Return to Recent Articles menu

Beyond GUBU: Irish elite struggles to suppress police corruption scandals 

JM Thorn 

31 March 2014

While there have been numerous scandals that have erupted within policing over the decades the frequency at which they are now emerging is quite unprecedented even by the standards of the Irish state. At the same time the level of criticism has fallen sharply. In the early 1980s the phrase GUBU (grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented), used by Irish premier Charlie Haughey to describe a murder suspect being arrested at the home of the attorney general, became a catchword for the blatant corruption of his government. Today every effort is being focused on minimising the impact of an avalanche of corruption that dwarfs Haughey’s role, while what there is of an opposition is largely silent beyond a few radical TDs and whistleblowers.

At one level they can be seen as just part of a general trend of deepening corruption across society in the period of the Celtic Tiger and the Troika bailout.  However, scandals within the justice system are more serious than those within business or politics because they strike at the “rule of law” ideology that underpins the state.  This is the reason why the Irish elite - politicians, state officials and sections of the media – has been so determined to draw a line under the recent spate of damaging revelations.  

Garda Ombudsman 
While many of the claims of police corruption (such as those relating to the penalty points system) have been in circulation for some time what really brought things to a head earlier this year was the revelation that the offices of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) had conducted an investigation as to whether its office had been subjected to sophisticated electronic surveillance in 2013.  The findings of the investigation, conducted by the British based security firm Verrimus, indicated that it was likely that the GSOC had been the subject of such surveillance.  Given that this type of surveillance could only have been carried out by a state agency the widespread assumption was that it had to have been initiated by the Garda and approved at a very senior level.  The objective of such an operation would have been to obtain information on a serious investigation into Garda misconduct.

Of course the confirmation of such activity would completely destroy the official narrative of the police being under scrutiny and held to account.  The response from the Garda, the Government (and also the Ombudsman to some degree) was therefore directed towards preserving this artifice and preventing the most obvious suspicions gaining ground.  The response by the Commissioner and the Garda’s various representative organisations was to feign outrage at the suggestion that the police could have engaged in such activity.  In this schema the GSOC was not the victim of covert attempts to undermine it but a peddler of malicious allegations.  The Government took a similar line with justice minister Alan Shatter dismissing suspicions of surveillance as “baseless innuendo”.  He muddied the waters further by a publishing technical report (which subsequently turned out to be no more than a literature review) that questioned the findings of the Verrimus investigation.   Another diversionary tactic by the Government was to question why the GSOC had not reported its suspicions to Department for Justice before commissioning an investigation.  Of course this would have led to a situation in which the police would be conducting an inquiry into an incident in which they were the most likely suspects.  

The Government has also deployed that most tried and tested method of subduing controversy – the setting up an inquiry.   This is to be led by retired High Court judge John Cooke and will investigate whether the potential security breaches identified by the GSOC point to an attempt at covert surveillance.  He is charged with setting out a chronology and sequence of events, and reaching conclusions in terms of the three “anomalies” that were identified.  This inquiry, which has no power to compel witnesses, will likely concentrate on electronic technicalities.  It may not even be able to conclude whether surveillance took place and even if it does will not seek to apportion responsibility (that is not in its remit).  

Despite being the subject of efforts to undermine it the GSOC has also been keen to dampen down the controversy.  Its chief executive Simon O’Brien has already ruled out the possibility that the suspected surveillance of its offices was an official Garda operation, instead blaming “rogue” officers or criminal gangs.  The reluctance of the GSOC to state the most obvious explanation highlights the severe limitations of the mechanisms of police scrutiny.  While supposedly independent the GSOC clearly understands that it is part of the state and that its overriding priority to provide cover for other state institutions. 

