“We Are Independent”



[GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien (left) with Kieran Fitzgerald of GSOC and on his way to attending the Public Service Oversight and Petitions Committee in February, to answer questions about the GSOC bugging story which is now the subject of an inquiry]

After the GSOC bugging story appeared in The Sunday Times on February 9, written by John Mooney, Mr O’Brien was summoned to the then Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s office on February 10, to brief him on the matter. Following that meeting, Mr O’Brien released a statement apologising for not telling Mr Shatter about the investigation that GSOC had carried out by Verrimus. Verrimus had detected three security threats.

In his statement, he said: “We did not wish to point fingers unnecessarily and we did not believe that widespread reporting would be conducive to public confidence.”

Then, on February 12, Mr O’Brien appeared before the Public Service Oversight and Petitions Committee and told the committee:

I certainly suspect or potentially suspect we may have been under some form of surveillance. I have no information in my possession that any other ombudsman’s office has ever been under this type of surveillance.

Separately, in his investigation of Sgt Maurice McCabe’s dossier of claims of Garda misconduct, Sean Guerin, SC, referred to the role of GSOC in the recent Guerin Report.

In the introduction of his report, Mr Guerin said he received no documentation from GSOC. He said on the eve of the day his report was due he received a letter from Arthur Cox Solicitors, on behalf of GSOC, stating  there were legal and practical issues with handing over, according to GSOC, “voluminous” relevant documentation.

Mr Guerin wrote:

“That has, unfortunately, been an obstacle to any assessment as part of this review of the adequacy of the investigations conducted by GSOC.”

In addition, in Chapter 18, Mr Guerin wrote:

“What is striking, however, is that in the one case in which it is clear that a GSOC investigation was pursued to a conclusion, the papers I have seen suggest that the approach adopted by GSOC was ultimately broadly similar to that of An Garda Siochana…While the independent investigative function that GSOC exercises is an important one in the public interest, it appears to be no guarantee of a disciplinary outcome.”

Further to these two matters, GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien spoke to Ivan Yates and Chris O’Donoghue on Newstalk Breakfast this morning.

Yates:  “Over recent months, part of the allegation is that that you’re part of the problem, rather than you’re part of the solution, that you’re basically not a watchdog, you’re a poodle.  Do you think the way you handled Martin Callinan – by having a cup of coffee with him – that the whole relationship was just too cosy?”

O’Brien:  “Ah gee, look, Martin and I have a professional relationship, had a professional relationship, absolutely no problem sitting down with Martin and having a cup of coffee, I did that on a number of…on a regular basis.  Just think about where we were within that – you know, there was a controversy flowing around us. Martin phoned me up and said, ‘Would you come over and we’ll have a chat about things…”  I’ve got no problem with that, I’ve got no problem with that at all.  As he has said, and as I have said in the past, there’s always been a healthy tension between the two agencies – that’s fine.  But, I have to say to you I have no problem sitting down and having a cup of coffee with Martin Callinan.”

Yates:  “How would you characterise that relationship with the Commissioner – was it too cosy, was it too submissive on your part?”

O’Brien:  “Listen, I don’t think it was submissive at all.  I’d have to say to you that we had some very strong conversations at times, over a coffee or else-wise.  You know, for me…..”

Yates:  “Well, it looked very submissive the day Minister Shatter called you in to carpet you  – and then you apologised?”

O’Brien:  “Look, I’d have to say to you Ivan, no I wasn’t carpetted at all.  The minister and the secretary general [Brian Purcell], quite rightly…”

Yates:  “But you did apologise?”

O’Brien:  “The minister and the secretary general asked me, very clearly, to come in and explain the issues that were emerging.  I had no problem with that.  I expressed regret about getting to the position where we had all this controversy being forced upon us by an unlawful leak into the paper.  So look, I’ve got no problem, certainly I didn’t think that I was…”

Yates:  “But shouldn’t you have told them to get lost?”

O’Brien:  “I don’t, didn’t feel like I was being carpetted, I felt I was going in to tell the minister and others the situation as I saw it happening.”

Yates:  “Do you believe GSOC’s offices were bugged?”

O’Brien:  “Listen, we had no definitive evidence that GSOC’s offices were buggged, we’ve never said that.  What we found was quite rightly, were some threats by a security consultant, which we investigated.  We investigated it quite quickly and proportionately and we got our investigation.  So look…”

Talk over each other

Yates:  “Whoah, whoah, whoah, It sounds like,  ‘Nothing to see here!’.  If you read the Verrimus report, it looks like you were bugged?  In fact, there was elements of conversations, particularly in relation to the Kieran Boylan incident that should not have been, that information should not have been in other people’s hands.  That’s a very serious matter.  Like, surely, you should be outraged by this, not me?”

