Garda Meltdown Is Only A Symptom of a Deeper Irish Problem

Are you as baffled as I am by all this stuff about who knew what and when, who first called and what letters went to what ministers?

Normally, when I find myself completely stumped, there’s a good reason and yes, I know what you’re going to say: that could be because I’m completely stupid.  It could indeed, or it could be because the whole thing is bullshit.

Why does it matter what Callinan told Shatter or what Kenny kept to himself?  What difference does it make when Máire Whelan knew about the taping of prisoners’ phone conversations in police stations? How does it help if Shatter resigns?

Our national police force, An Garda Síochána, is shown to be utterly dysfunctional, yet people are still arguing about personalities, as if that made the slightest difference.  In the 21st century, we struggle with a policing structure that owes its origins to the early 19th century, a rigid, authoritarian edifice in which dissent is discouraged and original thinking considered subversive.

Is it any wonder that rigid, authoritarian people would rise to the top of such an organisation?

And yet, An Garda Síochána is only a microcosm of Ireland as a whole, a product of our educational system, our social structures and our national inability to admit we might ever be mistaken.  When the latest OECD international survey shows that Irish teenagers are no better than average at problem-solving, we need to start asking ourselves what has gone wrong, not only with our national police force, but with the entire country.

Unless we can teach our children critical thinking at a very early age, we’re doomed to repeat the cycles of incompetent disaster that have characterised our new nation.  The days of accepting rigid beliefs and repeating them by rote are over.  The days when we think there’s some shame in being wrong are over.

Successful people rejoice in being wrong because it makes them stronger the next time, but here in Ireland, we have a fear drummed into us, the fear of originality.  The fear of admitting we made a mistake.

The ability to acknowledge mistakes without recrimination is what has made some countries and some corporations extremely  powerful.  It means that individuals aren’t afraid of taking a chance, because nobody will blame them if they were wrong.

Unless we learn this sort of thinking, we have no hope.  Unless we rebuild institutions like An Garda Síochána from the ground up, we’re condemned to repeat forever Flann O’Brien’s recurring, prophetic nightmare of The Third Policeman.


Critical thinking in Ireland

Reinventing Ireland



GSOC Reported Illegal Taping at Garda Station in June 2013

Read this:

The court held that the practice engaged in by the gardaí at Waterford Garda Station of recording all incoming and outgoing calls on a particular phone line was in breach of the relevant statute on the recording of telephone communications, which requires that at least one of the parties to a phone call has consented to its being recorded.

This requirement was deemed to have not been met on this occasion.

The court ruled that the evidence obtained in those calls was inadmissible. On consideration of the ruling of the court the Garda Commissioner may wish to re-evaluate his practice regarding the recording of such calls and the consents required if it is to be permissible to use such recordings in evidence.

(Emphasis added)

Was this the evidence that exploded onto Enda Kenny’s desk at the weekend and caused him to announce the setting up of a commission of inquiry?

garda taping phone calls scandalWell, no, actually.  The quote is taken from a GSOC report dated June 2013, and yet it was not until March 2014 that the government became aware of the practice, which is all the more remarkable since the report concerns the criminal trial of four gardai on assault charges.  You can read the full text at the end of this post.

What was happening, it seems, is that the Gardai were recording phone conversations between prisoners and their lawyers or friends, without informing them.  If it can be shown that they relied on information gained in this manner to gather evidence, there is a possibility that many criminals might be able to have their convictions overturned as well as many innocent people.

Understandably, the legal profession is whirling like a Dervish over this and in truth, the implications are staggering.

It appears that an Garda Síochána has systematically, for decades, trampled on the constitutional rights of accused people, in a manner not unlike the methods of a  comic-book secret police force.  If, as alleged, the practice has been going on for 30 years, Callinan cannot have been unaware of it.

It also seems clear that neither Callinan nor any civil servant alerted Alan Shatter to this assault on constitutional democracy by our national police force until two weeks ago.

Why?  Nobody knows, but can there be any doubt now that our policing model is long  past its sell-by date and that the entire force needs to be radically restructured from the ground up and the top down, PSNI-style?



