stage, most people are of the opinion that all is not well in terms of how our police force is operating and how the Minister deals with it and the inspectorate. We realise that GSOC does not have much power or funding, but it has been treated poorly in recent days. Once the news broke, the urgency and eagerness of members of the Government in attacking the GSOC was disconcerting. I have met Mr. Simon O'Brien, Ms Carmel Foley and Mr. Kieran FitzGerald several times and found them to be professional. The GSOC would like to be a professional organisation, if only it were allowed to be.
Incidents are expected to blow over and often do. It has been 18 months since we raised the penalty points issue in the House. From the word "Go", the Minister and the Garda Commissioner were eager to minimise and dismiss any allegation that we relayed from the whistleblowers. That was the Minister's main concern. He eventually organised an internal inquiry despite the clamour for an independent one. Internal inquiries - gardaí investigating themselves - were never going to provide satisfactory answers.
The Minister did not handle the Roma issue well. He refused to allow the GSOC to engage in the matter. The GSOC asked to be allowed to examine the incredible episodes that occurred at the Corrib gas field.
It requested permission to investigate under section 106, but the Minister refused.
In spite of his claims to the contrary, the Minister's performance on "Prime Time", dealt with by the Standards in Public Office Commission, which now wishes to wash its hands of it, did not give him a clean bill of health. The SIPO has stated that its remit does not allow it to investigate the issue any further. This also makes it plain that the SIPO does not have an appetite to hold the Minister for Justice and Equality to account. This was always going to blow over as well. Everything blows over, by the look of things, but it is not just about the Minister. There is a huge gap in public confidence today in how the Garda Síochána operates, how the Minister relates to the Garda Commissioner, and his refusal to give the GSOC the power that it should have. He completely diminished our efforts on a police Bill last summer, which contained the idea that there should be an independent police body as a buffer between the Minister and the Garda Commissioner. It makes sense and it is part of international best practice. This will probably all blow over again for the Minister, but the credibility of the Government is at stake as well.
It is not too long ago since the general election, when all the talk was about things being done differently. There would be transparency and accountability. That is not what we are getting. We are getting the opposite. In the last couple of days, the Taoiseach has been pointing the finger at the GSOC. What does this tell us? Where are we going? There seems to be no end to it.
Dr. Vicky Conway and Professor Dermot Walsh pointed out a long time ago that the relationship between the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner is over-politicised. The Garda Commissioner is answerable to nobody other than the Minister. Given that they are such good buddies, he is effectively answerable to nobody. He is supposedly answerable to the Dáil, but we in the Dáil have effectively no say in what goes on. The Cabinet makes the decisions and there is a small executive within that which make the serious decisions. To say that the Commissioner is answerable to the Parliament is a joke. He is answerable to nobody. The Minister is not giving the GSOC the power to hold the Commissioner to account. The GSOC has the power to investigate individual complaints from the public into individual gardaí. It cannot examine practices, policies and procedures of An Garda Síochána, or even look sideways at the Commissioner. Is this a healthy structure? Is this good enough? Does the Minister honestly think that the people are going to continue to believe in the Garda Síochána?
In the past, the Garda operated with the consent of the people. That is gone. The Minister has helped to erode it, and it is unfair to all the hard working gardaí in the country that they have been undermined. It is not the foot soldiers who are causing the problem but the hierarchy. It was not the foot soldiers who pressed the button on the PULSE system and terminated all the fixed charge notices but the hierarchy. It was not the foot soldiers who defended the hierarchy but the Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality, who were prepared to defend them no matter what happened.
The Minister has been dismissive of any allegations coming from anybody that did not suit him. This has brought the whole issue into disrepute. The Minister carries a huge responsibility for undermining public trust and confidence in our police force.
The Minister took an interesting tack in his contribution, roughly akin to asking people "to move along now, there is nothing to see here". From his point of view, would that were so. I am sorry, but I do not think that history will be so kind to him. We have a scenario of a constant drip, which inevitably will lead to a situation where the damn will break. How many special debates will we have to sit through in the House on issues of Garda accountability? We have had special debates on the O'Mahony report, on the "Shattergate" incident, dealing with irrelevant information that he should not have had on Deputy Wallace, but which he chose to use, and on information today about a potential security breach in the GSOC, which he should have had but did not.
All of these issues are linked. The problem is not about a tension between the GSOC and An Garda Síochána. The real problem is the axis of power and the very unhealthy, close relationship that exists between the Minister and the Garda Commissioner. The tone has been set from that, and everything else that has happened has followed that relationship. The question we should be asking is whether the current scandal is a sign that things are getting better or worse. Nobody had ever heard of the GSOC a year ago but the dogs on the streets know what it is now. Its mission statement is a very good one. It is to provide and promote an efficient, fair and independent oversight of policing in Ireland. One would think that is a necessity in any country claiming to be a democracy and claiming to be policed by consent.
We must view the latest media storm, and the Government's reaction to it, in the context of what has happened before now. For some period of time, the GSOC has consistently highlighted the problems it has encountered in being able to do its job, due to a lack of Garda accountability. The GSOC took an unprecedented step on the Kieran Boylan affair, who was a convicted drug dealer and whose handler has apparently been promoted to senior rank in the Garda Síochána. It made its point on that case. The GSOC held a press conference last year on its annual report, which outlined a range of issues. Its representatives spoke about an agreement that hundreds of minor disciplinary cases should be dealt with within 12 weeks, but claimed that this was rarely achieved. They claimed that the Garda do not operate the agreed protocols on getting access to information, putting unnecessary barriers in the way before withholding information. They asked the Minister to change the legislation to give them more access, but the Minister did not do so. There were new protocols, but that was not what was requested.
