“A police force is nothing without the trust of the community”

Last week, the Seanad had an opportunity to debate the findings of the recent final part of the Morris Tribunal findings. There was particular interest in the judgement of Mr. Justice Morris in respect of Members of the Oireachtas. Below is my own contribution to the debate.

I will begin by echoing the remarks of other Members in respect of Mr. Justice Morris’s work during the preparation of his eight reports. I refer to the extraordinary amount of work that was input, the careful consideration and sifting of evidence and allegations, as well as the highly detailed and, as Members have commented, in many ways shocking contents of the reports that have been published as a result of the inquiries the judge carried out. I also add my congratulations to those who worked with Mr. Justice Morris in his tribunal, including the lawyers, high-paid or otherwise, who performed an important public duty by sifting through a considerable number of allegations, sometimes of great complexity, as well as hearing evidence and reaching conclusions based on the evidence put before the tribunal and publishing the reports it was charged with providing to the Oireachtas when it was first established.

The most recent report is the one we are at present considering in greatest detail but, as other Senators have noted, the most serious of conclusions were reached by the Morris tribunal and each of the eight reports makes for disturbing reading. As others have quoted from the findings, I will not rehearse them other than to note that a police force in a democratic society is nothing without the trust of the community. The Garda has a remarkable tradition of coming from the community but if that connection is undermined, it will hit at the core of the confidence that the public must have in its police force for society to function and justice and policing to be administered efficiently and fairly. If authority is rooted in the society which it serves, it will be successful.

Unfortunately, the example of what occurred over a number of years in Donegal, which the Minister of State described as a dark period in our history, could be repeated and suspicions remain that similar practices continue. Ongoing scrutiny and engagement are needed in respect of these issues because we cannot be absolutely confident that the dreadful deeds set out in the Morris reports will never be repeated. Perhaps ominously, Mr. Justice Morris was of the opinion that the gardaí serving in Donegal cannot be viewed as unrepresentative or an aberration from the generality. He was reflecting on concerns that he was not inquiring into an isolated case and reminding us of the need for constant vigilance and proper mechanisms to ensure public confidence in the Garda Síochána.

One hopes these matters will be consigned to history but the only way we can be sure of this is by developing the confidence building institutions to which Senator Boyle referred. In this regard I welcome the establishment of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, although I fear that we have not gone far enough. The model successfully developed in the North might be copied in this part of the island. I am prepared to allow the commission some time before judging its success.

My party has made other proposals in the context of the debates on these issues. In particular, we see the need for an independent Garda authority between the Garda and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The resistance that has been put in the way of such a body is not ultimately sustainable. I do not understand why the Government is not supportive of the notion of an independent body which would scrutinise the operations of the Garda Síochána.

We have also proposed extending the remit of the Freedom of Information Act to the Garda. Regrettably, the resistance to this proposal comes from a culture similar to the one that has prevented the establishment of an independent Garda authority. This culture is based on the belief that all power should be tightly controlled within the Department and that opportunities for scrutiny in which the public might engage should be resisted at all costs. However, information is everything in these matters. Often, if people receive, in response to their inquiries or complaints, evidence of what actually occurred, they see the rationale for the decision and are reassured. However, confidence breaks down and uncertainty increases where a culture of withholding information exists.

Remarks have been made during our debate regarding the roles played by Deputy Howlin and former Deputy Jim Higgins. In fairness to the Minister of State, his contribution to the Seanad debate was markedly different from the speech made by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the Dáil. Regrettably, the Minister found himself unable to pass up the opportunity for making a baldly partisan political intervention. So many of his comments were devoted to criticisms of Deputy Howlin and former Deputy Jim Higgins that one had to delve deeply into his speech to establish his views on the Morris report. I welcome, therefore, the change of tone signalled by the Minister of State’s speech to this House. It is legitimate to seek debate on the implications of what was said about the contributions of two serving public representatives who Mr. Justice Morris acknowledged were acting in good faith. After hearing the Minister’s contribution in the other House, however, one might be forgiven for thinking that was not the case. He made little mention of the fact that the politicians concerned were acting in the public interest and were doing everything they could to act properly by relaying the allegations to the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Mr. Justice Morris was of the opinion that the two should have made “some further enquiries before going to the Minister”. My colleagues in this House have asked the precise meaning of that statement. What level of inquiry ought a Deputy or Senator engage in prior to passing allegations to the responsible Minister? Members face a considerable dilemma in trying to understand the level of investigation required of them. My frustration is shared by other Senators, including Senators Ó Murchú and O’Malley who made similar points three weeks ago when this issue arose briefly.
Members act carefully and responsibly but they would need considerable resources to investigate an allegation fully. One cannot partly investigate an allegation. One either investigates it or not.

That is why we have tribunals: to hear evidence, hear the counter-evidence, hear cross-examination and analyse an allegation before coming up with a finding of fact. I am glad, as is the Minister, that the two gardaí against whom allegations were made were vindicated in the tribunal and I welcome this. In debating other tribunals, Members referred to allegations made in these other tribunals. Members on the Government side would point out that these were just allegations, not findings, and this is correct. I do not underestimate the effect on someone of a false allegation being made against him but the fact is that other allegations were made that turned out to be true. These were, in many cases, even more outlandish in content, yet they turned out to be true. If an allegation is made, one cannot know whether it is true or false and it requires a third party to determine whether it is true or false. Although the allegations proved to be false, they had the nature of allegations and were not findings.

I respectfully disagree with and question Mr. Justice Morris’s point that these allegations were conferred with legitimacy to the extent that people would have thought they were true because they were conveyed by Members of the Oireachtas to the then Minister, who also acted responsibly. They were not true unless they were found to be true and, thankfully, these particular allegations were found not to be true, although many serious allegations were found to be so.

More :: You can read any of the reports of the Morris Tribunal by clicking here.