Government statement

For Operational Reasons


Download (PDF, 140KB)


Martin Callinan Decommissions Himself

I don’t know why it comes as such a shock to everyone that Martin Callinan has resigned as  Garda Commissioner.  His goose was cooked from the second he  uttered the word “disgusting” to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, and his feeble efforts to clarify what he said only made matters worse.  Besides that, his casual dismissal of the Smithwick inquiry’s findings marked him as  a man who valued blind loyalty to the Force above all else.

As if that wasn’t enough, his failure to cooperate fully with the Garda Ombudsman’s office and his blind rejection of the possibility that gardai might have been involved in the GSOC bugging betrayed his origins as a dyed-in-the-wool Templemore Guard.

Martin Callinan, like  all Commissioners, comes from deep within the Garda culture, an organisation that displays many characteristics of a secret society within a society. He started at the age of 19, spent a little while being indoctrinated in the monastic environment of the garda training college, and then went on the beat before working his way up through the ranks, as did all his predecessors.  As did his deputy.  As did the Assistant Commissioners.  As did, in fact, everyone from sergeant up.

Things have changed a little in recent years, with graduate recruitment, but it’s still too early for those changes to have a significant impact.  The entire senior structure of an Garda Síochána is drawn from a very narrow and limited slice of humanity, with its own fixed beliefs and mythologies.  No doubt there are individuals of exceptional ability among them — I could mention a few  names — but such an incestuous promotional structure can’t be a healthy model for any organisation.  The only other similar structures in the country are the Catholic clergy and organised criminals.

We’ve seen time and again how rigid and inflexible the Garda management mindset is.  By the very nature of the way senior staff are appointed, the force is inevitably stuck two or three decades in the past.  It’s very telling that no member of an Garda Síochána made it onto the shortlist for appointment as  PSNI chief constable.  They weren’t up to scratch.

This would be a good time to cast the net  wide in the search for a replacement. Ideally, the successful candidate wouldn’t be two or three years away from retirement, as most commissioners have been .  With luck, the new appointee would have a broad and varied experience of business, policing and management.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be too much to ask for a Commissioner who places a value on openness, and the ability to communicate in plain English.  And maybe it would be a good thing to appoint an individual with a wide and varied range of personal interests and accomplishments.

The force, through its own inability to cope with criticism, has left itself open to radical change.  There will be  a police oversight body of some kind.  The Ombudsman will have far greater powers.  There will be accountability.  The last thing the guards need now is an apparatchik with a siege mentality and an obsession with secrecy, but even more than that, it’s the last thing the country needs.


[UPDATE]  It now turns out that Callinan resigned because of revelations that the Gardai had been trampling on suspects’ rights for decades.





Leo Varadkar Calls on Callinan to Retract “Disgusting” Slur Against Garda Whistle-Blowers

I bet Leo Varadkar was that annoying toddler who tried to pull the chin-whiskers of elderly aunties, but it’s hard not to like his bull-in-a-china-shop indifference to other people’s sensitivities.  When he came straight out and called Martin Callinan on his bullshit, Varadkar was only saying what everyone else in the country thinks.  Come off it, Martin.

Martin Callinan Garda Commissioner Public Accounts Committee

Who believes Callinan when he says that his disgusting comment was about inappropriate access to confidential information?

I don’t.

Trying to justify his comments, this is what Martin Callinan said:

I want to clarify that my use of that term was not in reference to the character of either Sgt McCabe or former Garda Wilson, but the manner in which personal and sensitive data was inappropriately appearing in the public domain without regard to due process and fair procedures.

What I heard when the Garda Commissioner addressed the Public Accounts Committee was something quite different.  I heard him saying that, of thirteen thousand Gardai, only two whistle-blowers were making allegations of corruption and malpractice, and he found it disgusting.

Don’t take my word for it.  Judge for yourself what you think Martin Callinan said.

Here is the head of our national police force which, unfortunately, is also the national security agency, attempting to rubbish suggestions of malpractice in his force.  This is the same police chief who dismissed out of hand the critical findings of a High Court judge, Peter Smithwick, with a bland soundbite: this is not the force I lead.

Callinan’s pugnacious defence of the force he leads might have been laudable in an earlier era, but not today, and especially not in the wake of a report from another High Court judge, Fred Morris, who absolutely excoriated the force for its systemic corruption. After seven years, no action has been taken on foot of the Morris Tribunal’s findings.