Let us be clear. There is a perception that the Minister and the Commissioner work very closely, and that they are in many ways hand in glove. To me, that is a very unsuitable relationship. The Minister extended the Commissioner's term of office beyond that which has been granted to any previous Garda Commissioner. The Minister backed up the Commissioner in his dealings with the whistleblowers. When Deputy Wallace tried to bring forward legislation that might have somebody else other than the Minister holding the Commissioner to account, he staunchly stood in the way of such change. As a consequence, we have a Commissioner who believes he owns the force, that they are his members and nobody else should challenge them.
The Minister's comments today, along with the comments of other Government Members, suggests a case of "methinks thou dost protest too much". They are falling over themselves to tell us how great the leadership of An Garda Síochána are, and how they have nothing to answer for in this case. Against such a backdrop, the question is not why the GSOC did not report what it thought was a security breach to the Minister or to the Garda Síochána, but why on earth would it do so. I do not know why this information ended up in the public domain but the Minister could do some work about sources in An Garda Síochána leaking information to the media.
Shortly after we tried to bring the penalty points issue to light, I had an encounter with members of An Garda Síochána, during which I was arrested and handcuffed. The story was leaked to the media within 24 hours.
As a result of some of these episodes, I and a number of Deputies were contacted by people from across the country who have been victims of Garda malpractice. Many of them had no time for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, believing it to be an organisation that whitewashed Garda malpractice and operated as a fig leaf to cover up bad practice. I was not sure what to believe at the time but I have certainly changed my view of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Despite being established without teeth, the individuals at the helm of the commission have tried to do their jobs and have gone beyond anything I have seen in the public service. Who are the individuals who have been denigrated in the media and by members of the organisations representing gardaí? Simon O'Brien was previously an assistant chief superintendent of the Garda Inspectorate and has a pedigree of international character and repute in dealing with issues of police accountability. Mr. O'Brien, Ms Carmel Foley and Mr. Kieran FitzGerald are not upstarts but people with an unrivalled record. I am satisfied that their decisions were taken in the interests of discharging their function, which, I remind the House, is one of overseeing An Garda Síochána.
The organisations representing gardaí are in open conflict with the body charged with overseeing them. Perhaps the Minister will have read the comments of P.J. Stone who stated today that he is satisfied that no gardaí were involved in any of the alleged surveillance. I am sure Mr. Stone would be equally satisfied that gardaí were not involved in the penalty points issue, the Donegal incidents and so forth. How does he know this when he has not been privy to any of the reports?
The Association of Garda Superintendents and Inspectors, AGSI, accused the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission of casting aspersions on the good character of the force and having no regard for the laws of the country. This is a crisis and the Minister is at its helm. The ASGI stated there is a question mark over the ability of Simon O'Brien to carry on in his position on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. That is the tone that is being set on this issue. The question mark hangs over the Minister's tenure and that of the Garda Commissioner. Contrary to what the Minister believes, this story will not move along because many questions and issues remain.
As with most other people, I was shocked to wake up on Sunday morning to the news that one of the most important offices of accountability in the State, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, had been bugged. The first question that came into my head was, "Who did this?" The second was, "How many innocent people will feel compromised by this security breach?" The third question, which was probably the first to enter the Minister's head, was, "Why was nobody told about this?"
The most important of these questions is the first. Who attempted and possibly succeeded to access the e-mails, Wi-Fi and telephone lines of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and what other State organisations may been bugged in this manner? If the independent statutory body with responsibility for civilian oversight of the State's policing operations can be bugged, what other arms of law and order could have had their security and privacy infringed? Could Cabinet meetings, the Judiciary or Garda headquarters be bugged? This is beginning to sound like the plot of an old Hollywood movie, except this thriller is not being funded by the Irish Film Board to be filmed in scenic County Wicklow. This horror story is unfolding on the doorstep of our democracy.
The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission recently investigated a number of high profile cases which involved confidential information that could have had a value to parties willing to use illegal means to secure access to it. One such case involved allegations of Garda collusion with a named individual in the movement and supply of drugs. Another case was opened into matters arising from the investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse in the Catholic diocese of Cloyne. Other cases involve allegations of misuse of powers by gardaí. My point is that there is a range of potential culprits in this security breach. I trust the Minister will examine all possible reasons behind this covert operation.
In 2013, the American business publication, Forbes, voted Ireland the best place in the world in which to do business. In its 11 point rating system which rated 145 countries, Ireland was voted number one for personal freedom, number six for investor protection and number 21 for corruption. Given that the economy relies heavily on foreign direct investment, these ratings matter. Citizens require State organisations to be free from corruption and the effects of corruption. The most important response to this crisis will be to introduce whatever measures are necessary to ensure ongoing confidence in the policing system and its oversight body.
This leads me to the second question that came into my head on Sunday, namely, "How many innocent people will feel compromised by this security breach?" In 2012, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission managed 5,018 allegations to the point of closure. The commission is the only complaints management organisation I am aware of which maintains profiles of complainants. If, for example I was to complain to the Environmental Protection Agency about a threat to the environment, I would be very surprised to learn that the agency was concerned about my ethnicity, housing status and educational qualifications. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission gathers this type of information about those who make complaints about the behaviour of gardaí and publishes a profile of complainants in its annual report. I find this aspect of the commission's reporting to be unnecessary and questionable. I hope the allegations made by complainants are investigated in a fair and open-minded manner, regardless of the demographic profile of the complainants. I make this point because the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission holds substantial personal information about complainants.
Many ordinary people who made complaints about Garda operations during the period of this security breach may be concerned about the security of confidential interviews and statements they made. These individuals must be reassured, as must the wider public, that the independence, security and authority of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission can be trusted.
This leads me to the third question that came into my head on hearing this news on Sunday, namely, "Why did the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission not report this serious security breach?" The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is not a single person but consists of three persons, only one of whom is a former police officer. A second commissioner is a former civil servant and Director of Consumer Affairs, while the third, most surprisingly, is a former producer, reporter and researcher in RTE who has also worked on the "Prime Time" programme. What were the three commissioners thinking when, it seems, they collectively decided to conceal the bugging of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission's offices from the Garda, the Government and citizens?
