Dáil debates

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission: Motion [Private Members]


8:20 pm

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:notes
— that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is an independent statutory body established under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to provide an independent and effective civilian oversight of policing in this State;

— that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has a hugely important role in ensuring that public confidence in the Garda Síochána is maintained;

— the reports that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s offices may have been subjected to covert surveillance; and

— that the obfuscation by the Government, thus far, to these reports has only served to obscure the situation and undermine confidence in both State agencies, including statements made by members of the Government into the Dáil record which have now been flatly contradicted by the Ombudsman;
recognises that:
— significant public concern now exists in relation to this matter and that there is an urgent need to ensure that public trust and confidence in the Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is maintained; and

— there is now a compelling case to establish an independent inquiry into this matter without delay, to be undertaken by a suitable person(s) with the appropriate experience, qualifications, training and expertise; and
calls on the Government to establish an independent inquiry into the matter without delay and consider options including a Commission of Investigation, as provided for under existing legislation through the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.
For the past ten days it has been clear that the institutions of the State have been severely undermined by two factors: first, the profoundly serious suspicions of bugging and intelligence gathering at the independent office of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC - a statutory body established to provide independent and effective civilian oversight of policing in the State - and second, the response of the Minister, the Government and the Garda Commissioner to the mishandling of this affair over the past ten days.

The situation has limped from chaos to crisis to chaos and back to crisis. It started on Sunday, 9 February, when The Sunday Times reported that a security sweep of GSOC's offices, which was conducted on the evenings of 23 to 27 September last year, found that GSOC had been targeted as part of a sophisticated surveillance operation which used "government level technology" to hack into e-mails and WiFi and phone systems. On the following day, 10 February, what I can only describe as the knee-jerk reaction or instinct of the Minister was not to run to the aid of GSOC, but to summon the commission to his office for an explanation as to why it had failed to inform him- as per the law in his view - why it had taken such action. The tone and manner of this response caused grave concern and has compounded the situation rather than help resolve it. All this time the public has been watching from the sidelines. Despite everything the Government promised in the lead-up to and since the general election regarding transparency and accountability, these were not forthcoming in the response to this issue on Monday, 10 February.

On Tuesday, 11 February, the Taoiseach, responding to growing public concerns, as articulated during Leaders' Questions in this Chamber from Opposition leaders, misrepresented the legislation. Again, he failed to grasp the gravity of the emerging crisis and went on to defend the Minister rather than acknowledge what had been reported over the previous two days. On 11 February, the Minister made a statement to the Dáil in which he provided an account based on the briefing he had received from GSOC. However, it has now emerged - a fact not disputed by anybody other than the Minister - that he was less than forthcoming with the information he had at his disposal.

On 12 February, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions invited GSOC to come before it to examine the matter. During the course of that meeting, the chairman of GSOC, Simon O'Brien, flatly contradicted what the Minister had said and put on the record in this Chamber the previous day. The written briefing the Minister received from GSOC has since come into the public domain and we now know what the Minister was told.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I published it and gave it to committee members. It did not sneak out.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I know that. I did not say the Minister did not publish it; I said it had come into the public domain. I will continue without interruption. What the document shows is that what the Minister said in this Chamber was not the full facts. It is no understatement to suggest that at this point the situation has become a farce and public confidence is on a downward spiral. This must be stopped.

This is the reason Sinn Féin has put forward this motion calling for an independent inquiry and for all options to be considered, including a commission of investigation as provided for under the existing Commissions of Investigations Act 2004. Unfortunately, today's announcement by the Taoiseach, following a briefing to Cabinet today, falls far short of an independent inquiry. It is evident that the Government made this decision reluctantly. As Deputy Mary Lou McDonald said earlier today, it has been brought kicking and screaming to this decision to have what now appears to be nothing more than a review of documentation.

The Taoiseach confirmed a number of matters during Leaders' Questions. First, he confirmed that a High Court judge would be appointed shortly to undertake a review within eight weeks. The terms of reference will be drawn up by the Minister for Justice and Equality in conjunction with and on the advice of the Attorney General, and the judge will report his findings to the Minister. Second, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality will reflect, through a series of public hearings, on the efficiency and robustness of the law in regard to GSOC. Third, the Minister for Justice and Equality will appear before the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions to answer questions on the issue. The Taoiseach also confirmed that a full, unredacted report would be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and that a debate on it would take place in the Chamber. What was announced today is not acceptable. Given the gravity of the situation that has unfolded over the past ten days, a number of questions remain unanswered. I hope some of them will be answered tonight and tomorrow, particularly in the Minister's contribution.

It is evident that the Government came only reluctantly to the point at which it decided to appoint a High Court judge to review documentation. It is also evident the Minister was less than forthcoming with the information he provided to the Dáil in regard to the briefing he received.

We need clarity. Why is the Minister setting the terms of reference for the review? That is like the fox designing the chicken coop. It makes no sense whatsoever, given the Minister’s performance in this regard in the past ten days. This is not personal. On many occasions, at committee meetings and in this Chamber, I have congratulated and commended the Minister on some of his initiatives. In this area, on this issue, as Opposition Members, we have a responsibility to hold to account this Government and make no apologies for doing so in a robust manner. This is not personal.

In essence, we are dealing with an allegation that An Garda Síochána in some way had the Garda Ombudsman’s office under covert surveillance. This is a serious situation. Why does this Government not see fit to enact the powers it has under the 2004 legislation to investigate an issue of such importance to the State? If this is not an issue of such national importance that it warrants a commission of investigation under that legislation, what is? The decision to hold a review does not restore public confidence.

The question being asked and discussed around the country is who gains by not having a full, independent investigation into this matter. Who gained by the fact that all the information at the disposal of the Minister and his Department was not put on the table last week? Who will gain by having a High Court Judge review the documents and report back to the Minister, under terms of reference set by the Minister? We do not know whether the judge will have a panel of experts at his or her disposal. The Taoiseach stated today on Leaders' Questions that the judge will not have the power to compel witnesses or to take statements. The High Court Judge is being appointed to review documents and to come to a conclusion and report to the Minister. Who will gain by that?

Why did the Minister not see fit to initiate a commission of inquiry under the 2004 legislation? Why has the Government decided to go for a review rather than a commission of inquiry? This is a very serious matter. Public confidence has been damaged. Questions remain. Answers must be given. Every Member of this Chamber, not just Opposition Members, has a responsibility to ensure that those who are tasked under law with the job of holding to account the policing authorities in this State can do so free from hindrance and from any targeting of their offices. It is essential that public confidence in this process is restored. We need a thorough, in-depth investigation into this, with the scope to examine all of the relevant papers and documentation as well as the power to compel witnesses to testify. This is needed so that a balanced judgment can be made with findings based on the full facts. We do not have that. That is why we will press our motion to a vote tomorrow night.

We do not accept what the Government announced today. I, and many outside this Chamber, see this as the Government trying to wish away the issue, just as the Minister has been doing for the past ten days. His attitude has been cavalier, as much as to say there is nothing to say, let us move on and get on with business. This is the business tonight in this Chamber and will be the business of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions tomorrow. This is the business about which every member of our society is talking. We need a full, independent investigation, not a review of the documents. Nothing less than a full, independent investigation will suffice.

