When the news of the Garda Commissioner's "retirement" was revealed, it was reported to be related to the co-incidental news that some 'phone conversations into and out of garda stations were recorded, had been since the '80s, and had been stopped last November following consultations between the Commissioner and the Attorney General.
There has been some concern expressed about whether conversations between prisoners and their lawyers had been recorded: a gross violation of a citizen's rights.
This is unlikely.
An article detailing evidence given in a criminal trial on the details of the recording.
Another article on statements of the "Garda Representative Association" (the GRA) detailing the knowledge of its members on the system.
It is asserted that the system was initially installed in the early 1980s to record inbound emergency calls and bomb threats. At the time in Ireland there were many bomb threats, and some actual bombings. This system was upgraded in the 1990s, and again in the late 2000s, when the storage of the recordings were digitised and centralised.
It is also asserted that only designated lines were attached to the recording system, and that not all stations were involved.
An article in the Guardian, for example, confirms that there's concern that legally-privileged conversations were recorded, but it doesn't refer to any specific allegation, as there haven't been any specific allegations. There are two high-profile cases where these recordings are under consideration:
- The first is where conversations between gardaí and witnesses in a murder investigation were recorded and are now being sought by the man accused of the murder (but never charged!) in his civil case against the state.
- The second is where conversations between gardaí accused of (and tried for) assault were recorded, and an attempt to present these recordings as evidence against them was denied at trial.
Personally, I believe that there was no intention to record conversations between prisoners and their counsels. It would not be a surprise if such recordings had happened, and if these incidents were covered-up, but – at the moment – it would surprise me if it happened in a systematic way.
Some context: The Garda Commissioner claimed not to be aware of these recordings or of the recording system until late last year. The representative body of the more senior-ranking gardaí, the AGSI, asserted last week not to have known of this system. However, the representative body of the lower-ranked gardaí claimed last week that it was known to its members, and that the lines attached to the system were marked as such, and that the lines used by prisoners were not attached.
It is not logical to me that the most senior-ranking garda, who would have had to have been aware of the tender process for replacing the system in the late 2000s, and would probably have had to sign off on the budget, did not know about the system. Surely the Commissioner, regardless who it was, would have been aware of such a significant project.
Given that the Garda Síochána requires it's officers to start at the bottom and work their ways up, it also doesn't seem logical to me that none of the AGSI members was aware of the system, as they would have been aware of it (according to the GRA) prior to being promoted to the senior ranks.
So, assuming that one of the three assertions (the Commissioner's, the AGSI's and the GRA's) tends towards the truth, I'm inclined to accept the GRA's, which contradicts the other two.
I don't for a second believe that the practice of recording conversations in this way was legal. What would be interesting to know is if it was illegal from the start, or if it became illegal since it was first installed. It appears, however, that no-one asked about its legality when it was last considered for upgrade around 6 years ago. This is likely, in my opinion, to have been an oversight, rather than deliberate. Convenient, to-boot.
The whole thing is political. The government was acutely embarrassed by both the Commissioner's and Alan Shatter's rejection of the two whistle-blowers information, both its content and its implications. As the government had so steadfastly supported the Commissioner on this issue, I believe that when a completely different matter presented itself – the recording of conversations in garda stations – the government took the political opportunity to have the Commissioner removed. The concern around whether privileged conversations were recorded is, I think, political spin designed to deflect examination away from the minister and towards the Garda.
Finally, I personally believe that the recently-departed Garda Commissioner behaved disgracefully as regards the whistle-blowers. It's right, and overdue, that he is gone. Similarly, I am delighted that there are moves being initiated to reform the Garda – also long overdue. However, I think it's unfortunate that he had to resign on an issue that he was in the process of setting right, an issue where the political establishment is more at fault in its neglect than that one individual.
The above is an edited version of an e-mail that I had sent to Richard Stallman by way of background explanation of what was going on. Following his suggestion, I'm posting it here.