Ireland needs the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Garda, which, for the most part, enjoys the confidence of the Irish people, needs the commission to help it retain the high level of confidence it enjoys. If there is one lesson to be taken from this sorry mess, it is that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission must be given whatever assistance is needed, whether new and more powerful laws, new leadership or a new structure - or all of these - to enable the body to do its job in a confident, open and transparent manner.
I welcome the contributions made to this debate and the Minister's decision to outline what he knows and shed some light on the unseemly events of recent days. There is no doubt that the Garda Síochána enjoys the overwhelming support of the population. It is a highly effective force because it is a community police force of the people for the people. It would be highly regrettable if we were to allow anything to fester that would undermine the confidence of people in the Garda. Unfortunately, things were allowed to fester, not only in the context of the alleged surveillance of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, but also in the context of the penalty points issue, including further allegations made recently at the Committee of Public Accounts and allegations made by Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly in the House. Serious allegations were made and it is a matter of regret that the Minister prevaricated for such a long time before referring them to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. They should have been referred to the commission to have them investigated because, regardless of what findings would have been made, confidence would have been restored in the Garda.
Another issue arises which has not been referred to in this debate and is being avoided in its entirety. I refer to a transcript of the conversation between Mr. Oliver Connolly, the confidential Garda recipient, and Garda Maurice McCabe, which took place on 9 February 2012.
Some very serious allegations are made in that transcript.
They are very serious allegations. Deputy Flanagan is very tetchy. He was very quick when on radio this morning to dump on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. The Director of Public Prosecutions is never called in to explain if it decides not to inform the Minister about issues. There was no obligation on GSOC to inform the Minister about this. No such obligation is provided for in the Act because, as in the case of the DPP, the GSOC is inherently independent. We do not constantly call on the DPP to come before us to explain its decisions.
The key issue in terms of confidence in An Garda Síochána is why the transcripts to which I referred have not been investigated or referred to the GSOC. There are issues at stake here. We have provided in law for "a confidential recipient", in respect of persons who have concerns and fears of repercussions if they expose particular issues. Mr. Oliver Connolly was appointed to that position. Mr. Connolly, who is a supporter of Fine Gael and, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, with which I have no difficulty, is quite damning in the transcripts in the context-----
I am stating the facts. The confidential recipient, Mr. Connolly, states in the transcript concerned:
What I'm saying to you is, if stuff is to get into print, broadcast media, it becomes public before the court and not any other way. If Shatter thinks it's you, or if he thinks that it is told by the Commissioner or the gardaí, here's this guy again trying another route to put you under pressure, he'll go after you.Throughout the transcript the confidential recipient appears to be almost encouraging Maurice McCabe not to pursue this matter. If anything comes out of this particular debate it should be that these particular transcripts should be referred for further investigation. That the Minister is allowing this matter to continue to fester is regrettable. All of us in this House want to ensure everybody has confidence in An Garda Síochána and can support it day-in and day-out. That issues are being are allowed to fester and undermine the relationship between the Irish people and An Garda Síochána is also regrettable.
The Minister must act because he is implicated in this issue. That a particular person tried to convince Maurice McCabe that the Minister for Justice and Equality "may go after him" cannot be allowed to go unchecked. An investigation of this matter must be undertaken. It goes to the heart of what we are talking about. This issue should also be referred to the GSOC for analysis and report.
I thank the Minister for his statement, which has helped to clarify some matters. However, some questions remain to be answered. I am sure we all agree that even the faintest possibility of an attempt having been made to spy on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is an extraordinary matter. It is not, therefore, surprising that this matter has generated so much public concern.
I am mindful of how sensitive this issue is. We all need to be careful not to exacerbate or aggravate an already difficult situation. The reaction from some quarters has not been very helpful. I am reminded of the old adage that the only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions. There are, however, a series of questions which I feel need further clarification. Does the Minister know if an attempt was made to breach the security of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission? It is clear from the Minister's meeting yesterday with GSOC that security was not compromised. It is still unclear, to me at least, whether such attempt was made. The Minister has not in his statement definitively ruled that out.
With regard to the three technical and electronic anomalies referred to by the Minister, I accept and understand that the Wi-FI device was not used by the GSOC. Surely, however, the fact that it had been connected to an external link should of itself raise concerns. I also fail to understand the reason the GSOC would have the Wi-FI device included in its routine security check if it was never used. If it is not used, why check it? I would welcome more clarity on the issue of the conference call phone. Was this a potential weakness found in the system or had there been an unsuccessful attempt to intercept calls? We need to know more about that.
The third anomaly of UK mobile telephone calls being vulnerable to interception is also problematic. While I accept that, as the Minister said, staff members of the GSOC would not have used such telephones, it is possible that visitors or witnesses, possibly from outside of this jurisdiction - for example, Northern Ireland - used them. Surely this too could be a cause for concern to arise. What steps does the Minister intend to take if it becomes clear that an attempt was made to breach the security of the GSOC? In other words, is this the end of the investigation and the end of the matter as far as the Minister is concerned or does he reserve the right to extend the investigation of the issues involved or re-open this matter at some later stage if additional information becomes available?
This issue needs to be handled carefully. Regrettably, as was stated earlier, there has not been a great history thus far of co-operation and trust between An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. There are a number of examples of this. It is important that the integrity of both organisations and of the individuals within them are protected, at the very least until such time as we are in possession of all of the relevant facts. We should not draw any conclusions at this stage. It is not at all helpful for anybody to point the finger at An Garda Síochána, even though the instinct may be to do so. It is also not appropriate for the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors to be demanding resignations from the GSOC. It is a time for cool heads and not for upping the ante.
