Government concerned to deflect Smithwick report

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, December 2013-January 2014 edition

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams did the State (or at least, its institutions) some service in the wake of theSmithwick tribunal report when he made some ill-judged remarks on Newstalk to the effect that the two RUC officers whose deaths were the focus of the inquiry died because of their “laissez-faire disregard for their own security”.

Smithwick Tribunal: Image © Faduda
Smithwick Tribunal: Image © Faduda

Adams’ comments quickly became the story, as politicians from other parties, led by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, piled on to condemn his statement and called on him to apologise. Justice minister Alan Shatter called Adams’ comments “nauseating”, and Micheál Martin said they were incredible.

The comments came as a blessing to the government, diverting attention away from the larger question of how Garda HQ dealt with reports of inappropriate behavior (to say the least) by officers stationed at the border to a political squabble, as if Dáil politicians suddenly realised for the first time that the IRA had been in the business of killing people.

The fallout from the Smithwick report had until that point followed a familiar pattern established through eight Morris tribunal reports into Garda (mis)behavior.

Politicians and senior officers lined up to express their dismay, speeches referred to the betrayal of the many decent officers in the force by the few, the words “bad apples” were bandied about. But while everyone professed themselves shocked by the revelations, few were willing to focus on the institutional failures in An Garda Siochána highlighted by Judge Smithwick, the police culture of closing ranks and protecting itself against scandal.

Peter Smithwick’s observations about the “misguided sense of loyalty” in An Garda Siochána will sound familiar to anyone who has read the Morris reports. But politicians would rather talk about anything else than institutional reform.

Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, who as assistant commissioner had overseen an earlier investigation into collusion allegations described by the tribunal as “inadequate”, will have been particularly relieved. He told reporters he was “horrified” at the idea that any member of the force would collude with the IRA, but had less to say about the judge’s criticisms of the force as a whole.

When the garda commissioner feels confident enough to demand a Dáil committee hand over files on the penalty points scandal provided to it by a whistleblower, and the justice minister was happy to use information provided to him by the commissioner during a television debate with an independent TD, it becomes quite clear what the tribunal means by the “culture of failing adequately to address suggestions of wrongdoing, either for reasons of political expediency or by virtue of misguided loyalty, [which] has been a feature of life in this State.”

Meanwhile, the tribunal’s findings, based more on “intelligence” than “evidence”, should lead to a serious re-think of the Irish practice of combining intelligence-gathering and evidence-gathering in one organisation. At the heart of the Morris tribunal was a confusion between the two, which led to a major criminal inquiry into a crime that never happened. And while Peter Smithwick did his best to navigate the balances of probabilities and reach a judgement on the question of a garda mole in Dundalk, the risk of more mistakes like the ones which led to the Morris tribunal will always be there.

An Garda Siochána, for historical reasons, has always been as much a security service as a police service. The government would do well to consider the experience of the Canadians, who separated intelligence gathering into a new service following the reports of the McDonald Commission in the 1980s. It is worth noting that a similar reorganisation was undertaken in Northern Ireland in 2007, as recommended by the Patten Commission.

Whether a government which still refuses to open its policing to any but the most limited scrutiny under Freedom of Information is willing to take such a radical step is doubtful. Even the tribunal’s recommendations on cross-border policing, personnel exchanges, joint investigations and cross-border inquiries with the power to compel witnesses in both jurisdictions (perhaps chaired by one judge from each jurisdiction?) will provide food for thought (and likely headaches) in Leinster House and Stormont, as governments and police forces squabble over jurisdiction.

In fact, the only certainty as the Smithwick tribunal closes shop would seem to be that Ireland is unlikely to see another tribunal for at least a generation. Perceived as cumbersome, slow-moving gravy-trains for lawyers, tribunals are seen by the public as wasteful, and politicians who have ignored their recommendations over the years are happy to feed that perception and let sleeping dogs lie.