The Public Accounts Committee has a vital role to perform in our democracy. So too does An Garda Síochána. It is in no-one’s interests that a situation be allowed to develop where either hampers the ability of the other to discharge their proper roles. I have no doubt that the vast majority of members of both have great respect for the work each of these institutions performs.
Unfortunately, a situation has arisen where, unlike the many serious and dedicated Members of Dáil Éireann who discharge their role on the Committee with impartiality and fairness, some members of the Committee have a tendency to prejudge issues that the Committee is considering and have done so in the media in recent days. Recent comments by that minority pose the risk of bringing the work of the Committee into disrepute, undermining its role and its credibility and are particularly disturbing.
Serious allegations have been made against many unnamed members of An Garda Síochána which it seems some members of the Committee wish to promulgate publicly without those against whom allegations have been made being in a position to examine the allegations or defend their reputations. The rolling nature of the allegations is such that the Garda Commissioner, prior to his appearance last week before the Committee, was given no reasonable time to conduct a detailed examination of new allegations made.
The reality is that there are legal and practical constraints on the ability of the PAC to determine the veracity of claims made in relation to individual penalty point cases. This could lead to a situation where the Committee is simply used as a platform for persons to make a series of unsubstantiated assertions on which the Committee would not be able to come to a reliable conclusion and which could be very damaging to individual members of An Garda Síochána and to private citizens.
Many of these allegations were investigated by Assistant Commissioner O’Mahony and are dealt with in his report. While I am aware that some are concerned that the investigation was not independent of An Garda Síochána, I am not aware of the persons making the allegations putting forward any substantive evidence which would call into question Assistant Commissioner O’Mahony’s findings, despite requests to do so. Instead, the original assertions are merely repeated and further cases are brought to attention in circumstances where the persons making the allegations could not have full knowledge of the facts. I have also previously expressed concerns about how files containing confidential information about individual private citizens appear to have been disseminated to others.
My fundamental concern has been to ensure that the penalty points system operates properly. The original allegations made with regard to the cancellation of fixed ticket charges have been addressed in two substantial reports. The issue has been extensively discussed in the Houses of the Oireachtas and I have referred the matter to the Garda Inspectorate, whose report I shortly expect to receive. It has also been addressed by the Comptroller and Auditor General. New arrangements have been put in place to tighten up the procedures applicable to the discretionary cancellation of such charges and there is now in place an audited Garda oversight process. There has been misinformed comment to the effect that I could have originally referred the allegations to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission but that would not have been in line with legislative requirements.
The Gardaí are in the front line in the fight against crime and are a Force in which we can take pride and for whom the majority of people have great respect. In the context of issues of difficulty related to policing that occur that must be addressed, it is only fair that I acknowledge that, during my time as Minister, any such difficulties that have arisen have been addressed by Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan under whose leadership the Gardaí have had outstanding successes.
I have discussed the present situation with the Garda Commissioner. While he, of course, has the greatest respect for the work of the Public Accounts Committee, he has legitimate concerns about the effect on the Force of actions which might be taken by the Public Accounts Committee. Equally, he does not want to find himself in a position of conflict with the Committee.
We both believe that it is in the public interest that this matter is put to bed once and for all and that it is important that circumstances in which continuing allegations are being made should be addressed definitively to allay any public concerns.
In circumstances where the Garda authorities have not been made fully aware of allegations being made and the manner in which allegations are being pursued, it is necessary to identify a method where any public concerns can be addressed, without An Garda Síochána finding itself at the centre of political controversies, or having senior management of the Force continuously distracted from their primary job of protecting the public.
Section 102 of the Garda Síochána Act provides that if the Minister considers it desirable in the public interest to do so he can request the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) to investigate certain matters relating to An Garda Síochána. It seems to me, particularly in the light of circumstances where allegations are being continuously made and the political controversy which An Garda Síochána finds itself at the centre of, that circumstances have now arisen where it is in the public interest to refer the allegations which are being made and the manner in which those allegations have been pursued, including issues relating to the preservation of the integrity of Garda records, to GSOC. I am making the necessary arrangement to do so.
I hope that people will allow GSOC to proceed with its work unhindered.
On a general point, the legislation governing the operation of GSOC does not allow it to investigate complaints made directly to it by members of An Garda Síochána. I believe that this general prohibition has adversely affected the ability to address circumstances of the kind which have arisen in relation to penalty points. I have been reviewing the relevant provisions of the Garda Síochána Act, 2005 with a view to bringing forward proposals to Government to address this issue and expect to shortly do so.
27 January, 2014