8:30 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The subject of this debate is hugely important to the safety of our citizens and to the quality of our democracy. We are addressing the integrity of the police service, An Garda Síochána, and the mechanisms established by this Oireachtas to ensure proper accountability of that service.

I stress the word "service". Too often we hear the word 'force' in respect of police here and in other jurisdictions. The Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinane, addressing the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, issue, referred to "my force". That displays a certain mind-set which has to be addressed if we are to see real reform and real accountability in policing. We need political will on the part of Government to ensure real accountability. Its conduct in this controversy, and especially, I regret, the stance of the Minister, shows a distinct lack of will in this regard. The instinct of the Government and the Minister has been to try to close down this issue as quickly as possible. It has been a closing of ranks.

It is in the interests of the public, and equally of the gardaí and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, that we get to the bottom of this issue. We need to know if GSOC was indeed subject to a surveillance attack, why it was targeted in this way and by whom. We need to know the background, including the relations between GSOC and Garda management and we need to scrutinise the response of Government and of Garda management. The Sinn Féin motion provides the mechanism for all of this.

I believe the majority of gardaí provide a good public service, often at great risk to themselves. I have no hesitation in paying tribute to them for that. They are tasked with serving the people and, within the limits of resources, they generally do that very well. How well served are the public and the rank and file gardaí by the structure of the Garda Síochána itself and by the restrictions, set by Government, on resources? Most would answer "poorly". At the root of the current controversy is the failure of successive Governments to reform and modernise the Garda Síochána and to provide for robust accountability for the police service. The Garda Síochána Act 2005 went some way towards reform but fell far short of what was required.

The establishment of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was a step forward, undoubtedly, which we welcomed at the time. We also, however, pointed out its shortcomings. Its powers are insufficient; the limits on it are too restrictive. The then Fine Gael Justice spokesperson, the Minister's party colleague, Jim O'Keeffe, urged in the Dáil in February 2005 that the Government should look to the North where the Police Ombudsman had been established and where the Police Service of Northern Ireland had replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The first Police Ombudsman there was Nuala O'Loan, now retired. Commenting on the GSOC controversy in the past week, she pointed to the insufficient powers of GSOC compared to the Police Ombudsman in the North.

With respect to others in the Oireachtas, no one can speak with more experience and more authority than Sinn Féin on the long and painstaking task of transforming policing in the Six Counties. It has been one of the most fundamental aspects of the entire peace process. While the task is far from over, it can also be said that it has been one of the successes of the peace process. In the North, we have replaced the RUC, a highly militarised, politicised and sectarian police force, with a record of sustaining a one-party state and later taking the front line in the British Government's counter-insurgency war. In its place the Police Service of Northern Ireland was established and, while very far from perfect and with much work still to be done, it has begun the complete transformation of policing. This could only have happened in the context of a peace process and a political process based on parity of esteem and inclusivity. We in Sinn Féin have played a key role in that achievement.

It is one of the ironies of history and of the peace process that we now have a situation where policing reform is more advanced in the North than it is in this State. It is useful, therefore, to compare the current situation North and South. At our request the Oireachtas Library and Information Service carried out a comparative analysis of An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and I would like to summarise that analysis. When compared, both An Garda Síochána and the PSNI are similar in organisational structure, rank-command and geographical layout. Based on census 2011 figures for both jurisdictions, there is one full-time Garda member for approximately every 349 people in the Twenty-six Counties, and one full-time member of the PSNI for approximately every 244 people in the North. The main difference is the additional layer in the Six Counties provided by the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which provides a layer of democratic and broad-based community accountability. A similar structure does not exist here in the Twenty-six Counties. A democratic policing board for the Twenty-six Counties is something we in Sinn Féin have repeatedly called for.

Regarding complaints procedures, both jurisdictions have police ombudsmen. While similar in structure, the Office of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, OPONI, has a larger staff and budget than the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. More significantly, perhaps, the GSOC refers some complaints to the Garda for investigation. The OPONI, however, has its own staff to carry out all its investigations. Both bodies prevent police officers from making complaints about or against fellow officers.

While the matter which has brought about this motion and this debate is of serious concern and needs to be addressed in its own right, I believe it has also opened up a healthy debate about the need for an improved police service here with robust accountability. We can and should learn lessons from the experience of peace building and police reform in the neighbouring part of our island in the Six Counties and apply them in this jurisdiction, working towards better policing on the whole island in the interest of all who view it as home.

8:40 pm

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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It has been a long while since we discovered that all was not well between the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Garda Commissioner. As late as last summer, members of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission were before an Oireachtas committee saying plainly to the Deputies and Senators present that its capacity to investigate complaints against alleged Garda misconduct had been damaged by lack of co-operation from the Garda force. They pointed to the length of time it was taking for the Garda to respond and provide information which was requested in the course of its investigations. They spoke about the protocols in place for the previous six years, which clearly they felt were not working because the ombudsman commission was negotiating with the Garda to revise them.

The obstacles put in its way were never more clear than when the ombudsman commission's office was denied direct access to the PULSE system and was forced to go though gardaí to find information relevant to the inquiries it was investigating. A garda just out of Templemore, therefore, could have total access to the PULSE system but a member of the ombudsman commission could not be trusted to have that access. The Garda Commissioner actually suggested, just as this bugging story broke, that the fact that the security of the ombudsman's office might have been breached was justification to deny its members access to the Garda computer system. Since the establishment of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, the attitude of the force has been strong resentment at the very suggestion that it needs oversight accountability. This attitude was reflected in the recent words of the Garda Commissioner about whistleblowers within the force.

The real question here is whether the Government stands with gardaí against the ombudsman commission or does the Government stand by the proper transparency and oversight that democracy demands of the Garda by the ombudsman commission? Is the Government trying to get to the bottom of the matter in hand and to the core issue of growing public concern, that is, was the independent ombudsman commission bugged and, if so, by whom? How did they do it and, more importantly, why did they do it?

The way the Minister and the Taoiseach dismissed the discovery of bugging of the ombudsman commission's office tells us that before they even had the full information, they sided with the Garda and dismissed the threat without even examining the evidence properly - a knee-jerk reaction. It was a knee-jerk instinct typical of the Minister, Deputy Shatter, and is an approach the public and this Dáil do not like. This is an issue of public trust and confidence but the Minister has served time and again to shatter that. It must be remembered that at the beginning, it was news to us all that the offices had been bugged. When the news broke in The Sunday Times, would it not have been a normalresponse from Government to have had other State offices checked for bugs as well, instead of distracting from the core issue and waffling on about who should have informed the Minister about it and when?

The latest available figures show us that in 2012, the ombudsman commission received 2,017 complaints from the public about Garda misconduct, while the complaints received through the Garda Commissioner amounted to only 72. The GSOC representative at the Oireachtas committee said that they would closely examine a downward trend in the number of these referrals from the Garda Commissioner. They had decreased from 103, which is still a drop in the ocean of the total, in 2010 to just 72 in 2012.

