There is little in the new revelations about Garda misbehaviour that was not foreshadowed years ago by Judge Frederick Morris in his reports on alleged malpractice in Donegal.
Judge Morris was appointed in March 2002 after concerns were raised about the investigation of the death of cattle dealer Richie Barron in Raphoe in 1997. His focus widened in the course of the inquiry. He was to issue eight reports on separate “modules”. The last was published in October 2008.
In 2010, the Irish Academic Press published The Blue Wall of Silence: The Morris Tribunal and Police Accountability in Ireland, by Vicky Conway. Anybody anxious to understand the background to current crisis should search out her account.
A partial list of Morris’s findings include: that Gardaí had been involved in planting explosives in order to orchestrate bomb finds; that senior officers had negligently failed to follow procedures, thus preventing exposure of corruption; that witness statements in a number cases had been corruptly compiled; that Gardai had made “extortionate” ‘phone calls to the home of a potential suspect; that a Garda whose handling of an informant had been challenged by a colleague pulled out a gun and threatened the other officer; that Garda harassment of citizens was commonplace; that “many” Gardaí had perjured themselves in their evidence. Judge Morris declared that there was no reason to believe these practices were confined to Donegal: “Of the Gardaí serving in Donegal it cannot be said that they are unrepresentative or an aberration from the generality. All of them were trained as Gardaí and served under a uniform structure of administration and discipline that is standardised.”
How come this devastating report had so little effect? Ms. Conway suggests one likely factor was “the manner in which the Tribunal proceedings and reports were presented to the public.” She cites the spin put on the events by the media, the Gardai themselves and politicians. None, she says, was willing to face up to “the full seriousness and the broader implications”.
Ms. Conway notes the deft use of the “rotten apple theory” to explain away what had happened. Today, politicians and commentators in the Republic seem to feel it necessary to preface their every expression of concern by saying that the scandalous behaviour of a tiny handful of Gardai mustn’t be allowed to besmirch the reputation of a fine body of public servants. Thus, again, the broader implications are avoided. The Morris Report did lead to reforms. Among these were the establishment of the Garda Inspectorate, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and the Garda Professional Standards Unit (GPSU). Each of these institutions is now itself entangled in the Callinan/Shatter affair.Measures were introduced to provide for new disciplinary procedures and…“a whistleblowers’ charter.” We know how that one worked out. Vicky Conway suggests that one key question not faced up to was the relationship between the Garda leadership and the Department of Justice – the issue at the very core of the current imbroglio.
The point is that almost all the Garda-related matters now being debated in Dublin in tones of high excitement are there in Judge Morris’s findings, which makes you wonder what the point of it all is, other than to give citizens a vague sense that it’s all being taken seriously and that something will eventually be done. One of the TDs seemingly least concerned about the current cluster of scandals is Labour Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte. He has every trust in Justice Minister Alan Shatter, he repeats, it’s all sound and fury, signifying little. It was a different story in June 2005, when Pat was in opposition and harrying Fianna Fail Justice Minister John O’Donoghue for allegedly keeping the Dail in the dark about communications between himself, Attorney General Michael McDowell and Deputy Commissioner Noel Conroy in relation to what and when senior gardai knew about the attempted framing of Frank McBrearty Junior for the killing of Richie Barron in Raphoe. The ministers were “covering up why they failed to investigate one of the most serious public interest issues in this jurisdiction”, Pat shouted across the Dail. wOthers currently claiming that mountains are being fashioned from molehills in order to discredit Alan Shatter include Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin. But in 2005, he was claiming that “It is now beyond doubt that (O’Donoghue and McDowell) had extensive knowledge of the scale and the serious nature of Garda abuses in Donegal when they were obstructing calls from the Labour Party and others for the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry.”
Fine Gael’s Jim O’Keeffe declared then that “Explanations are required from both ministers as to why they so doggedly resisted setting up an inquiry for so long.” Not a cheep out of him now. These days, of course, the boot is on the other foot - or the ministerial backside on the other bench. So all opinions are become vice-versa. You’d nearly laugh. But it might be more appropriate to cry. The Department of Justice was to settle with Frank McBrearty Junior for €1.5million. Frank Shortt of Quigley’s Point was to be awarded €1.9 million. A father of five, he had been framed by Gardai for allegedly allowing drugs to be sold on his premises, the Point Inn. He spent two years in Mountjoy, convicted on the basis of planted evidence, suppressed evidence and perjured evidence from gardai. His pub was torched while he was inside. His family suffered dreadfully. In some respects, Frank Shortt’s is the most egregious case of all. The biggest force of Gardai ever assembled in Donegal - around 70 strong, tooled up like robocops - was involved in raiding the Point. Gardai had taken advantage of hysteria about drugs generated mainly by Fine Gael and Sinn Fein, so that there were few protests when the military-style assault was made on youngsters on a night out. Many - mostly from Derry - were beaten, kicked, spat on, insulted and humiliated. Frank Shortt was beaten when he tried to intervene. It wasn’t one or two rogue cops who perpetrated that outrage. Will anything change as a result of the various inquiries now under way?
Maybe. But the track record is hardly encouraging.