Of course, this has always been a society based on the nod and the wink, and whether Martin Callinan would acknowledge it or not, he is as much a product of our nod-and-wink culture as anyone else.  Who hasn’t been friendly with a Garda willing to get a summons squared or a ticket fixed?  Well, the answer is that plenty of people aren’t in that fortunate position, but they’d be the people who don’t matter anyway.  The poor, the unimportant, the weakest.

For the rest of society, as often as not, it has always been possible to get minor charges fixed, depending on your relationship with the right people in our police force who, incidentally, need not be at a senior level.  In a monastic organisation such as an Garda Síochána, everyone is equal.  Templemore stays in the blood long after you’ve hopped on the last train out of it.

It’s ironic that Sergeant Maurice McCabe’s access to the PULSE system is strictly limited given the fact that other more junior Gardai routinely plug their USB sticks into it and download information that can, at best, be described as gossip about unconvicted citizens.  It’s doubly ironic, in an age of viruses and trojans, that those Gardai’s laptops could easily be used by their children to access the web, to interact on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or a dozen less reputable networks and therefore that confidential PULSE data is vulnerable to hacking by anyone wishing to read it.

Some IT technicians have suggested that the simplest way to access the PULSE system is to turn up at a Garda station with an aluminium case, catch the eye of the Garda at the desk and point to the door.  I believe them.  That’s how Ireland works, unfortunately, and yet a decent Garda is only permitted to access the system under strict supervision, because he tried to expose corruption.

It’s good that Leo Varadkar rejected the disgusting slur on two honourable policemen, and called on the Garda commissioner to retract it.  It’s good that Joan Burton agreed with him.  It’s good that Pat Rabbitte, however equivocally, supported the call to vindicate the whistleblowers.  It’s also good that Willie O’Dea, of all people, called on the commissioner to stop digging when he’s in a hole.

This is Ireland, however, and that’s why I have no confidence that Callinan will do anything other than reinforce his bunker.

In this land, we don’t retract and we don’t resign, even when we’ve lost the confidence of half the cabinet and all of the people.




It’s Time to Reform an Garda Síochána

What is wrong with us?  Why can’t we just admit what everyone knows, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the Guards?

Talk to any solicitor in any one-horse town anywhere in Ireland, and they’ll tell you that guards routinely perjure themselves in court.  They all know it, and yet, when one of those solicitors, by being a faithful political hack, manages to attain a seat on the District Court bench, the amnesia kicks in.  The newly-forged District Judge somehow forgets what he or  she has always known when defending clients: the Guards are dodgy.

They are.  Compare them to their PSNI colleagues north of the border if you want an instruction in professionalism.  The PSNI stands up straight and calls the world Sir while an Garda Síochána scratches its arse and asks the world for All-Ireland tickets.

Who doesn’t know that the Guards are dodgy? Who hasn’t encountered some thick bully intent on losing hearts and minds by intimidating law-abiding citizens?   Who isn’t aware of the hawk system?  We all know that the Guards are dodgy.  We all know that they behave in a manner very similar to organised crime gangs, including intimidating solicitors who make the mistake of opposing them.

Enda Kenny knows it, unless he grew up in a different, parallel-universe Mayo where dodgy guards don’t exist.  Of course he knows it, and if he doesn’t, Enda Kenny should not be a politician.

I wouldn’t be so sure that Alan Shatter knows it, since he has such a privileged cosseted background, but as a practising solicitor, he should have at least an inkling of wrongdoing.

It’s time for a fundamental reform of the guards.  It’s time for a proper policing authority.  It’s time to separate the function of national security and policing.  It’s time commissioners were appointed by an independent authority instead of the government.

It’s time our national police force had no political influence of any kind exerted on it.

It’s time for change.


Garda Ombudsman Office Bugged

garda siochana ombudsman buggingWhen the Sunday Times reported that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman’s office had been bugged in a surveillance operation using government-level technology, it caused consternation.

Why on earth would the Russians want to spy on the Garda ombudsman?  It’s not as if they’re all gay, and since most of them are not Muslims, it’s unlikely the Americans would give a flying toss what happens in an insignificant  little backwater like this.  We’re beginning to narrow it down.  Are the Brits interested?  Well, yes.  GCHQ spies on everyone, but do they care enough about some gobshite in North Tipperary fixing summonses for his mates in the local GAA club?  I remain unconvinced.