In a democracy, those in charge of a properly functioning police force should be working in close co-operation with those tasked to oversee it. In a properly functioning democracy, the first reaction of a Minister for Justice, on realising that the police force was not co-operating with the body tasked with overseeing it and preventing or investigating its misconduct, would be to introduce support and assist with measures to fix the problem. The Minister did not do that.

The people of this State suspect that this scandal stinks to high heaven. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality have tried to confuse the issue and tried to turn the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission into the scapegoat, assisted by the Irish Independent which this morning published a story that was completely refuted by Verrimus, the British security company called in by the ombudsman commission to check its offices for bugs when it first suspected their presence at its headquarters.

The bugging of the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, or the suspicion of it, is something the Minister for Justice and Equality should have taken very seriously. The proper response would be to consider the evidence, establish the source of any threat to the office, which means a threat to the democratic brief it fulfils, and to prepare a response to it in conjunction with the ombudsman commission. Instead, both the Minister, Deputy Shatter, and the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, rowed in with the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Martin Callinan, to blame the ombudsman commission for trying to establish if it had been bugged. How did the Taoiseach and the Minister know that this was not an unauthorised action by members of the Garda Síochána? How did the Minister and the Taoiseach know that this threat had not come from a criminal gang?

There are many questions to answer, some of which have been raised by the Labour Party Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Costello, regarding the case of drug trafficker and Garda informant Kieran Boylan. How did the Garda know - how did the Minister, Deputy Shatter, know - it was not something to do with that case? This man is not a small player in the drugs world. He was caught with €2.5 million worth of heroin. The Director of Public Prosecutions decided to drop the charges against him as his trial was drawing to a close. The ombudsman complained that the Garda had deliberately delayed and frustrated its four-year inquiry into allegations that Boylan was allowed by his Garda handlers to continue dealing drugs while he supplied information on the dealers to whom he was still selling. The Minister of State, Deputy Costello, knows in his heart that if he was in Opposition and not in a Labour Party which has devoted itself to propping up this Government he would be joining Sinn Féin and other Opposition Deputies in calling for an independent inquiry into this affair.

How can the decent gardaí who do their best to carry out their duties properly retain the confidence of the public while this latest debacle remains under wraps and not subject to proper public scrutiny? More than 2,000 people per year bring complaints about the Garda to the ombudsman. How are they to have confidence that the GSOC can pursue their complaints in circumstances in which gardaí are not co-operating and the Minister is not fixing this problem? I urge all Deputies to support Sinn Féin's demand for an independent inquiry and to oppose the Government's amendment so that public confidence in GSOC and the Garda can be restored and the matter of possible bugging can be dealt with by those qualified to do so.

8:50 pm

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Since the story of the bugging of the GSOC offices broke it has been clear that a full independent inquiry is needed to establish the facts of this case. Numerous questions remain to be answered and the statements by the Minister, Deputy Shatter, have failed to address the public's concerns about this serious scandal. An independent inquiry would have the power to compel any documents relating to the illegal surveillance of GSOC to be brought before the commission.

Instead of maintaining a shroud of secrecy surrounding these current events, the Minister should be looking to clarify what happened. However, the Government in its wisdom has refused this Sinn Féin motion calling for an independent inquiry. Everybody, with the exception of the Minister, the Taoiseach and the rest of the Government, accepts that GSOC's offices were bugged and that classified or sensitive information may have been compromised.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Even GSOC does not accept that.

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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It is reasonable for us to call for a full independent inquiry into this affair. The Garda has become the centre of this scandal and the burden of responsibility lies upon that organisation to ensure it is above reproach. It must acknowledge what types of surveillance gathering they are involved in and what technology it uses. It must clarify whether it ever employs private companies to carry out surveillance operations. Could surveillance of GSOC ever be legally justified - for example, if it was believed that members of GSOC were leaking information to journalists, as they have been accused of doing? Could the Official Secrets Acts be used to justify such an operation? Only a full independent inquiry will be able to resolve such questions.

It is clear that the Minister has attempted to deflect attention away from the core issues by peddling misinformation and half-truths. Why, in a properly functioning democracy, would the Minister with direct responsibility for policing be reluctant to initiate an investigation into illegal surveillance of a State body that has been established to hold the police force to account? It is also clear that the relationship between certain journalists and the Garda and, indeed, Members of the Government needs to be scrutinised. Today's cack-handed attempt by Paul Williams to discredit GSOC was the most obvious example of this. The Government's line is being spun by certain elements of the media in order to deflect attention from what is really important, and one wonders what their true agenda may be. As Deputy McDonald made clear earlier today, any investigation needs to be empowered to get to the heart of the bugging scandal. It is simply unacceptable that the Minister might be allowed to set the terms of reference for this inquiry.

The inquiry must investigate the Garda's handling of the well-known convicted drug trafficker Kieran Boylan, whose role as an alleged informant must be open to scrutiny because it is believed this relationship goes to the heart of the bugging scandal. The only true means of determining the facts of the matter is a thorough, transparent, independent inquiry. If the Government uses the powers available to it under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 it may well be able to get to the root of this matter. The credibility of this Government to lead into the future may depend on its ability to do so.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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Tonight's debate concerns one of the most important institutions of the State, the Garda Síochána. Recent events surrounding the alleged surveillance of GSOC have raised serious questions about its independence and its capacity to ensure proper civilian oversight of the police in this State. The seriousness of this matter cannot be overstated but, despite the fact that almost certainly the offices of GSOC have been targeted by a covert and sophisticated surveillance operation that could only have been carried out by a Government agency, the Minister and senior Garda personnel have attempted to trivialise what has happened over a ten-day period. This is unacceptable. The Minister's failure to adequately address the compromising of GSOC's security is an indictment of his attitude and approach, and earlier today the Cabinet was forced into a U-turn, announcing an inquiry with a scope so limited that it is likely it will amount to nothing more than a review into the GSOC scandal.

Serious questions arise around the Minster's capacity to oversee the role of the Garda and to be truly independent in his role as Minister for Justice and Equality. His statement last week to the Dáil completely misrepresented the GSOC report and his distortion of the facts has been repeated by senior Ministers and the Taoiseach, whose initial response to The Sunday Times article which broke the story was to misinterpret the legislation in an attempt to discredit GSOC. The question arises of whether the Government wants an independent ombudsman. Thankfully, these Government failures have not undermined the public's confidence in ordinary rank and file gardaí, who provide a vital public service. However, the failures of both the Minister and the Garda Commissioner were further underscored last Friday when, at their joint press conference at Templemore, the Minister attempted to row back and demonstrate his confidence in GSOC, only for the Commissioner to undo this effort by saying that the pigeon had come home to roost for GSOC. Today's decision by the Government to belatedly initiate a review into this saga is a response to what has become a catalogue of controversy and crises under the Minister's watch. The appointment of a retired High Court judge to inquire into all matters of relevance will be viewed with a certain cynicism, given that it will be the Minister himself, albeit on advice from the Attorney General, who will set the terms of reference and receive the report. The Minister should also be placed under forensic scrutiny as part of any examination rather than being the one to oversee the review.