If an offence has been committed or there is suspicion that an offence has been committed there are a number of organisations or individuals with the means or motive to have committed that offence. As pointed out by the Minister, the GSOC has made it clear that there is no evidence whatsoever of any Garda misconduct in this regard. We do not at this stage know definitively that an offence has been committed. We also do not know, if an offence has been committed, who committed it or why. This is a very sensitive matter that will, if we are to avoid dangerous and damaging blows to the morale and integrity of An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, require skilled management by all involved.
I suggest that the Minister at this stage remain open to potentially involving third party investigators in any probe or examination of the issues that may be required further down the line. This may not be the end of this issue. This type of approach would serve to avoid any suggestions of bias, real or imagined, on anybody's part or of any prejudice or scapegoating of the investigation. It is important that this matter is cleared up as soon as possible so as to ensure that no State organisation is left with a shadow hanging over it.
The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is, in the scheme of things, a fledgling organisation. It was established on foot of the 2005 legislation, came into being in 2007 and took a while to get its house in order. It is important to reflect on the reasons it was established. It was established in response to the Morris tribunal and the absolute failure and incompetence of the then Garda Complaints Board, owing to a lack of powers and so on, to address many of the issues brought to its attention down through the years.
There was considerable hope when the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was set up that it would be properly resourced and independent and that it would be able to carry out investigations without being hampered in any way by the force it was investigating or those making complaints to it. I remember arguing at the time with the then Minister, Mr. McDowell, that he had not gone far enough in the legislation and that the commission should have been properly resourced along the lines of the model implemented on foot of the Patten report in the North. That was the position of the Government at the time. This is why I find it strange that Fianna Fáil is so critical now of the Minister calling for all manner of things to strengthen the commission. Fianna Fáil was in government and hampered it from the start. I welcome the party's conversion and I hope the Minister can be converted to a position whereby we can have a commission with the required resources and which is on a par with, if not better than, anything we have in the North, where the police ombudsman is seen as a standard internationally.
Key questions remain to be answered by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and I hope it will be able to answer some of them tomorrow at the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. We are keen to ensure that people have trust and faith in the organisation, that they believe there is nothing untoward happening and that if and when they make complaints, they are made with full trust in the organisation. The GSOC has a report and I hope it will be able to present the report of the analysis of the security sweeps of its buildings. I hope this is presented tomorrow to the Minister, the committee and perhaps the Garda.
The wording the commission has presented and the wording of the Minister are contradictory. The commission stated it could not conclusively explain the security or technical anomalies and that they were not a security risk. The Minister said there were technical anomalies and that what was at issue was the potential risk or vulnerability. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this is all they were and there is no evidence to definitively state that nothing untoward happened. The GSOC ended its investigation on the basis that no further action could be taken. That is the nature of the type of questions that arise with modern technology and telecommunications.
It was not a routine sweep and that is one of the key elements. A routine sweep suggests that once or twice a year the organisation carries out a sweep. The Minister alluded to the fact that a sweep was only done twice since the founding of the organisation. This means something triggered the commission's need to carry out such a sweep and to address any questions arising. The sweeps of the telecommunication systems and the examination of the security of the databases were triggered by something and we need to find out why they occurred. Was it because the commission was frightened as a result of some of the cases it has taken, some of the bad publicity it was subject to or some of the problems it had in trying to get access to information? These questions need to be answered and I hope the answers will come from the commission tomorrow.
Without these answers it will be difficult for the commission to work. Criminal and commercial organisations in this country have been investigated by the GSOC as part of its role in investigating An Garda Síochána. We should not say that there are no elements within An Garda Síochána who could be rogue as the contrary has been shown. An Garda Síochána as an organisation is not a rogue organisation - I have full faith in it - but rogue elements have been shown over the years, whether through the Morris tribunal, the heavy gangs in the 1970s and 1980s, the latest penalty points debacle or the questions raised earlier by others relating to Kieran Boylan and so on. There are suggestions that some members of An Garda Síochána, like members of many organisations in the country, have turned rogue and they need to be exposed.
The GSOC was set up to ensure those involved in any way in criminality within An Garda Síochána are exposed and that they do not end up besmirching others within the force. I am keen to ensure the public does not lose faith in An Garda Síochána or the GSOC, that we can have the faith required and that their work can continue without the distraction that today's events have created.
The revelations in recent days that the security systems of the GSOC communications have been breached came as a shock to everyone. That the body charged with the investigation and oversight of our policing could come under attack by unknown persons should warrant a major investigation. More shocking is the twist that the story has taken in the past 24 hours. The focus of the narrative has changed to the question of why the GSOC did not report to the Minister its concerns in respect of the security of its work, a clear case of blaming the victim to deflect from the crime. We have been treated to our Taoiseach wrongly quoting a supposed obligation on the GSOC to report to the Minister, thereby trying to cast doubt in the public mind on the issue. Again today during Leaders' Questions the Taoiseach repeated his assertion. Surely someone in his Department has read the relevant section of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 at this stage and corrected him? Section 85 of the Act clearly states that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission "may make" any other reports that it considers appropriate rather than "shall make".
Too often in this country we see the focus of serious complaints and revelations being switched around and the person or body making the complaint becoming the accused. In a functioning democracy the reaction of the leader of the State to such serious reports would be to initiate an investigation to be carried out by an independent body without delay to get to the bottom of the issue and to find out where culpability lies, if any. Yet, once again we see the reaction of those who should be charged with maintaining trust in our institutions. They go on the attack and question the integrity of the commission rather than taking the reports seriously and dealing with them. Today the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors called for the chairperson of the commission to resign, a call made without knowing the full facts of the incident. A banana republic would hardly be an appropriate description of the reactions of these institutions to these events.
Given the history of the GSOC one can only come to the conclusion that there is only one body in the State with an interest in knowing what is going on behind closed doors in the commission. Let us consider the report of the handling of informers of An Garda Síochána, the report on the difficulties of having gardaí co-operate with investigations, the penalty points controversy and the disclosing of information in respect of Deputies Wallace and Daly by gardaí to the Minister and the media. These highlight the type of State we are living in.