So what then?  Who could possibly be bugging the Garda Ombudsman Commission, using government-level technology?

Who would have such technology available to them?  It’s a real conundrum, isn’t it?

Who would gain from knowing what takes place inside the Garda Ombudsman Commission and also have government-level technology available to bug the place?

I’m stumped.  Maybe it was the North Koreans.

Luckily, we live in a country with the most professional, disciplined police force in the entire world, so that’s ok.  Thankfully.





Garda Commissioner Tells Public Accounts Committee To Get Stuffed

There are no flies on Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan but he does have a rather dodgy moustache distracting attention from his message and  I don’t like the idea that our national police force is headed by Freddie Mercury.

martin callinan garda commissioner

Martin doesn’t like the idea of individual guards breaking ranks and revealing facts about The Force, because, of course, he himself made his way through the progression as all commissioners have done before him, pounding the beat, studying for the Sergeant’s exams, making Inspector, then getting Super, followed by Chief and on and on and on.  Martin knows full well the shit that goes on in the Guards, and if he doesn’t he’s not fit to be the head of our police force, but let’s not forget, this is the Commissioner who felt entitled to dismiss out of hand the findings of  High Court judge regarding the force he leads.

As I’ve often pointed out here before, an Garda Síochána is more like a Masonic brotherhood than a police force.   I’m not aware of any other European law-enforcement agency that refers to its employees as Members — are you?  In the building boom, and long before that, going right back to the Sixties, the Guards we well known as inveterate purchasers of real estate.  Many a penniless student, including myself, right through the following decades, rented houses and flats from fresh-faced young Gardai the same age as ourselves, though probably much older in their outlook.  These solid sons of farmers didn’t look too kindly on hippies like me.

I’m also not aware of a European police force that segregates all its neophytes into a single monastic environment like Templemore, inculcating the idea that the general public are all potential lawbreakers (or gougers as the Gardai refer to them).  As far as I’m aware, there is no possibility to recruit highly-qualified professional people into An Garda Síochána at a senior level.  There is no other Irish public-service organisation that does this and to the best of my knowledge, no other European law-enforcement agency has a single-tier entry system, in which all senior staff start at the bottom, though I’m open to correction.

Whatever spin Martin Callinan might be trying to put on this whistle-blower controversy, the truth is that he’s pissing up a rope, because every single person in Ireland knows what the Guards are like.   Every Irish adult remembers getting summonses fixed.  Every trader knows about the pressure to supply goods at cost or below in order to retain the goodwill of the local police.  The Guards even have a word for this: Hawk.  One of them has a hawk in vacuum cleaners and another has a hawk in computers.  It’s part of the Garda language.

We all know this.  Why are we pretending it doesn’t exist?

Who hasn’t, at the very least, considered the possibility of getting something fixed?

Now, Martin Callinan’s barely-disguised contempt for the Public Accounts Committee was, to my mind, very revealing, because it lifted the veil briefly on the central problem afflicting An Garda Síiochána which is this: the organisation doesn’t know what its role is.  Is it a security service or is it a police force?

A security service like MI5, is a properly secret organisation, amenable only to the appropriate government minister and, by virtue of national security, outside normal democratic constraints.  A police force, on the other hand, is simply that: an organisation responsible for civil policing, fighting crime, managing traffic and attending to the general business of public order.

In Ireland, since the foundation of the State, the two functions have been conflated and this has, in my view, tended to encourage on the one hand, an abuse of personal authority by individual Gardai and on the other a general feeling of impunity in the organisation as a whole.  Of course, needless to mention, the activities of the fearless Freedom Fighters in recent decades has only served to consolidate this viewpoint among the force’s “members”.

This is not to suggest that the majority of Gardai are either corrupt or power-mad.  I’ve personally known extraordinarily dedicated policemen and women, but Ireland is Ireland.  We know how this place works, and when Martin Callinan issues veiled threats towards those members of his force who might be prepared to reveal the dark secrets, all he does is damage his credibility and that of the force he leads.

When the head of an organisation that is not only a police force, but also a security service, displays such insolence to elected members of our national parliament, we need to take the implications very seriously indeed.