Yesterday, Sinn Féin publicly stated that we would be making the necessary amendments to the Garda Síochána Act 2005 in order to strengthen GSOC's powers, particularly in view of the need for GSOC to investigate the Garda Commissioner. Today the Government announced that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality would be asked to review the existing legislation and make recommendations for change. I suggest to the Minister that there is no opposition to strengthening the legislation and that powers to investigate the Garda Commissioner can be provided for immediately on that basis, even as broader policing reforms are considered by the committee. It is also necessary that the ombudsman, when conducting investigations, has oversight of An Garda Síochána up to and including the Garda Commissioner. We will not have a policing culture based on accountability and transparency if the person at the top of the force is exempt from independent investigation. This was eloquently noted in recent days by the former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Nuala O'Loan, who said that based on GSOC's current set-up she simply would not be an ombudsman.

We need to amend the legislation to give effect to these broader reforms and modernise our laws to match the policing challenges of 2014 and the administration of justice in the State.

There is great merit in the idea of creating an independent policing board with proper oversight similar to the body that exists in the North. For instance, at community level joint policing committees have in most parts become talking shops. There must be community input and structures which are responsive in order to win public trust and confidence in policing. Additional powers must be devolved to joint policing committees to give local representatives direct input in the development of local policing plans. Joint policing committees also need to be given a more effective role in ensuring that local policing plans are fully implemented. The Garda must then be held to account for its implementation.

Sinn Féin became a driving force for progressive change and policing accountability in the North. The Patten report provided a blueprint that enabled the creation of a policing service that is accountable and answerable to the public it serves. It is clearly time to usher in new change. The Government stood on a platform of dramatic reform. Let us now match words with action and get on with the task in hand, which the people expect and which the Government promised to deliver.

9:00 pm

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "surveillance;" and substitute the following:
"- the investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, under section 102 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, into these concerns;

- the conclusion of the investigation that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance was found; and

- the decision of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission that no further action was necessary or reasonably practicable;

reaffirms its commitment to maintaining the independence and functional integrity of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission;

welcomes the announcement by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence (by the Government) of the appointment of a High Court Judge to review all matters of relevance to the initiation and outcome of the investigation commenced by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission on 7th October, 2013 pursuant to section 102(4) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, concerns that have arisen as to the possibility that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was under surveillance and all papers, including correspondence, and reports of relevance to the matter;

welcomes the engagement by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence with the Joint Committee on Public Service, Oversight and Petitions in its examination of these issues;

acknowledges a need to further examine all relevant parts of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 with a view to improving the statutory mechanisms, so as to provide for continued and effective oversight of the Garda Síochána and to maintain public confidence in the process for resolving complaints against its members and agrees that such examination be undertaken by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and that it report thereon; and

looks forward to the reports of the Joint Committees and of the High Court Judge so appointed."
On Tuesday last, speaking in this House I stated that the Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission are vital pillars in our democratic policing structures. The work of the Garda Síochána, in fighting crime, combating terrorism, and protecting the public, is of critical importance. Equally, the role of GSOC, in independently investigating complaints or concerns relating to the Garda Síochána, is central to the maintenance of continued high levels of public confidence in the force. My fundamental role, as Minister for Justice and Equality, is to protect the security and integrity of the State and its institutions. My first and only concern, on learning of allegations of surveillance, was to establish whether GSOC, a critical oversight institution, had been subjected to surveillance.

Prior to the establishment of GSOC, it was my view that we needed to establish such a body by way of legislation and some may recall that, following on allegations of Garda misconduct in Donegal, I was one amongst other Members of this House who called for a public inquiry and on 20 November 2001 proposed an extensive motion in this House for the holding of such an inquiry. Some months later the Morris tribunal was established. When issues of difficulty arose in Abbeylara, not only was I a member of the justice committee which commenced hearings into Abbeylara, but I took so seriously the need for not only independent oversight but accountability to Parliament that I personally attended both the High Court and the Supreme Court to make submissions in favour of the justice committee being permitted to continue its inquiry into Abbeylara. Therefore, there is no one more committed than me to ensuring that we maintain the independence and functional integrity of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and that there is full public confidence in the commission.

In recent days I have listened to allegations made that I am seeking to undermine the role of GSOC or that I may want to abolish it altogether. Such allegations of undermining have again been made this evening. The chairman of GSOC, Mr. Simon O'Brien, in his presentation to the Joint Committee on Public Service, Oversight and Petitions on Wednesday last, stated on more than one occasion his full trust in me, as Minister. Mr. Kieran FitzGerald, a member of the commission, when questioned in an interview on "Prime Time" on Tuesday night last on my statement that evening to the Dáil, stated, "we've no disagreement at all with the Minister". Later on in the interview, when asked by Ms Miriam O'Callaghan why the commission did not report to me on the investigation undertaken by them, when it was suggested to Mr. FitzGerald that GSOC "didn't trust" me, he stated "we have full faith in the Minister".

My concern to ensure a proper working relationship between An Garda Síochána and GSOC, and the resolution of well publicised difficulties last spring between the two organisations, resulted in meetings with both the Garda Commissioner and the chairman of GSOC and, ultimately, the conclusion of a new protocol between both bodies, the objective of which was to ensure that GSOC could fully and properly carry out its statutory duties with the fullest necessary Garda co-operation. Just over two weeks ago, prior to the commencement of this controversy, I announced my intention to bring before Government proposals to amend the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to address aspects of the legislation that required change and which have been the subject of both reports and public comment. I also took the steps necessary to ensure that, in the context of GSOC's investigation into the fixed ticket charge controversy, it had direct access to the PULSE system, and stated it will also have such access in other future investigations. The statement I issued on Monday fortnight last has been available since that date on the Department of Justice and Equality website.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Why has it taken so long?

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Today, it was agreed at Cabinet that the input of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality would be sought on the amendments to be made to the 2005 Act with regard to GSOC, in advance of my finalising the proposals to be brought by me to Cabinet - hardly the actions of someone seeking to undermine the work of GSOC.

On Tuesday last, in this House I detailed the background to the investigation GSOC initiated and the outcome of that investigation. I summarised for the House the information furnished to me by GSOC's chairman, Mr. O'Brien, at our two hour meeting and that contained in the briefing note I received from GSOC and its public press release. I addressed the central issues of the "anomalies", "potential threats" or "vulnerabilities" identified. Two of these, relating to a Wi-Fi system and a conference call telephone, resulted in GSOC initiating an investigation on 7 October 2013. Following the instigation of that investigation, a third potential threat or vulnerability was identified in respect of a device that can access phone conversations and material from a UK telephone connected to a UK 3G network. I detailed to the House the conclusion reached by GSOC following on from that investigation and work undertaken by Verrimus, the security consultants which had undertaken the original security sweep in September 2013 and which had assisted GSOC in the investigation that took place. I recounted, specifically, from both the chairman's meeting with me and the formal brief I received, the conclusion that there was no definitive evidence of any technical or electronic surveillance of GSOC's offices. I also recounted that there was no connection between any member of An Garda Síochána with any of these matters. Despite the fact that what I said with regard to the surveillance replicated exactly the conclusion contained in the brief received by me from GSOC, I have been subject to continuing political attack alleging that I have undermined the role of GSOC and been covering up Garda misconduct.