Given that the Garda is charged with operating as the secret service of the State there is a serious potential for the abuse of power to take place and my concern is that this is what is occurring. We have a secret service with no democratic oversight in respect of which answers to questions are denied because the actions of a secret service are actually secret.
Today, the narrative has moved on. The official view is there is nothing to report or investigate. According to the Taoiseach's comments today there has been no compromising of the GSOC database and no evidence of any information having been compromised. Therefore, the thinking goes, there is no incident. How can we believe this? There is a major crisis under way and a serious challenge to our democracy. The least we should expect is that our Government would be concerned about it. It should be clear to everyone that there is an urgent need to have this incident investigated fully and independently to restore confidence in the administration of justice. We should be assured that the commission can carry on its work in providing oversight of and accountability for the Garda.
The Garda should be at the forefront of calls for an investigation to clear itself of any suspicion rather than attacking the commission. Once again we see gardaí placing loyalty to the force above the public interest. Any investigation would have to examine who has the means and the motive to covertly spy on the GSOC, and perhaps that is what they are afraid of finding out.
I call on the Minister and the Government to initiate a comprehensive independent investigation into whether the ombudsman's office was bugged. Only an external investigation can achieve that and restore all our trust.
Yesterday John Mooney, the journalist from The Sunday Times who uncovered the surveillance operation on GSOC went on RTE's "Prime Time" and announced that the Department of Justice and Equality was in crisis. I believe that the reactions of the Taoiseach yesterday and the head of the AGSI today demonstrate that this is undoubtedly a crisis of confidence in the administration of justice in this country and an enormous public distortion of facts by some of the highest offices in the land.
The Taoiseach yesterday announced that it is a requirement of the law that the GSOC report to the Minister for Justice and Equality in the event that something of unusual or extraordinary importance happens. This interpretation of the law is inexcusably wrong and the Taoiseach's statement represents an astonishing attack on the independence of the Office of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. While the GSOC may now regret not informing the Minister about the bugging, it is not now, nor was it ever, under any legal obligation to do so. The Taoiseach needs to make this absolutely clear to the public and he should apologise for this misleading intervention. As others have pointed out, section 80(5) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 clearly states that the GSOC "may", and not "shall", make reports to the Minister in certain exceptional circumstances.
In a further outrageous attack on the GSOC, the head of the AGSI has called for its chairman, Simon O'Brien, to consider his position. His call for the chairman's resignation followed from the Taoiseach's same distortion of the law that the GSOC had an obligation to make a report to the Minister for Justice and Equality concerning the surveillance operation they uncovered. Clearly, it did not. The head of the AGSI also accused the GSOC of disrespecting Irish laws by not reporting the suspected crime to An Garda Síochána. This is again completely unfounded and misleading. Unless the GSOC suspected an offence had occurred that was a relevant offence for the purpose of the Criminal Justice Act 2011, which imposes duties on all citizens to report certain crimes, there was absolutely no legal obligation on the ombudsman to report the suspected crime. For the head of the AGSI to come out and call for his head is a gross abuse of his public position and represents either a deliberate or ignorant distortion of Irish law.
The GSOC chairman may well have to account for his statements tomorrow at the Oireachtas committee hearing, particularly in light of the direct accusation on "Prime Time" last night by John Mooney that he did not believe GSOC's statement concerning the events that prompted the particular security sweep in the first place. However, the public statement by the Taoiseach yesterday, which was followed by the statement today of the head of the AGSI, has brought the independence of the GSOC into question. That is a serious situation in which we find ourselves. This is an abuse of, and an interference in, the workings of the GSOC and it is not the first time that members of the Government have tired to directly interfere in the work of independent bodies in this State. However, it is completely unacceptable. The flagrant public attacks on the independent institutions of our democracy represent an abuse of power like no other witnessed in recent times. I call on the Minister to ensure these attacks come to an end and to ensure the confidence of the entire Government as well as the Garda in the GSOC is clearly articulated in order that the reputation of, and public confidence in, the GSOC can be restored. That is what is required and I hope the Minister will ensure that happens.
Since Saturday evening, when this story first broke, there has been an enormous vacuum in the context of information relating to the allegations made and, unfortunately, because of that vacuum, the reputations of all the agencies involved - the Garda, GSOC and the Department - have been undermined. We cannot be expected to come to the House as public representatives and accept the view expressed by the Minister and the Taoiseach that there is nothing to see here and we should move on. In light of the damage that has been done to the GSOC, the Garda and the Department, the only way to resolve this is through an independent investigation to examine the statement of the GSOC, the response of the Garda and the core issue involved. Public confidence has been undermined but perhaps the Minister is closeted from that. I heard his party colleague, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on radio this morning relating conversations he had with members of the public about this story. An independent investigation is the only way forward to fully restore public confidence and the relationship between all the agencies.
The Minister and the Taoiseach have made definitive statements about the bugging issue, which will be dealt with at tomorrow's committee meeting. The matter of who informed the Minister or who should have informed him is legally irrelevant because the GSOC's job is to inform the Houses of the Oireachtas. However, it is an indication that there is a confidence issue not only between the Garda and the commission but between the Minister and the commission when its members did not feel it appropriate to inform him of their suspicions or of the ongoing investigation. Perhaps the Minister needs to reflect on his relationship with an important body overseeing an agency under this Department's aegis.
The perception that the GSOC was bugged that hung around for three days is still out there and it must be comprehensively dealt with not by the Minister, the Garda and the GSOC because they have stakes in this, but by independent, technically qualified people who can assess the original investigation and the sequence of events. Otherwise, we cannot move on. These is no sense in imagining that at the conclusion of the debate, public concern about this will be allayed; it will remain. When reputable journalists such as John Mooney are moved to make the comments they have about the Department and its relationship with the GSOC over the past number of days, the Minister has a bigger problem, which cannot be alleviated by statements in the House.