O’Brien:  “Ivan, what I, I don’t get outraged by things, I looked at whether we had definitive evidence to take that matter forward.  We did an investigation based on clear threats that a security expert gave to us – we did investigation proportionately, using our police powers and we could find no definitive evidence that we were under surveillance…”

Yates:  “Do you believe that you were under surveillance?”

O’Brien:  “…that we were under surveillance of that nature.  And bear in mind, there is lots of ways that information can get out to journalists and others and you know, the word – ‘Are we bugged, or not?’ – you know, I’d have to say to you, look, we did the investigation..”

Yates:  “So you believe you weren’t under surveillance?”

O’Brien:  “Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by surveillance Ivan, I mean, come on.  Did I think that there was someone listening my phone-calls in my office? No, I did not. Was I surprised that when a security expert came in to me and said, ‘There is two threats in your office’, when I came in on a Monday morning – , I was pretty surprised, yeah.  So, we looked at that, we investigated that and we got no definitive evidence to say that we under  that sort of surveillance.”

Yates:  “Right, put it like this, it would be very disturbing though, if you were under surveillance?”

O’Brien:  “Of course it would be very disturbing indeed, yeah.”

Yates:  “Yeah, and, and like, I’m just thinking that…of, you know, Emily O’Reilly, who was a different ombudsman and you know, she would not take any messing in terms of her independence and her autonomy – and that’s really the kernel of your job, surely?”

O’Brien:  “Sorry, I mean, of course we are looking at our independence and to all the proposals, all the 12 proposals that we have put up to the Oireachtas Committee yesterday – is all about enhancing our independance, it’s all about making us more effective.  So you know, we’re not very far away from Emily, or any other ombudsman in this country, we’re  independent, we’re independent in our operations.”

Yates:  “We spoke to Denis Bradley who had a distinguished record in Northern Ireland in relation to this area, on this programme, and he said that he was shocked that former Gardai were employed by GSOC – as a rule, they should not be  – a) Why were former, and why are former Gardai employed by GSOC? And will that change?”

O’Brien:  “Look, I have no problem with the staff members that work for us, be they former Gardai, or independent investigators.  I would say to you now, over 50% of my investigation staff now have come through with no police background at all.  We’ve got a good training programme for them, we believe they are independent in their function – and listen, in terms of Gardai coming back to help us after a career within that service, I have no problem, they bring an expertise….”

Yates:  “You have no problem with former Gardai…..”

O’Brien:  “They bring an expertise to an investigation, and they work, as they would, as a Garda member, they are independent and they will look at the facts as presented for them – and they will investigate those facts.”

Yates:  “Even though in Northern Ireland that would be a sin qua non?”

O’Brien:  “Well, look, as we’ve already said, we look at other jurisdictions  – we have ex-members of the Guards with us – I have no problem with that, they do a good job for us and we are independent in our function.”


Yates: “Now, the Guerin Report, Sean Guerin, Senior Counsel, published at the end of last week, I read it: it didn’t read great for GSOC. Here you had the whistleblowers [Maurice] McCabe and [John] Wilson, alleging serious, serious matters. And you’d think, first up to help them would be GSOC. Your tardy response, the fact that he had to basically exclude you from the process, it reflects very poorly on GSOC surely?”

O’Brien: “Well, first and foremost, as you know, we’re, I’m not amenable at the moment to be dealing with serving Garda members, as a general rule, and that’s another one of our proposals, to say that we should be made amenable to do that. I think, as my colleague [Kieran Fitzgerald] has already said at the weekend, you know, we were a bit slow on getting through to Guerin. What I would say now though is that we’ve marshalled a significant amount of material, we are very much in a position now to have assessed all that material and what sorts of privileges and problems we have with it and we’re more than willing to assist the inquiry. And, you know, Sean Guerin was doing a scoping exercise, over an eight-week period, to see whether an independent commission was required. And it seemed to me to be right the way through his report, that was the conclusion he was coming to and if that’s the case then we’re going to be fully, fully engaged with that particular inquiry.”

Yates: “Do you have any regrets in relation to your handling of Guerin?”

O’Brien: “Listen, all I’ll say to you is that we were slow in our response but we believe we were doing a very proportionate job in terms of the material we had to gather. We had an awful lot of records to go through and, as far as we’re concerned, we’ve now got all that material. It was available to Mr Guerin before he closed his report and we were in communication with Mr Guerin last week.”

Listen back in full here

Previously: Catchers And The Spies

These Things Haven’t Happened

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