Unfortunately, both inside and outside this House, GSOC's conclusions and decision to conclude its investigation have been disregarded. In this context, it is worth noting what the commissioner, Mr. Kieran FitzGerald, told "Prime Time" this day last week.

Ms Miriam O'Callaghan asked the following question with reference to GSOC's press release of Monday, 10 February:

In your statement last night you said there was no evidence of Garda misconduct, why would you say that in the first place if you weren't thinking that?
Mr. Kieran FitzGerald replied:
Because the reason we said that last night and that l'm happy to repeat it here now, is that it's part of the public discussion, in Dáil Éireann this evening, and all over the airwaves for the last couple of days, people are pointing fingers and may I say it is unfair of people to point fingers at An Garda Síochána on the basis of anything we have said or done.
That was said by Mr. Kieran FitzGerald, a commissioner in GSOC. Listening to the contribution of Sinn Féin members tonight, one would think it was said somewhere in outer space and no one was listening.

Ms O'Callaghan, in reference to finger-pointing, continued, "but your statement last night did that". Mr. FitzGerald replied:

No, our statement last night was meant to try to clear that up and say we did not find evidence of Garda misconduct because the public discourse seems to be pointing in the direction of finding the Guards guilty of this thing when we are saying quite clearly and categorically and in no uncertain terms, we found no evidence to point to that direction and for people to suggest that, you know, they were up to something, we're the people who did the examination, we're the people with the evidence, we do not have any evidence to point in that direction.
It is unfortunate that, despite that clear statement by Mr. Kieran FitzGerald on "Prime Time", we have had a week of continuous finger-pointing at An Garda Síochána, and calls for inquiries by persons who have not only assumed that GSOC was under surveillance or was bugged, but that the Garda were the culprits. We have had more of that tonight from Sinn Féin. Having regard to that party's history, of course, it suits Sinn Féin to have An Garda Síochána continuously under some form of suspicion.

While I do not doubt the general legitimacy of concerns that have been expressed by various persons at reports of potential threats of surveillance of GSOC, it is a pity that we could not have had a more balanced and rational debate on these matters.

An inference has been drawn by some that one of the three potential threats identified by GSOC - the use of a bogus UK network device - could only involve technology available to government agencies. The repetition of this inference has been fuelled by the Verrimus report and has caused real concern to many. Information on the technology needed to create a bogus network - usually referred to as an IMSI catcher - is in fact widely available on the Internet. It is also the case that such devices have a range of up to several kilometres, so that even if there had been such a device it could have been located anywhere in central Dublin. There is no indication whatsoever of which I am aware that it was directed at GSOC, whose staff do not in any event use UK-registered mobile phones.

I referenced this fact in my speech last week based on the briefing I received from the chairman of GSOC. It is also worth noting that in his presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee, the chairman clearly did not accept that the technology referred to could only be obtained by Government agencies, despite the statement to this effect in their security consultant's report. I did not reference it in my speech to the Dáil last week as the chairman had clearly placed no reliance on that advice, and this is clear from his own comments to the Joint Petitions Committee. However, we have reached the stage where these and other factual arguments cannot get a fair hearing.

This political opportunism has extended to manifestly false claims that I misled this House or withheld relevant information from it. I must say again that everything I told this House in statements on Tuesday of last week was based wholly, exclusively and accurately on the oral and written briefing given to me by the chairperson of GSOC and the press statement issued by GSOC. If that were not the case, the endorsement of Mr. Kieran FitzGerald would not have been forthcoming.

Some Members opposite claimed to see significance in the fact that I did not specify that the investigation launched by GSOC was under section 102 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. I made it clear to the House, however, that GSOC had launched an investigation. The fact of the matter is that section 102 is the only section under which GSOC could have launched such investigation. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with the 2005 Act will confirm, no other section could have been used by GSOC to initiate an investigation on its own initiative, so it is of no relevance that I did not expressly reference section 102 in my Dáil statement, just as GSOC did not reference it in its press release. There has been no public criticism of GSOC for not referencing and naming the section in its press release.

There were other sections of the legislation relevant to the investigation undertaken by GSOC to which no reference was made and to which GSOC itself made no reference in its press release. These include section 98 and section 103 of the 2005 Act. It was not a night for delivering a legal treatise. It was an opportunity to explain to the House in as non-technical language as possible the events that had occurred as recorded to me. I assumed those speaking in the House and, in particular, the Opposition justice spokespeople were familiar with the Act. I certainly never expected that my statement would be distorted to a false allegation being made by my political opponents that I had, in some way, misled the House for some perceived political advantage.

All sorts of motives have been attributed to me for not expressly mentioning section 102 of the Act, which have no credibility in the context of my knowledge that members of GSOC were the next day to come before the petitions committee and that, at an extended questioning session in the committee, there was a reasonable likelihood that specific aspects of the legislation applying to GSOC would give rise to questions.

It has been suggested that I wanted to conceal the fact that GSOC commenced an investigation into members of An Garda Síochána. Those who make this charge choose to ignore the fact that GSOC's investigative remit is confined to investigating matters relating to An Garda Síochána. GSOC has no statutory entitlement to investigate any other individual or body, other than a member or members of An Garda Síochána.

The issue of whether GSOC should have advised me of the investigation which it carried out under section 102 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 has also resulted in spurious claims - repeated this evening - that either myself, the Taoiseach or other Government Ministers were attempting to divert attention away from the substantive issue of whether GSOC was under surveillance.

Much was made of what was seen as the discretionary nature of the provision in section 80(5) of the 2005 Act under which GSOC may - and great emphasis was put on the word "may" - make any report 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.

First of all, it was never a question of diverting attention away from the substantive issue of whether or not GSOC was under surveillance. There is no binary choice between one and the other. Indeed, it is precisely because the substantive issue is of such importance - a point I have repeatedly emphasised - that the question of reporting this to me was such an important matter. It was not appropriate that I first learned of it in a Sunday newspaper in a report derived from a leak from GSOC that remains under investigation.

It is true that section 80(5) of the 2005 Act provides that GSOC may make a report to me in the circumstances I have described, but this is better described as an enabling provision rather than a purely discretionary one. In other words, it should be used in circumstances contemplated by the provision. In that context, I do not think that any reasonable person would regard concerns of the nature we are discussing yet again this evening as anything other than grave or exceptional. I am not sure how anyone could sensibly argue the opposite in circumstances where this issue has dominated the TV and radio news for days on end, has been the subject of countless newspaper headlines and articles, was the subject of statements in this House last week, is the subject of a motion in the House this evening, and is being examined as a matter of urgency by a joint committee of both Houses which took four hours last Wednesday to question members of GSOC. If that is not a matter of some gravity or extraordinary circumstance I do not know how one would define the meaning of either term.