Environment Law Policing

Lack of Political Will to Enforce Law in Ireland

I kinda like Joan Burton.  No, not in strange way, but she always seemed (at least in 2008-9-10) to have a good solid handle on the banking calamity.  It’s a pity she got the smeared end of the stick when Labour went into government.  Actually, when you think of it – Labour got the ‘go away out foreign and don’t bother us’ Foreign Ministry post for its leader, the ‘minister for hardship’ for Howlin, the ‘minister for rolling back the welfare state’ for Burton and all for what?

Anyhow, I kinda like her.

I have no animus towards Billy Kelleher TD either.  I have met the man once, over a coffee at a summer school and he seemed an affable enough version of FF V2.03, Haughey-free and not too infected with the Bert virus.

That said, the interplay between the two of them on the RTE news show “Saturday with Claire Byrne” (what used to be Saturday View when Rodney Rice ran it) was enough to cause me to begin to lose the will to live.  In fact there were two episodes, either of which would cause one to lose hope in the ability of the Irish political system to take any form of action.

The first interplay was around the Anglo tapes.  Claire Byrne asked both of them their reaction and also about the allegations (which I note here) by the Taoiseach that the main thing from any inquiry was to uncover collaboration between FF and the bankers (because we didn’t know that they were close).  All round the country people are outraged at the arrogance and petulance of the Anglo dudes and still, for we are a charmingly naive people, look to the political class for leadership and some indication that there will be justice or even vengeance.  Instead of a measured reaction from two intelligent people about the tapes, about the constitutional problems of the Dáil holding inquiries that apportion decisions and blame, about the nature of banking and finance, we got … squabbling.  Political point scoring, squabbling, polite point scoring and name calling, and a degree of disconnect from the issues that was dispiriting.  It’s a game.  What we have in politics bears as much resemblance to the concerns of the ordinary world as Kabuki theatre does to the realities of modern day Japanese life.

turf cutting_2

The second spirit-sapping discussion came at the end, neatly bookmarking a show that resembled a political sandwich with a policy vacuum as filling.  We heard about the turf cutting standoff.  Farmers had moved heavy machinery onto protected peat bogs and were engaging in strip-mining it.  Let’s be clear – this wasn’t a few auld lads with sleans and bottles of tae but commercial contractors, doing to protected boglands the same as illegal mahogany loggers do in the rainforest .  This was being done on boglands that were designated special conservation areas under EU and Irish law.  There were police present including a superintendent, a senior officer.  The reporter noted that they were leaning over a ditch observing the law-breaking — observing it mind, not stopping it, not arresting those engaging in it, looking on at it.  Again here was an opportunity for our political leaders to show leadership.  During the show we had talked about the need for the Anglo issues to be dealt with, in criminal court if needed.  We had talked about the legal aspects of the Dáil inquiry and on the need for forensic and detailed examinations of what happened when where and how.  Then we moved onto flagrant, public, mass law-breaking in front of police.  The two politicians hemmed and hawed, admitting that yes it was a breach of the law but there were circumstances, issues, complications etc.  I asked how many of those breaking the law on the bog would that evening be supping stout in the pub decrying the Anglo chaps and urging the full rigour of the law to be applied, to silence.

If we don’t get leadership, if we cant get leadership, from two intelligent thoughtful politicians, if we cannot get them to urge on national radio that the law be respected fully and it be challenged by legal peaceful means only as we are a mature and peaceable democracy, then we wont be always.  People will rightly despair that a state which allows open defiance of a senior police officer who is not then supported 100% by politicians, that that state can ever come to grips with as complex a catastrophe as the banking crisis that has engulfed us.


gardai Politics

Alan Shatter Using Confidential Garda Information for Political Ends

Let’s get the facts straight.

Alan Shatter, minister for justice, stated on public television that a member of our national parliament had committed a criminal offence.

What criminal offence? you might be wondering.

Why, the criminal offence of holding a phone while driving.

But that’s not a crime, you might say, to which I’ll respond that it most certainly is. A minor criminal offence, admittedly, but a criminal offence nonetheless.

alan shatter gardai

Is that why I’m saying this?  Am I so upset about the assault on Mick Wallace’s good name that I feel compelled to defend him?  No.  Mick can take care of himself.  He’s big and ugly enough.  What bothers me much more is the idea that a justice minister would firstly have access to information about routine police activity, secondly that he would seek to use that privileged information against a political opponent, even if that opponent happens to be an insignificant independent member of the House.  And thirdly, that Alan Shatter of all people, a man who built his name and reputation on issues of human rights law, can see nothing wrong with what he did, or refuses to acknowledge it if he does.

