An Garda Siochana and GSOC. They don’t like each other, right? You would expect this type of relationship between the police and a body tasked to tackling police abuses and corruption. Immediately after allegations of GSOC’s surveillance surfaced, teeth were bared, fur flew and blood was drawn. Mark Malone takes stock of the scrap.
The commissioner and Alan Shatter both came out with statements riddled with half truths. But after a week or so a truce of sorts was called. Then it blew up again. Shatter has apologised to the whistleblowers but it’s done little to endear him.
The sum of allegations that have been placed in public view suggest systemic corruption, malpractice and a culture of covering up by the highest levels of An Garda Síochána.
The government has known this since at least the Smithwick Tribunal, which was set up to look at potential collusion between the police force and the Provisional IRA. It found that “on the balance of probability” someone in Dundalk Garda station provided information to the PIRA. That helped set up the murder of two RUC officers leaving the station in 1989.
What gets less coverage is Judge Smithwick’s statement that “there is an ingrained culture of prioritising loyalty to the good name of the force over the legal, moral and ethical obligation owed to give truthful evidence to the Tribunal”. Truth comes way down the list after ass-covering.
In autumn of 2013 “Making Policing History: Studies of Garda Violence and Resources for Police Reform” was published by the Garda Research Institute. The report’s authors, composed of residents, community workers and educators, chose to remain anonymous for fear of professional and personal impacts.
They set out “to understand how the silence about the Gardaí is maintained, be it through coercion, ignorance or shared illusions… For us the disparity between the public and private conversations on policing in Irish society reflects broader social inequalities in power and wealth.”
The content makes uncomfortable reading. Who would argue with their conclusions that “powerful people have the ability to impose silence on ordinary people” and that “uncomfortable truths can remain hidden for decades”?
So what about GSOC? Given what we know about policing and institutional corruption in this state, they must have been having a field day. Why else would they be being bugged? Well, not so simple.
The Garda Síochána is held by many across the country with disdain and fear rather than respect and support. The Irish Times held a poll 10 years ago that found that 37% of people have no confidence it.
GSOC has had 2000 complaints every year. Its own surveys found that 1 in 20 people had reason to complain about the Gardaí.
They should, but what we saw in the wake of Martin Callinan’s sacking shows their impotence. We learned that their response to the widespread recording of calls in and out of 20 police stations was not to advise stopping these recording but to stop using them as evidence in court.
Former Garda Ombudsman Conor Brady, also former editor of the Irish Times, has been pretty straight-up in print and broadcast media saying GSOC’s hands have been tied from the start. “Either we want a functioning, independent, effective supervision of our police system or we don’t. My suspicion is the establishment doesn’t actually want it any more. It might be better to just face up to it honestly and just wrap it up.”
You get a very different perspective on GSOC when you start looking at the people and cases with which it has had direct dealings.
There have been 28 deaths in Garda custody over the past decade, some of which have raised serious questions about violence within police stations. As noted by the Garda Research Institute, “the people who are most likely to experience police brutality, coercion and intimidation are young working class men.”
20-year-old Terence Wheelock died on September 6th 2005. He never regained consciousness following his arrest and detention at Store Street Garda station. The Gardaí’s claim that he committed suicide has always been rejected by the family. The station arranged a complete refurbishment of his cell within 24 hours of Terence being taken to hospital and no physical evidence remained to substantiate their claims.
The Justice for Terence Wheelock campaign started by his family and with widespread support in Dublin’s working-class inner-city communities it uncovered police tampering with Terence’s charge sheet and the hiding of bloodied clothes from his family. GSOC took on this case but stated there was no evidence of police harm to Terence despite extensive bruising to his body.
Interviewed in 2007 Terence’s brother Larry noted that the Gardaí have “total disrespect for lads in working-class areas. I think ninety percent of the Gardaí join wanting to do good but they end up in the inner-city and [get] corrupted along the way…It becomes ‘these are all scumbags’, ‘treat these in a certain way’ and the attitude is ‘everyone is a criminal in the north inner-city’.”
Larry’s family had to move home due to continued Garda harassment. A police force that intimidates a family merely for seeking justice and some semblance of peace can hardly expect to have the faith or generosity of the community.
It’s not just our inner-city communities where people are treated ‘in a certain way’. What the communities in Bellanaboy and Rossport in west Mayo have suffered is most accurately described as corporate-sponsored political policing.
Violence at demonstrations, illegal detentions, physical and emotional intimidation of the local community, threats of sexual violence, lying in court and fitting people up. These have been part of the modus operandi of the Gardaí there for the best part of a decade.
Taken together they are the largest group of complaints against the police force since the formation of the state. In recognition of how off-the-scale this is Bishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa, has joined calls for fully independent and international inquiry into policing at Corrib.
Yet no prosecutions forthcoming, and no disciplinary action taken. The Garda commissioner simply refused to follow the only GSOC recommendation for disciplinary action from hundreds of complaints. This was against a named Superintendent who is now serving in Pearse Street regularly policing political demonstrations. He recklessly forced a digger through a group of peaceful protestors on a pier in 2007.
GSOC’s Chairperson sent correspondence to the complainant that says everything about the organisation’s lack of bite. “It is important to note that the Act does not ascribe to the Commission a role whereby it can make a finding against a member of the Garda Síochána or the Garda Síochána as an organization.”
GSOC didn’t even attempt to fulfill its role in what became know as the “rape tapes”. The Gardaí arrested two women (who they released without charge) and accidentally recorded themselves laughing about using the threat of rape and deportation against them to force information from them. GSOC themselves began an ‘investigation’.
They briefed journalists that the women were resisting the investigation. The women were subsequently treated to spin, lies and intimidation by GSOC, the Dept of Justice and Garda Press Office, who co-ordinated false claims of tampering with digital files. RTÉ’s Paul Reynolds made the same claim for which RTÉ was forced to broadcast an apology.
Martin Callinan has been sacked. There have been many calls for Alan Shatter to follow him. But the road to Garda accountability is much longer than that, and it runs through GSOC too.