Even apart from this, however, there is the separate obligation in section 103 of the 2005 Act. Section 103 provides that GSOC, where it launches a section 102 investigation, shall - and I emphasise the word "shall" - inform the Minister of the progress and results of the investigation. An exception to this strict requirement is allowed in only three circumstances, namely: where supplying the information would prejudice a criminal investigation or prosecution; would jeopardise a person's safety; or, for any other reason, would not be in the public interest. The first two exceptions are irrelevant. As regards the third, I find it impossible to see how it would not be in the public interest for the Minister to be advised of an investigation in these circumstances or of the outcome of such an investigation. In any event, and to be fair to GSOC, GSOC has not argued that I was not informed for any of these reasons, and has expressed genuine regret at the decision not to keep me informed.

I make these points to illustrate how some Members opposite have sought every opportunity to generate controversy and manufacture concern in the hope of scoring political points, without regard for the consequences for GSOC, the Garda Síochána or public confidence in either institution.

Since I addressed this House last week on these matters, the following events have taken place: Members of GSOC participated in a four-hour hearing before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions; I received from GSOC three reports of Verrimus Limited, the first relating to the original security sweep, and the second and third relating to further work undertaken by it subsequent to the commencement of GSOC's investigation of 7 October 2013; I received from GSOC a report pursuant to section 103 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005; I have engaged in correspondence with GSOC seeking to further clarify matters of relevance; I have received a peer review report on the technical matters of relevance from RITS, an IT security consultancy firm, based in this country, to seek clarification of the technical information contained in the Verrimus report and an opinion with regard to the risks as identified and presented to GSOC; and my officials have also obtained clarification from GSOC in respect of some matters.

I have considered in detail all of the documents and the information furnished to me. I have also carefully read through the transcript of the four hour hearing before the petitions committee. I have received from GSOC information additional to that furnished to me on Tuesday last, prior to my statement to the House, and some information additional to that given to the joint committee during the course of the four hour hearing.

Included within that information are further details concerning the unused Wi-Fi in GSOC's offices that was remotely accessed. It seems that Verrimus identified, in September 2013, that it was being remotely accessed but could not identify from where. The unexplained accessing of the Wi-Fi is, of course, an indicator of a potential threat or vulnerability. However, as it was confirmed to me that the Wi-Fi at no stage accessed any information whatsoever contained in GSOC's office, there was of course no real breach of GSOC's security.

Whilst it seems Verrimus was unable to explain why the wifi was so accessed, the section 103 report explains that the wifi showed a connection to the Bittbuzz network and that the Wi-Fi system was found to be connecting to another Wi-Fi system "located in a business premises close to the Ombudsman Commission's offices".

It also states "the Bitbuzz equipment had been installed in that business premises in approximately August 2013" and that the device using Wi-Fi in that business premises had only connected to Bitbuzz in approximately August 2013. Some check was undertaken through Bitbuzz which confirmed that no confidential information had been accessed and the section 103 report records that no further inquiries were made. It was concluded that it was likely that the Wi-Fi within GSOC was randomly linking into Bitbuzz "due to some unknown technical anomaly rather than some unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance". That information only came to my attention on Friday.

In reply to an inquiry from one of my officials in the Department of Justice and Equality, GSOC advised this morning that the business premises referenced was an Insomnia coffee shop within a Spar outlet on the ground floor of the building occupied by GSOC. It advertises Wi-Fi availability for customers and connectivity to Bitbuzz. I am unaware of any credible information that surveillance is being, or has been, conducted on the offices of GSOC by any of the customers of Insomnia. It is a matter of concern to me that this full information was not supplied to me prior to the Dáil debate on Tuesday last, nor given to the Oireachtas joint committee on Wednesday. Before this comment is used to accuse me again of trying to undermine GSOC, I reiterate that it is my only objective to ensure the truth is known about all of these matters.

The report mentioned earlier that I received from RITS gives as an opinion, based on the reports provided for RITS, that "there is no evidence of any technical or electronic surveillance against GSOC"; that is, no evidence at all, not merely no definitive evidence. The report also disputes other conclusions reached by Verrimus. I appreciate that GSOC relied on the reports it had received from the security company it had contracted. I cannot ignore the report I received from the company asked to conduct a peer review of the technical documentation furnished by GSOC to me and the information accompanying it. Having regard to the differences that have arisen, the additional information I have received since I made my first statement to the Dáil, the ongoing nature of this controversy, its debilitating impact on the capacity of GSOC to get on with its work and the continuing overhang of suspicion voiced by some, despite the conclusions of GSOC, that the Garda Síochána or a member of the Garda Síochána was engaged in misconduct, I concluded that it was important to do what was possible and reasonable to bring an end to ongoing controversy.

I briefed the Cabinet this morning on developments that had occurred in respect of this matter following on from the hearing last week of the Joint Committee on Public Service, Oversight and Petitions. I gave the Cabinet my assessment of the potential damage to both GSOC and the Garda Síochána and more widely to public confidence in the enforcement of law from the character of the current debate on surveillance concerns. It was clear to me that it was necessary to provide a structure for all issues of controversy to be addressed with calm and reason. I briefed the Cabinet on all the information at my disposal. In the light of the briefing and my concerns, my Cabinet colleagues and I agreed to the appointment of a retired High Court judge to inquire into all matters of relevance to the controversy that had arisen.

Up to Friday, it was my view that GSOC had inquired into these matters and reached a conclusion and that calls for an inquiry could be seen as undermining public credibility of GSOC and a rejection of the conclusions it had reached in the investigation it had undertaken. No such inquiry calls have in the past been made when, following an investigation, GSOC concluded that there had been instances of Garda misconduct. It seemed highly inappropriate to hold an inquiry in circumstances where GSOC had concluded that there was no evidence of Garda misconduct. However, the manner in which this controversy has continued, the new information I have received and the need to bring absolute clarity, insofar as that is possible, to all of these matters lead me to the view that it is in the public interest that a retired High Court judge undertake the task agreed by the Cabinet. It is of the utmost importance that the full truth is established beyond dispute. I hope all sides of the House will welcome this and now give the judge to be appointed the time and space necessary to conduct this inquiry and report on his or her conclusions. I am reliant on the advices of the Attorney General on the terms of the inquiry and expect that they will shortly be finalised. It is regrettable that Members of this House, following the announcements, should impugn my motives and objectivity with regard to the terms to be furnished to the judge. This matter will be settled by the Attorney General and the judge to be appointed must be satisfied the terms of reference are appropriate to the matter to be looked into.

I hope the decision will enable GSOC to proceed with its work unhindered by controversy. As stated, I will, of course, attend before the petitions committee tomorrow to address any issue of relevance. The report to be produced by the judge will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas, unedited and untouched in any shape by me. It is regrettable that people should question my integrity and suggest anything other than that in the context of comments made in this House. It is of the utmost importance that the matter be dealt with in a calm and cool way. It is important that Members do not further impugn the integrity of either body or jump to conclusions and make public comment in jumping to conclusions in this issue and presenting themselves as defending GSOC, while denying the credibility of the conclusions reached by GSOC in its investigation. I cannot understand that approach. I cannot understand how that does what some say they are seeking to do, to ensure the integrity of GSOC. My commitment as Minister is to ensure we get to the truth. I do not express any favouritism as between the Garda Síochána and GSOC. They are hugely important bodies that will fill an important role in the State and must do so in the context of the statutory framework within which they operate. It is important that they abide by the statutory framework and meet the obligations imposed on them.