Richard Bruton was on the radio today explaining that it was in the public interest to release this information, while ignoring the fact that, in order for Shatter to have these details  in the first place, somebody must have committed a crime.  Shatter, even in his position as minister, is not entitled to know what takes place between a citizen and the police.  This is privileged information, regardless of whether or not that citizen happens to be an elected member of our national parliament.  Indeed, all the more reason that a government minister should not be made aware of such things.

There are five possibilities.

One: Alan Shatter personally witnessed a policeman stopping Mick Wallace and heard the conversation that ensued.

Two: Mick Wallace told Alan Shatter he had been stopped.

Three: Mick Wallace told somebody else, who passed it on to Alan Shatter.

Four: a witness with exceptionally keen ears overheard a conversation between a policeman and Mick Wallace at the side of the road and passed it on to Alan Shatter or his proxy.

Five: A member of an Garda Síochána informed Alan Shatter or his agent that Mick Wallace had been stopped and warned for holding a mobile phone while driving.

Let’s write off the first four straight away.  What does the fifth option imply?  Simple — some guard has broken the law by revealing sensitive information about a citizen.  Who’d have thought it?  Who could possibly have imagined that a guard might breach confidentiality?  Another first .

Now, you might say that it’s all trivial, and to some extent, I’d agree with you.  Wallace is using the penalty points issue to distract from his own abysmal performance, but at the same time, once Shatter used the secret information, he escalated the issue out of all proportion to the petty squabble it started out as.

Here was a government minister using confidential police information — that he was not entitled to have — in a political manner to silence a member of the national parliament who happens to be criticising the police force.

Forget Mick Wallace and his ridiculous pink t-shirts.  Forget penalty points.  If an intelligent man like Alan Shatter considers it expedient to use confidential information against somebody in a relatively secure position, what will this government do to others who challenge them?

Will silencing a political critic always be in the public interest?  Is it acceptable that the government and the police force should be working hand in hand to stifle criticism?

Where have we seen this before?  Oops!  I think it’s time to worry about the tendencies of this Fine Gael government and this police force.



Gardai Tighten Security of PULSE Computer System

So the Guards are tightening up access to their PULSE IT system, are they?

Don’t hold your breath.

For years, individual  police have been copying details off the PULSE system and putting confidential information about private citizens on their own PCs.  Ask anyone who ever worked in maintenance of systems at police stations what their experience has been.  Ask any tech-geek who did some guard a favour by looking at his laptop: what did they find on those machines?

Will I tell you?  They routinely find files on innocent civilians, containing speculation, innuendo and information that would be libellous, or even life-threatening, if allowed into the public domain.  And yet, these same Gardai are taking their laptops home and accessing the internet, with no security, no firewalls and no awareness of the dangers.

Ask any maintenance tech how they get into the Garda station IT rooms.  It’s simple.  They walk straight into the public office, carrying a bulky tool-case, and they point at the door.  The cop behind the counter automatically pushes the unlocking switch and they’re in, with no security code and no check on their identity.  Once in, they have access to every last item of information on the PULSE database, some of which is factual, some of which is highly sensitive and some of which is no more than idle gossip. (In policing circles, gossip is known as soft information).

Garda Pulse system

It’s that simple.  The Gardai have almost no procedures in place to protect their data, and very few staff members who have the slightest understanding of basic domestic computers, never mind a complex system like PULSE that could easily contain sensitive information, and unverified gossip, on every single citizen of this country.

The Guards are a quintessentially Irish organisation, and as such, they inherit all the characteristics of our nation, including a lamentably relaxed attitude to strict procedures.  Ask anyone selling a car if they ever got a call from a garda on behalf of a friend having looked up their details on PULSE.

This is Ireland, I’m afraid, and as with so many other things in our society, when it comes to IT or data confidentiality, the Gardai just don’t get it.

So, by all means, let’s welcome this latest announcement of a tightening on security, but let’s not take it too seriously.