The GSOC was initially set up in 2005 as a response to the Morris tribunal whose report in 2002 exposed the major police corruption that had occurred in Donegal in the 1990’s.   It came into being because in the wake of this scandal the idea of the police investigating themselves was no longer tenable.   With this new oversight arrangement, there could be gestures towards accountability, without any serious scrutiny of the police.  Indeed, what better cover could there be for the Garda than to have its actions endorsed by ostensibly independent body.  The severely limited powers given to the GSOC – the fact that it could not compel Garda staff to cooperate with its investigations and that the office of the Commissioner was beyond its remit – indicates that it was always intended to be a toothless tiger. 

The problem is that for such a system to appear to be working it has to allow for some degree of criticism of the police – not enough to damage them but enough to give the impression that they are being kept straight.  However, because of the high level of corruption within the Irish state and the weakness of its institutions, even the most minimal examination of its workings can be destabilising.  We see this in the hostility of the Garda towards the GSOC and also in how the surveillance scandal acted as a catalyst for further revelations of abuses.   

Fixed penalty notices

The scandal that has been the longest running, and the one that best illustrates the rampant cronyism in Irish society, has been that surrounding the cancelling of penalty points.  The allegation here was that Garda inspectors and superintendents were accessing police computer records (the PULSE system) in order to the expunge penalty points incurred by well-connected individuals such judges, politicians and celebrities.  

This had been brought to public attention by the Garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson through their contacts with independent TD Clare Daly.  In response the Garda launched an internal inquiry supervised by Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahony.  It found that there was no serious problems with the penalty points system and rubbished the claims of the whistleblowers.  The issue came up again when the Dail’s Committee of Public Accounts agreed to hear evidence from Maurice McCabe.  This provoked a fierce response form the Garda Commissioner who questioned the right of the committee to conduct such a hearing.  This dismissive attitude towards the supposedly sovereign parliament demonstrated clearly the semblance of democracy in Ireland and the contempt of the Irish elite towards any notion that they should be under scrutiny.  Under this pressure the Committee agreed to take the whistleblower’s testimony behind closed doors.  In his public reply Martin Callinan was given free reign to slander the whistleblowers - dismissing them as “disgusting”.   The attack was taken up by the justice minister Alan Shatter who portrayed them as serial complainers who had failed to co-operate with earlier enquiries.   This is despite the revelation that the Garda Confidential recorder had warned McCabe not to peruse his complaints.  

The attack went wider to include the political representatives who made public the whistleblowers’ claims.  After first highlighting the penalty points scandal last year Clare Daly was arrested for suspected drink driving – though no charges were ever brought.  Mick Wallace was falsely accused by Shatter of benefiting from the cancellation of penalty points himself.  It was later revealed that this claim had stemmed from a conversation between the justice minister and the Garda Commissioner.   These “banana republic” type tactics were not confined to the political sphere; there was also pressure within the media to suppress the scandal.  The most outrageous example of this sacking of Irish Independent reporter, Gemma O'Doherty, after she doorstepped Martin Callinan on the issue.  She was criticised by the newspaper’s editor Stephen Rae as "a rogue reporter".  It was later revealed that Rae (a former editor of the Garda Review magazine) had penalty points deducted from his driving licence.

Tip of the Ice Berg 

While the penalty points issue is that one that has had the most public attention it is only one of many.  Neither is it the most serious abuse that has come to light.   The claims by McCabe alone cover about 20 cases of alleged misconduct just within the Cavan-Monaghan Garda division.   These include; gardaí being drunk on duty to failing to investigate burglaries, the failure of police to investigate the attempted rape of a female taxi driver; the disappearance in custody of a hard drive seized from a priest eventually convicted of child abuse and child pornography charges  and  the catalogue of mistakes and cover ups relating to murder of Sylvia Roche Kelly, who was found dead in the Clarion Hotel in Limerick in December 2007.

Fellow whistleblower John Wilson has described Garda misconduct as “frightening” and as well as the penalty points scandal has drawn attention to the high number of people being “maliciously prosecuted”.   There are also the cases of alleged collusion between members of an elite Garda unit and a convicted drug trafficker Kieran Boylan, and the most recent revelations over the covert recording of phone calls made to and from police stations and prisons.  That these cases have been know of for some time, and that some of them had been the subject of investigations by GSOC, really illustrates how ineffectual the supposed oversight mechanisms have been.  