It is important that no further comment be made leaving any cloud of suspicion hanging over any body in circumstances in which there is no evidence for such a cloud. That is not in the public interest. I plead with Deputies that we have had a week of hyperbole, hysteria and wild claims.

9:20 pm

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Of the Minister's making.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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A journalist sent a question to my Department wanting to know generally what I was doing about bugging journalists. I am doing nothing about bugging journalists. I do not bug journalists, but the level of hysteria we have got to is extraordinary. The lack of understanding of the extent to which there is judicial oversight in a number of these areas is extraordinary. I plead with those contributing further to the debate that we have a discussion based on facts, not fiction, based on reality, not hyperbole. It is fair game for the Opposition to try to put a Government Minister, whether me or others, under pressure. On occasion, it is fair game to question people's capacity or the credibility of what they say. It is not fair, however, in playing that game that aspersions are cast on the Garda Síochána in circumstances where there is no evidence for such aspersions to be cast based on the conclusions of GSOC. It is unfair to suggest I have any interest of any description in trying to undermine the work of GSOC. I want to ensure that if things went wrong in this context, including the concern about the leak of information from GSOC, that they are dealt with and addressed. If there are lessons to be learned by either body, GSOC or the Garda Síochána, they should be learned.

At the end we have a judge with absolute credibility and independence - a retired member of the High Court - who will independently express views on these matters. A report will be published in which we can all have faith and rely upon in the context of some of the matters which have been the source of controversy. Following the publication of the report, any action required will be taken and both GSOC and An Garda Síochána can get on with the very important work they must do.

9:30 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 1:

To delete all words from "the investigation" down to and including "reasonably practicable", and substitute the following:

agrees that the terms of reference of the inquiry into the recent Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission controversy should be agreed by Dáil Éireann, that the Judge appointed should be allowed to extend the terms if he deems it appropriate and the report should be immediately placed before Dáil Eireann when it is completed".
This is an opportune point in time to recap some of the events that have happened over the past days. This is day nine of the controversy and everybody was hoping this week would ultimately see some form of light at the end of the tunnel so we could move on. Behind everything going on there is a fundamental concern for all of us as the two major pillars of the justice system, An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, have been under a sustained spotlight by all of us for the wrong reasons. We all want a strong Garda Síochána and ombudsman, and we want to work with them as best we can.

Part of the ongoing narrative for the past nine days was the creation of sides. We have had to decide our sides, and whether we are on the side of GSOC, the Garda Síochána or the Minister, but we are all on the same side. Members of An Garda Síochána have been in touch with me, as I am sure they have with Deputies around the House, airing their concern about what broke in the newspapers last Sunday week. I am sure the staff of GSOC are concerned as well, so we should pull together to sort out the issue. Unfortunately, nine days on the controversy is still raging. Today's announcement, which must be fleshed out, is a little underwhelming to say the least. I will get to that in a moment.

The tone of the narrative from the past couple of days was set by the Taoiseach, who stated on the airwaves that GSOC had to level with the Minister. That was most disappointing. We then had the public expression of regret by GSOC, having paid a visit to the Minister's office, and that served to undermine GSOC's independence. I asked Mr. Simon O'Brien about that at last Wednesday's committee meeting and the public perception was that the body's independence was undermined. That is also on the record. The Garda Commissioner sought public clarification arising from a GSOC statement early in the controversy before the Garda Representative Association and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors sought the resignation of the ombudsman. It was all very unseemly and neither the public nor any of us liked it. Much of the narrative, particularly that coming from the Government, was unhelpful, as I stated.

I compliment the three-member Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. They came before the committee and were very impressive in their forthrightness. They have a very difficult job and must be supported at every opportunity by legislators. That is true for every independent office established by way of statute in the State. I hope we will not see a repeat from any Government of what has happened over the past number of days, which has seen an attack on this body's independence, with the Taoiseach publicly carpeting GSOC.

GSOC made a number of valuable interventions in the week's debate, and there have been three or four appearances on "Prime Time". Mr. Kieran FitzGerald came in as an honest broker and the Minister quoted him in his contribution. The Minister spoke last Thursday evening on "Prime Time" and should have expressed confidence in Mr. O'Brien. The Minister indicated the following day in Templemore that he would express confidence in the three members of the commission as a whole but when the public watches such issues, first impressions stick. It is regrettable for the Minister for Justice and Equality not to express confidence in the chairman of the commission.

We must remind ourselves that this comes against the backdrop of GSOC having had to take to the airwaves over the past number of months seeking an increase in the powers available to it under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. It was amazing to listen to Mr. FitzGerald and Mr. O'Brien taking to radio and television calling for necessary increases in powers and those pleas falling on deaf ears in the Department. Why should they have to take to the airwaves to articulate concerns about legislation and allowing them to do an effective job? If they had asked through official channels, a positive response was not forthcoming. That is the only conclusion anybody can draw.

Today we published a Bill which would do exactly what GSOC has sought over the past number of months. It would provide scrutiny and oversight of the Garda Commissioner as chief of police. He is already accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts for the financial side of the operation. The legislation would allow serving members of An Garda Síochána to refer matters directly to GSOC, an act that is currently prohibited. It would also give the commission access to the PULSE system, which it does not have. It is ironic that the commission has full powers of inquiry under the legislation but it has limited access to PULSE.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Did the Deputy not hear what I said about that?

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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I heard what the Minister said last week, and I will respond to it in a moment.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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It was two weeks ago.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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The legislation would also allow the commission to inquire into policies and procedure, which I hope would serve to fend off complaints or avert problems before they arise. We are trying to play a constructive role and the Minister should enact that legislation as soon as possible. Perhaps there are further or more far-reaching reforms in the Minister's mind but these are four basic requirements. Mr. Conor Brady, a former commissioner, has articulated those points for a long time and I am sure the Minister heard the comments of Baroness Nuala O'Loan at the weekend.

This is against the backdrop of the disastrous handling of the penalty points fiasco by the Minister. Let us call a spade a spade. The Minister finally referred the penalty points issue to GSOC and the matter was referred to on Question Time when we had our last session. He did not tell us what had changed in his mind when he referred it to GSOC when it could have been referred in the first instance. The Minister needs to put on record why he did not act sooner. It will be very interesting to see the Garda Síochána Inspectorate report on the penalty points issue, as it has compiled a fairly comprehensive report that will be quite revealing when it sees the light of day.

There is also the issue of the confidential recipient, and the Minister will have to man up to this matter. The politics side of the issue is becoming irrelevant. The way the man spoke to the whistleblower and what was said about what the Minister would try to do to him - a section of the transcript from the whistleblower - is now on the record. It is very disturbing.