The difficulty is what while the Taoiseach and the Minister have stated they are confident there was no bugging, they cannot say that definitively. None of us is qualified to say that and given the technical knowledge and skills available to those who want to engage in such an operation, they cannot say that. The fact remains that during a check, three technical and electronic anomalies were found. We do not know how dangerous they were or whether other damage was done because of them. We can only take the word of the Minister, the GSOC and the Taoiseach that the databases were not compromised. For us to fully accept that and put it in context, the report the Minister made to the Cabinet earlier must be put on the record of the House in order that we can see for ourselves. The only alternative is to establish an independent investigation.
During his contribution, the Minister said he had put a huge effort into trying to resolve the clear differences between the Garda and the Commissioner, in particular, and the GSOC and that is welcome. It is an important that there is a healthy working relationship between both. However, one common theme is the serious lack of confidence among rank and file gardaí in the Minister. The fact that the chairman of the GSOC refused to communicate with the Minister suggests his staff do not have confidence in him either.
That is the one matter which appears to bring these two sides together. If we are to restore the position which obtained on Saturday afternoon in terms of the credibility of the GSOC, An Garda Síochána and the Department, the only way to do so is by establishing a qualified independent investigation into all the relevant issues and all the actions taken by the various players involved.
I find this matter disturbing, particularly in light of the damage being done not as a result of this debate but rather on foot of the incidents that have occurred in the past two days. I also find disturbing the absolute - and perhaps deliberate - lack of clarity which obtains as a result of contradictory and vague statements being made, a lack of information being provided and the use of technical terms that we do not understand. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, indicated this morning that he does not understand the situation and does not know what is going on. I doubt whether he has been enlightened by what happened subsequently today. I endorse what Deputies Niall Collins and Calleary said to the effect that, as a result of public disquiet and concern about what is happening, there is a need for an independent investigation. Public confidence in the GSOC and the Garda is diminishing by the hour. The confidence the public has in this House, politicians or the Government to provide a remedy in respect of this matter has diminished to the point where it is now close to zero.
Instead of adopting partisan positions in the context of the warring parties, it would be better if the Government were to say that it wants to detach itself from this matter and put in place a credible investigative body. As Deputy Mac Lochlainn said, the membership of such a body should include individuals from outside the State. Indeed, its entire membership could be made up of such people. When it has concluded its investigation, the body could inform us what - in its unbiased opinion - really happened.
What we have witnessed in the past 24 hours is unprecedented. There has been an outburst of megaphone diplomacy involving the Garda Commissioner, the head of the GSOC, politicians and individual gardaí who are the heads of Garda representative associations. What some of those to whom I refer have done is turn logic and ethics upside down and, when they saw a weakness, waded in to attack an organisation which is independent. This indicates that politicians, the Garda and the establishment in general have, as Deputy Creighton noted, never liked independent organisations. When such organisations are perceived to have made mistakes - this is not necessarily true in this instance - they put the boot in and take advantage.
The so-called mistake here relates to why the GSOC did not report to the Government or the Garda with regard to what happened or in respect of the results of its investigation or of the operations it set in motion in order to discover whether its offices had been bugged. Why did the GSOC decide not to report? There are two reasons for this. First, because it concluded - as the Government has apparently done - that there was nothing to report and nothing had happened. The GSOC could not report if there was nothing to report. The second reason for the GSOC not reporting is that it did not trust those to whom it was supposed to report. I am of the view that both reasons are unsatisfactory. The impossible and unacceptable scenario - the abyss - is that the GSOC did not trust the Garda or the Government enough to report to them. It is my guess that regardless of whether it had anything to report, the latter is the case. I am of the view that relations between this independent body and the establishment have broken down to such an extent that the former does not trust the latter.
I am also of the view that the GSOC expected that if it had reported, it would have received precisely the reaction to which it has been subjected to date, namely, it would be attacked with relish. The reaction in question has been unseemly. As Deputy Clare Daly said, this body has proved itself to be independent and honourable in the past. It may not have been particularly effective but one is beginning realise that this may be because it has been continually frustrated. That is why there is a case for calling for an independent inquiry. There is no justification for allowing the Garda to investigate those responsible for overseeing its activities.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. This is a strange little country, particularly when - according to the Government, the Minister and many others - the victim of a crime is being placed in the dock and blamed for an alleged offence. Just imagine one's house being burgled and one being obliged to apologise to the burglar. That is what is happening in this instance. This has the potential to be a national scandal. It is certainly a national disgrace. We need to know all of the facts and we must be provided with all of the details regarding what actually happened. Above all, we need to discover the truth in respect of this particular incident. What has happened is not on and it is not reflective of either good policing or good practice.
I wish to make it clear that I am standing with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission in respect of the unlawful surveillance of its activities. Many of us have for a long period supported the principle of having a watchdog in place in respect of the Garda. More than anything we have demanded accountability, professionalism, impartiality and equality in law for all of our citizens. That to which I refer is what this debate is about but sadly it is not happening on the Minister's watch. During the past three years I have raised with him many cases involving citizens who were let down and to whom grave injustices were done. This is a matter up to which we must face. I was recently contacted by the mother of Shane O'Farrell from Magheraboy, Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, who was killed in 2011. Mr. O'Farrell's family suffered not only his loss but also many injustices in respect of his death and the investigation into it. The family has supplied detailed information to the Minister and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in respect of this matter, which I have raised previously in the Dáil. I take this opportunity to call again on the Minister to investigate new evidence relating to the killing of Shane O'Farrell. I also call on him to support Mr. O'Farrell's family which wants truth, account and, above all, justice. There are many other cases in respect of which action is required.
I have major concerns regarding the future of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, particularly in the context of the attempts that are being made to undermine the organisation. We were promised reform, change and accountability. Now, however, good and fair people are being hammered and whistleblowers are being taken out. This is another national scandal. Good and decent gardaí are doing their best - against the odds - but they are feeling the pressure. It is important to foster a good relationship between citizens and gardaí.