These corruption revelations have exposed divisions within Government and between different arms of the state.  However, such divisions are not over the issue of abuses by the police but rather over how best to dampen the scandal down. The fact that they are prepared to sacrifice such a high-ranking official as the Garda Commissioner only demonstrates their determination to bring about a favourable resolution.   Alongside this rare resignation the tried and trusted method of establishing enquiries has also been deployed.  Over recent months no less than six inquiries have been commissioned to examine the various claims of police corruption.   It is hoped that, as with past scandals, the inquiries will take any heat out of them.  

Even in the midst of the current scandal a resolution is already forming.  This centres on a reconstruction of the accountability mechanisms - with a revamped GSOC and the creation of an independent Police Authority.   Of course these changes will only be cosmetic and any oversight of the police likely to as ineffective as before.  The fact that that the arrangements in the North are being but forward as a model is a clear indication of where this reform is heading.  Despite claims made for substantial changes to policing in the north the degree of reform has been greatly exaggerated.  The powers of the Police Ombudsman are extremely limited – for example it cannot examine such crucial areas as the role of MI5 or the recruitment of agents.  Even when it has produced reports that have been damning of the police – such as those in relation to the Omagh bomb investigation and the activities of the Mount Vernon UVF – no one has been held accountable.   

The Policing Board and District Policing Partnerships are part of the patronage of the political settlement with their members being appointed by the parties and the minister for justice.  That the Policing Board was unaware that the PSNI had rehired a thousand former officers on civilian contracts exposes it limitations as an oversight body.  The functions of its members really don’t extend beyond collecting expenses and signing off on the PSNI budget.  The membership of District Policing Partnerships often includes people openly associated with loyalist paramilitaries.  This is what is being put forward as a model for police oversight.         

Rotten foundations

The abuses carried out with impunity by police highlight the true nature of the state in capitalist society. Despite claims of impartiality, summed up the concept of the “rule of law”, the institutions of the state have an inherent class bias.  They were brought into existence by the capitalist class and exist to defend its wealth and power.  While this class domination is not based solely on force, the “special bodies of armed men” (the police and the military) at the core of the state are its ultimate guarantors.  The ruling class is therefore not going to reform the justice system in any way that will weaken its last and most important line of defence.  
In this broad sense Ireland is no different than other capitalist states. What accounts for its particular corruption is the failure of the Irish bourgeois to achieve the most basic liberal democratic tasks.  In nations, such as England, France and the United Sates, the rise of the capitalist class lead to revolutions that destroyed the old order and secured democratic advances, such as national independence or limitations on clerical power.  In Ireland these tasks were never completed.  

While in some countries there has been a decay of once healthy democratic institutions those in Ireland have been rotten from their inception.   The current state structures were established on the back of the defeat of the national struggle that ensued in the period 1916 – 1921.  Their purpose is to suppress any revival of 1916 inspired republicanism.  We see this in the massacre of anti treaty prisoners in the 1920’s, the executions of republican leaders during the “Period of Emergency”, and the repressive measures used against the Provisional movement and its successors from the 1970’s to the current day.  Another indication of the weakness of the Irish capitalist class is its reliance on the Catholic Church, with whole areas of state provision, such as education and health, being run by religious orders.  The abuses associated with this are well documented. 

Despite the passage of time the essential character of the Irish state, as one dominated by imperialism and religious conservatism, remains the same.   No fundamental democratic reform can come through its institutions. However, this has not stopped various left groups promoting this as a possibility – whether that be in relation to abortion rights or the financial crisis.  Their muted response to the current police corruption scandals is an indication of the reformist illusions they hold.

The reality that only a movement based on the Irish working class can secure the democratic advances that the Irish capitalist class and its state are a barrier to.  Of course a basic precondition for this is the building of a workers movement that is independent in terms of its organisation and politics.   This has to be immediate task of socialist and trade union activists.  


Return to top of page