It’s official: they now want to spy on gardaí

spying2The latest government draft bill has now come up with the dysfunctional suggestion that GSOC might spy on gardaí who have become ‘persons of interest’ writes John O’Keeffe


It could well read from the pages of a badly written John Le Carre novel. Then again, not many will have seen the latest pearls from the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2014, allegedly to “reform and strengthen the workings of GSOC”. Most of the “heads” are part of the usual political smoke and mirrors that rank and file will be used to hearing. Issues raised in the Cooke Report will be ‘addressed’ – and the time limit for lodging complaints is to be extended to 12 months – be still our beating hearts.

Few have noticed however the most important matter that has been thrown up in this latest draft. Head 3; “permits GSOC to undertake the interception of communications and electronic surveillance in carrying out criminal investigations in respect of garda personnel.” Without any hint of irony the government press release then notes “these are powers that are not available to GSOC at present.” I wonder why?

Amongst the plethora of ill-conceived ideas on improving the running of An Garda Síochána, this piece of political genius surely secures top prize.

Firstly, it is not overly contentious to suggest that GSOC has failed to cover itself in glory in recent times and its litany of disasters in any other first world country would mean that it would be ripped up and started again. Of course such innovation could never happen in the happy-go-lucky Republic where we have turned the maintenance of useless organisations into an art form. The latest government suggestions are a further attempt to apply a water soaked bandage to a badly severed artery.

Within these early ‘drafts” come however some really special ideas. It will not take a policing operational guru to work out that if gardaí are put under ad hoc or continual surveillance by GSOC spies, then their lives may be put in danger. Leaving aside the small matter of garda lives being put at risk, there is also the issue of the potential of serious criminal investigations being put in jeopardy when GSOC appointed spies are about their business.

Of course the moment you question the wisdom of introducing draconian surveillance measures against members of An Garda Síochána, you are then accused of being part of a group whom don’t wish to see all gardaí come under public and political scrutiny. Nothing however could be further from the truth.

Gardaí have always and will always be the first to support independently adjudicated complaints against its own membership. There is no garda that I have met whom gets up in the morning to put on his or her blue uniform in the hope that that day they can circumvent best practice when it comes to legitimate and transparent public and political scrutiny. It is after all in a garda’s best interest to ensure that an independent and impartial police watchdog oversees their day-to-day work to ensure full confidence on all sides.

However, both gardai and the general public must now have answers to the following questions. Who spies on the spy, Minister FitzGerald? Who will oversee this type of covert electronic surveillance that GSOC will carry out? Where will be the checks and balances be? Will government and GSOC decide to put a garda under surveillance, or will it just be someone in GSOC making a unilateral decision based on available ‘evidence’?

Terms of reference are important – gardaí have been calling for these for years in various contexts, not least of late, for the new Commission of Inquiry following the Guerin Report. What will the terms of reference be for this draconian spying however? Are there still manuals out there in former Soviet block countries that can be used? One wonders. Perhaps the legislators could advise if these GSOC spies will be allowed gather widespread and general intelligence, or if only specific and case relevant spying, will take place.

The potential constitutional issues are an additional a minefield, and yes, gardaí are entitled to constitutional protection like everyone else. In Britain you go to jail for hacking phones – will the same happen GSOC spies if it is proven that they operated outside their remit – whatever remit that may be? I think we all know the answer to that.

And the questions just keep on coming. Will the surveillance be carried out by those within the jurisdiction or outside? Regardless, whom will either group be answerable to and what will the sanctions be if they are shown to have acted dishonourably and/or illegally?

Picture the following scenario if you will. As gardaí also have responsibility for state security how will that work if another agency, such as GSOC, then becomes involved and what if such an agency decide to then contract out some ‘specialised’ surveillance of which they are not capable? Then we may have a truly farcical situation where two or more agencies from within and possibly outside the state, are spying on those whose job is also to conduct surveillance on subversives within the state. Once more, you simply could not make it.

And yet Head 3 of the government’s latest draft has largely gone unnoticed. In the massive drive to push forward with ‘changes’ to how we police in this country, we have yet again forgot to consult with the one group of people whom have, and continue to take the battering for incompetent superiors – the garda.

Minister Fitzgerald’s view is that “by reforming and strengthening workings of GSOC; and addressing outstanding allegations against gardaí, I hope these changes will greatly assist in our task of restoring confidence in the performance, administration and oversight of policing in Ireland.”

One key factor has been lost in the rush to beat gardai with their own retractable batons. If successive ministers just treated rank and file gardai as equals and genuinely listened to what they had to say – as opposed to what others have to say about them – we would might have the beginnings of a civilized criminal justice system.

Today I will let the government into a secret. Giving powers to GSOC and/or AN Others to spy on ordinary gardaí can never be part of any consultation process for the benefit of all. And you really need to trust me on that one.

 John O’Keeffe is Director, Institute of Criminology, City Colleges and Criminologist, Trinity College, Dublin


For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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