What is happening is not on and it is certainly not good enough. I demand action and I support the call made by colleagues for the establishment of a proper inquiry. Our justice system must work in a fair and balanced way. I am sick and tired of paying fines or taking the hit in respect of penalty points when a cosy elite of insiders walk away scot free. A good police force does not demand respect, it earns respect. The same is true of all public service organisations, the Minister and the Government. I say to those opposite to be fair and honest. If they cannot honour those principles, they should not remain in government. The Minister stated that the GSOC has concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance of its offices was found.
Was there authorised surveillance? I ask that question in the public interest. This debate is about public confidence and about the partnership between the citizens of this State and the Garda Síochána which is being eroded. GSOC is an independent body and this must remain the case. We must ensure there is good policing practice in this country. Of course I accept the point that not all big organisations are perfect but blatant injustice must be tackled. Some 90% of the public on the north side of Dublin support GSOC as a body that represents the interests of the citizens of this State. They want the facts and the truth but above all, they want justice.
I say, well done, that this matter has been included on the agenda so the House can debate it. My fear was that the Government would run away from it. The fact that I have speaking time shows that many of the Government Deputies who had an opportunity to speak in this debate ran away from it.
The Minister, Deputy Shatter, regularly accuses Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly of being negative and damaging to the Garda Síochána. Even if that were true - which it is not - I am afraid he has now become the champion of damaging the Garda Síochána. So far as I can see, the Minister knows that Deputies Daly and Wallace are actually trying to do the right thing but he just wants to spin it against them. However, at this stage, it has spun so much that it is now starting to spin against the Minister.
If GSOC thinks twice before going to the Garda Síochána, then what confidence can the general public have? A rape victim or someone who has been beaten up will read in the paper that GSOC thinks twice before going to the Garda Síochána. What the hell confidence can they have in going to the Garda Síochána? I believe GSOC was correct not to contact the Minister immediately because it would have got the same reaction as now; at least it got the information out.
Deputies Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Joan Collins and I have an avalanche of people coming to us to report dire things that have been done to them by corrupt gardaí. We have had gardaí come to us about things that corrupt gardaí do. It is time the Minister did something about this because if he is really worried about the Garda Síochána's reputation being damaged, he should listen to Deputy Finian McGrath who said that 90% of the people in his area know what to believe. It the same all over social media: people do not believe the Minister nor do they believe that what has been said by this Government is true. Everyone makes mistakes and mine are well documented and I got a boot for them and I deserved it. The Minister is going to have to face the music on this one. To quote his own words, the soap box from which he is operating is on shifting sands.
I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate. I thank those who said something constructive and those who made other sorts of contributions to which I will refer. I am interested in one thing only, the truth of the issues that arose, whether GSOC was bugged. It would be completely unacceptable for any surveillance to be conducted on its offices. I have the height of respect for GSOC which, as I have already said, is a very important organisation. GSOC investigated the matter and I reported to the House on the outcome of that investigation. I tried in my opening statement to set out the facts as known to me as dispassionately as I could. I hoped these would be assessed calmly, that hyperbole might be avoided and that the matter would be put into some context. Instead there has been all sorts of wild claims and allegations. Deputy Calleary said I had some stake in all of this. My only stake as the Minister for Justice and Equality, is that the public retain the highest respect and confidence in both An Garda Síochána and GSOC and that each carries out its functions appropriately with integrity and addresses issues comprehensively when issues of concern arise.
I will address points made by Deputies. I have genuine difficulty in understanding the calls made here for some form of public inquiry into this matter. Is it the position of Deputies that such an inquiry is necessary even though GSOC has concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance was found? Is it the position of Deputies that they think GSOC, whose security is at stake, was wrong to conclude that no further action was necessary or reasonably practical? Is it their position that they are more concerned about security at the offices of GSOC than GSOC is? Is it their position that GSOC is not capable of making this determination? In professing their support for GSOC are they saying the statement issued by GSOC is untrue? I ask for some reality to be brought to this debate. It is a particular pity that some Deputies took this opportunity to weave what is an entirely false narrative concerning me, GSOC and the Garda Commissioner. I have a relationship with the Garda Commissioner that is appropriate and correct in my position as Minister for Justice and Equality. I also have a good relationship with GSOC that is appropriate and correct in the context of its independent function and with which I should not interfere. On any occasions I have met with members of GSOC to address issues of concern we have addressed them constructively.
Deputy Niall Collins is completely wrong on a number of points he raised. It is difficult to stomach Deputy Collins's criticism of the aspects of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 which provided for the creation of GSOC and the inadequacies in that legislation when it was his party in Government which introduced it. For once, Deputy Ó Snodaigh and myself have something on which we can agree. Deputy Niall Collins detailed issues with regard to GSOC and its legislation that should be addressed-----
He is being disingenuous. Ten days ago, before this controversy developed, I announced that we intended to amend the GSOC legislation and that I would bring proposals to Government in that regard. In its reports GSOC has indicated some issues it wishes addressed. That legislation will be brought to Government at some point during the course of this year and will come before the House. The second issue arising is that of access to the PULSE system. On Monday week last, I announced that there would be direct access by GSOC to the PULSE system, not only in the context of dealing with the ticket charge issue which has been referred to it but also for future investigations. That is very different to the approach taken by Deputy Collins's party when in government. I do not make these decisions on a precipitative basis. I made them having considered issues that have arisen during my term of office. Deputy Collins made reference to the chairman of GSOC being forced into an apology. I did not force the chairman of GSOC into anything. I read a newspaper report and I asked him if he would come to my Department to brief me on what occurred. One of the first things he did was to apologise to me that I had discovered this information in a newspaper and that I had not been briefed. I have listened to the dramatic persona of my former colleague, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, criticising the fact that mention was made that I should have been briefed. Other Members of this House have raised this issue. I am very puzzled. This information has appeared in a newspaper and I knew nothing about it. Had I not sought a briefing I would have been criticised by Members of this House because I am accountable to this House for these issues. Should I have been briefed?
