Irish police watchdog bugging concerns turn political

The three members of the Ombudsman Commission The three members of the Ombudsman Commission appeared before a parliamentary committee

The relationship between police in the Republic of Ireland and the body that investigates complaints against officers has rarely been good.

Now a row over possible bugging of the police watchdog has made it positively toxic.

The row began when the Sunday Times reported that a hi-tech surveillance operation had been uncovered last year at the offices of the Garda Síochána (Irish police) Ombudsman Commission.

The three-person commission, it revealed, had called in a British security consultancy to check its offices for bugs.

Political

In the wake of the Sunday Times report, the Ombudsman Commission issued a statement in which it said there were what it called "three technical and electronic anomalies" that could not be explained.

The statement said that there was "no evidence of Garda misconduct" and it was satisfied its databases had not been compromised.

But even the suggestion of Garda misconduct brought a sharp rebuke from the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) and the Garda Representative Association (GRA).

AGSI called on the chairman of the Ombudsman Commission, Simon O'Brien, a former Metropolitan Police Commander in London, to resign.

The issue very quickly became political.

The government has said it was concerned that the first it heard of the bugging concerns was from the Sunday Times report and that the Ombudsman Commission should have informed the justice minister of its concerns.

The Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, later admitted in parliament there was no strict legal requirement on the Ombudsman Commission to do so.

Suspicion

However, the commission accepts it should have done so; the suspicion, though, remains that it did not want police investigating whether police had put the ombudsman's offices under surveillance.

Opposition party Fianna Fail called for an independent investigation into whether the offices were bugged and, if so, by whom.

The party says it is concerned that the victim of apparent bugging in this case is being turned into the villain.

With the suspicion in the air that one lawfully-established wing of the state may have been spying on another lawfully-established wing, ministers and politicians saw that this could become a huge story.

The commission appeared before a parliamentary committee on public service oversight on Wednesday evening.

Mr O'Brien backed up the account of his fellow commissioner, Kieran FitzGerald who, in an interview with Irish state broadcaster RTÉ, said there was evidence of some sort of security breach at the ombudsman's headquarters.

The probability of one the bugs being benign, Mr FitzGerald said, was between zero and remote.

Enquiry

Mr O'Brien said he did not report this to the justice minister, Alan Shatter, because it would have further damaged the commission's already strained relationship with the police.

As to who might have been responsible for the suspected surveillance the former London policeman speculated that it might have been a rogue officer or criminals who had made allegations about police.

He again said there was no evidence implicating police.

As to who leaked the initial story to the Sunday Times, Mr O'Brien conceded it had to come from at least one of seven people in his office as the story of the possible surveillance was kept very tight.

An internal enquiry is currently under way.

This story is probably not yet over.

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