The whistleblower used all the relevant channels. As in the GSOC case, rather than being regarded as the victim he was turned into the villain. That is very concerning. It is regrettable that the Minister has not shown sufficient concern in any of his public utterances over the penalty points whistleblower controversy. He has not given any indication that he was genuinely and humanely concerned about the treatment to which the man was subjected when he tried to use the official channels. The Taoiseach stated in the House that the man did not co-operate with officialdom and the relevant channels. That is a very serious statement from the Taoiseach because it is completely misinformed. The whistleblower attempted to communicate with the Department of the Taoiseach on many occasions. This puts the Taoiseach's statement into an even more alarming context.

The people rejected the Minister's referendum on Oireachtas inquiries. The Minister has not given us much detail on what he announced today. What is mooted is nearly a form of ministerial inquiry rather than an independent inquiry. All the Minister told us is that he is appointing a High Court judge to inquire. His statement read that it was agreed by the Cabinet today to appoint a High Court judge to inquire into all relevant matters. I was asked today whether I welcome this. I will welcome it when this controversy is dealt with satisfactorily and conclusively. However, we do not seem to be getting that. The Minister's proposal is a step in the right direction but we want to see the details. He has not given us any.

When the Minister spoke earlier, he did not address the content of the Sinn Féin motion and our call on Monday of last week to establish, under the very effective 2004 legislation, a commission of investigation. This has been shown to be a very successful mechanism for conducting an inquiry in the State. There are many examples of it. He did not say in his contribution why he would not use this vehicle.

The Minister said there were false claims and allegations that he misled the House. He spoke last Tuesday evening during statements and claimed there was no evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance found. He said it was unfortunate that the Garda found itself to be subject to what appeared to be completely baseless innuendo and he also stated no information had been furnished to him. Why did he not tell us what was in the briefing that GSOC gave him? It was important. A three-page brief that was made available at the committee and which is now in the public domain showed that the Minister was absolutely informed that GSOC had opened a public interest investigation. This is significantly relevant to the debate. The Minister chose not to reveal the information. This is very serious. He may dismiss it and refer to false allegations but it is not a case of false allegations as we did not write the Minister's statement. We did not deliver his statement here last Tuesday, nor did we prepare the GSOC briefing note. The Minister chose to cut and parse it and to insert his own interpretation, in keeping with the narrative that obtained all week, that is, that there is nothing to see and that we should move along. Unfortunately, this caught up with the Minister.

We called last Monday for a inquiry under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, headed by a High Court judge and assisted by a person with expertise in technology and surveillance, and possibly a policing expert from outside the State. What are we getting? All we know at present is that a judge is to inquire. Will there be compellability? Who will set the terms of reference? Will it be the Minister? Will the report come back to the Dáil or Minister? Will the Minister appear before the House? All these questions are outstanding. It appears tonight that the Minister is trying to manage the process the whole way along. If he is setting up a truly independent inquiry, it must be independent of him. This is why the 2004 legislation exists. If there is a judge who is not sufficiently resourced, is constrained by the terms of reference and must report to the Minister and not the Oireachtas, many questions will remain in people's minds. Many doubts will remain in their minds also because they will have seen how the Minister acted in the past and how he acted regarding the narrative in the past eight to ten days. The people are concerned.

There is a problem to be addressed regarding the outstanding question on the bugging and surveillance. The Minister may refer to Wi-Fi and all the rest but the incident at 1 a.m. is the one that is sticking with people. We witnessed the Minister's attempts to create a diversion, as if to move away from the substance of the matter and engage in camouflage and deflection from what is happening. There was an effort in the past two days to discredit Verrimus, which is very concerning also. We do not want a cover-up but an independent investigation under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

9:40 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the urgent need for an independent inquiry into what has been taking place in recent days in regard to GSOC, the Garda and Minister for Justice and Equality. I support this motion because I have always believed in good quality public service and the urgent need to have an independent statutory body to provide independent and effective civilian oversight of policing in the State. The bottom line is that in any democratic state, nobody is above the law. All citizens must be treated fairly and equitably. Sadly, we have seen too many cases of people who believe they are above the law. There is an inner circle in this society. The insiders have to be dealt with and rooted out. There is significant public concern over this matter. There is an urgent need to ensure the maintenance of public trust and confidence in the Garda and GSOC. There is a compelling case to establish an independent inquiry into this matter without delay and for it to be undertaken by a suitable person with appropriate experience, qualifications, training and expertise. I call on the Government to establish the inquiry into the matter without delay and to consider the various options, including a commission of investigation, as provided for under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

After a week of ducking, diving and misleading statements, the Government is now being forced to act. I welcome this. A judge is to be appointed to lead an independent investigation, under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, into the ongoing allegations regarding covert surveillance of GSOC. I hope the inquiry will also use the services of a professional technologist.

These are all important issues and it is important that I make these points. The days of ducking and diving are gone. The people want the truth and, above all, a justice system that is fair, accountable and equitable.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

The Minister made much in his statement tonight of the fact that people deliberately tried to twist what he said and the law. He and the Taoiseach have tried to muddy the waters regarding the whole controversy and scandal that has been raging for the past nine days. The Taoiseach stated in the public domain on Monday, and again on Tuesday, that GSOC had an obligation under the Garda Síochána Act to report to the Minister and that it did not do so. That was clearly not true.

The Minister said last Tuesday that he had taken the opportunity to underscore the importance of prompt reporting to him of issues of concern, as provided for under the legislation governing GSOC. The legislation does not provide that GSOC is required to report to the Minister. The Minister has said tonight that he assumed that Members were familiar with the Act, but one must wonder if he is familiar with it because he is certainly clouding the issue with the statements he is making. The statements made by him and the Taoiseach have allowed the controversy to drag on.

Last Thursday night, during his interview on "Prime Time", the Minister said there was an express obligation under the Act for GSOC to report to him and he quoted section 103 of the Act. That section does not provide for any express obligation on GSOC to report to the Minister. In fact, it states GSOC can choose not to report "for any other reason not to be in the public interest". That is expressly what Mr. Simon O'Brien said to the Oireachtas committee last week, that GSOC had the view that it would not be in the public interest to put it in the public domain by reporting its concerns to the Minister in respect of the surveillance incident that had taken place.

The Minister also referred tonight to the bogus 3G matter and attempted to play it down. He said he had read the transcripts of the Oireachtas committee's proceedings last week. If he had, he would have seen that Mr. Simon O'Brien stated there were British operatives with British mobile phones in the GSOC building at the time it was detected. When asked who they were, he said they were the investigators for the English security firm it had brought over to investigate the problem. When asked if it was possible that this false 3G device could have been activated to eavesdrop on their telephones, he confirmed that it was entirely plausible and possible.

The amendment tabled by the Minister states a retired High Court judge will investigate all matters of relevance to the initiation and outcome of the investigation commenced by GSOC on 7 October 2013. Conveniently, that leaves the Minister, his reaction and handling of this fiasco out of the picture. This must be included in the investigation also, as it goes to the heart of the clarity required.

Debate adjourned.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 February 2014.