We have had a debate that has lasted almost two hours on an issue which everyone acknowledges is of importance. Reference has been made to the administration of justice as important to the integrity and the public perspective of GSOC and also to the public perspective of An Garda Síochána. I could not think of an issue that is more important to be brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality under section 80(5) of the relevant legislation which states: "The Ombudsman Commission may make any other reports that it considers appropriate for drawing to the Minister’s attention matters that have come to its notice and that, in its opinion, should, because of their gravity or other exceptional circumstances, be the subject of a special report to the Minister." Have we just spent two hours debating something Members of this House do not believe are of gravity or give rise to exceptional circumstances?
If there was any reality to the possibility that someone targeted GSOC's offices and bugged them and if it had a worry about this, surely that is an issue to be brought to my attention. Surely that is an issue the Minister of the day should be informed about. Indeed, I think in retrospect it acknowledges that information should have been given. It is no more dramatic than that but I would have expected, either during the course of the investigation or when it concluded the investigation on the basis that there was no purpose in continuing with it because nothing was coming out of it, I would have been informed and would not have read about in the Sunday newspapers. I think that is reasonable because Members of this House expect me to report to this House. There is very substantial reform under way. There is no bad blood between me and GSOC. There is a narrative people want to develop here but it was reasonable to comment that I would have expected to have been informed of these particular issues.
We need to keep all of this in context. We have heard mention of there being a crisis. What I am concerned about is to ensure there is no doubt in the public mind as to the integrity of the approaches by GSOC in the context of its offices, the privacy and confidentiality of information and that there are systems in place to guarantee that information cannot be wrongly accessed. Listening to some of the contributions in the House this evening, it is as if the initial statements were neither made by me nor GSOC but the plain truth of it is that there is no definitive indication at all, despite GSOC's own investigation, that anything was compromised. I am relying on the information GSOC has given me. I have no other means to report to the House. This is what I have been told by GSOC. It has made a public statement. I spent two hours with Mr. Simon O'Brien seeking as much information as possible to be in a position to inform the House and to try to be satisfied that GSOC was in a position to conduct its business confidentially and appropriately under statute and in the public interest. If I did not engage in that way, I would not be doing my duty.
I have no beef with GSOC. I think it is regrettable this matter emerged in the manner in which it did. Deputies have correctly referenced that it has cast a shadow over An Garda Síochána in circumstances in which it seems to be entirely unfair because there is no evidence, there are no facts or there is no material available to indicate that An Garda Síochána had any hand or part in any of this. GSOC has investigated it and has reached conclusions.
What is it that is to be the subject of an inquiry? It gets a headline and a little bit of drama from Deputy Ross and others but apparently there is nothing to be inquired into. Deputy Mac Lochlainn and I disagree about some things and agree about others but I very much welcome the fact GSOC will appear before the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions tomorrow and that there will be opportunity for any questions that need to be asked to be asked. If some additional information becomes available, of which I am unaware and that casts further light on this, I will welcome it. That is right and it is why we have a Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions so that a group like GSOC or the ombudsman can come into that committee in a transparent way and address issues that arise and are of concern, and this, of course, is an issue of concern.
GSOC may have had concerns about vulnerabilities in its offices but I have not been informed of anything to indicate anything was compromised, any conversations were overheard, any files were accessed or any data were in any way interfered with. If it was different, I would tell the House and it would be appropriate that I do so.
Deputy Daly said something of some interest. There has been a lot of toing and froing on the ticket charge issue on which I will not comment anymore because arising out of the further developments, it is now with GSOC and I hope it fully investigates it and that its investigation brings a degree of closure to this once and for all. However, Deputy Daly wants different standards in different areas. She talked about investigating sources in An Garda Síochána breaking stories to the media. She wants some people investigated but not others. I do not want to get into the ticket charge issue but the information that appeared in the media arose out of a leak from a member of the Garda Síochána. He may be right but GSOC will deal with it all. I am not entering into it. However, it appears that some things that appear in the media are acceptable but others are not.
I am very curious about this other matter that is floating around which Deputy Wallace raised last Thursday after I had left the House following Question Time. He could have raised when I was in the House and I would have thought more of Deputy Martin in terms of the manner in which he raised it. There is a reference to some transcript to which I am not privy. I do not know anything about the meeting which took place nor do I know how the transcript was created. I do not know whether it was an agreed transcript of a conversation which allegedly took place between the confidential recipient and Sergeant McCabe. I do not know selectively what is being quoted from it. All I can say to Deputies is that there is no question in any circumstances of me threatening anyone or authorising anyone to threaten anyone and the suggestion is absolutely outrageous. However, I understand this is something Deputies Wallace and Daly have been trying to peddle for the best part of two years. I have never been privy to the information or documentation - the detailed transcript which apparently they have. Indeed, the confidential recipient is supposed to be operating on a confidential basis. It is not appropriate that I start to access private conversations which allegedly took place between a confidential recipient and a member of the Garda Síochána but I would make it absolutely clear that no one would have my approval or imprimatur, whether a confidential recipient or any one else, to issue any threat to any individual who, in good faith, was reporting on any issue. It is outrageous that Deputy Wallace should suggest that.
Unfortunately, from the Opposition side, there has been more heat than light in addressing this matter. I hope some additional light will be shone on it at the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions tomorrow. My objective is that matters cool down in the sense that if there are now difficulties in the relationship between An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission that they are resolved. They were resolved last summer. I listened to one person suggest that they continued into September or October. They were resolved and protocols were entered into and relationships, as I understood them, were now on good terms with both bodies dealing, as they must do independently, with issues of concern that arise. I will do my best to ensure that relationships are restored. I hope in so far as there is any remaining ambiguity about this particular matter that it is fully cleared up at the committee hearing tomorrow.