The Blue Wall of Silence – Vicky Conway

7 Oct

October 2008 brought an end to one of Ireland’s lengthy tribunals and certainly the most serious held in relation to the Irish police, the Morris Tribunal. Established in 2002, the Tribunal held 686 days of public hearings, produced over 4,000 pages in eight reports and cost over €80 million. It made damning findings of corruption and serious negligence of officers serving in the Donegal district, of a scale not previously seen in relation to the Gardaí. Officers were found to have planted fake IRA bomb finds, bombs on telecommunications masts, a gun on a traveller campsite and drugs on a arrestee. There were found to have exercised ‘tunnel vision’ in relation to the investigation into the death of Richard Barron in 1996, which was deemed a murder investigation without an autopsy having been conducted. Over a dozen unlawful arrests were made in relation to that investigation. Those arrested were on occasion abused, were shown autopsy photographs of Mr Barron and were denied visits from family and solicitors. Senior officers across these incidents neglected their duties on numerous occasions, in serious ways. Members of the force lied to internal investigation teams and to the Tribunal.

Criticism of the police had not previously been seen in Ireland. The Lynch Tribunal which examined the Kerry Babies Case in the 1980s had largely endorsed the gardaí involved. Expressed public confidence in the police steadily resides in the highly confident bracket. In that context the reports of the Morris Tribunal appeared significant. But what impact have they had? This is the focus of Vicky Conway’s book, The Blue Wall of Silence: The Morris Tribunal and Police Accountability in Ireland published by Irish Academic Press. What impact has the Tribunal had on policing in Ireland, both in terms of how it is practised and how we as a society conceive of it?

Beginning with an analysis of how the Tribunal came to be, the work provides an example of existing attitudes. While the Department of Justice had information on the seriousness of what was occurring in Donegal as early as 1997, the Tribunal was not created until March 2002 and not until the Opposition pushed the government to the closest vote it had ever experienced. Even when it was created the limited nature of the terms of reference excluded Garda Headquarters and the Department of Justice from the Tribunal’s remit. This was the first time that the parent Department had been excluded from the consideration of an Irish tribunal.

The book then provides a concise overview of the findings of the Tribunal in an effort to make the substantial reports more accessible. This is followed by an examination of how the Tribunal was discussed and debated in the print media, in Ireland and abroad. Four themes are apparent in the print media. Firstly ,the events were so extreme that they could be described as fiction. They were not something which society should worry about. Secondly, some reports effectively played down what happened, talking about individual officers and their role rather than discussing the systemic problems in the force. The focus was on scape-goating certain rotten apples, rather than looking at whether the barrel was rotten. Thirdly, findings were politicised, removed from the context of what was happening in the gardaí to looking at what was happening in the Dáil. And finally, dramatic statements of change were reported, which could reassure people that all was being remedied. Future policing would be better. Each of these negated the potential of the Tribunal to impact on the public conception of policing in Ireland, particularly given that the size of the reports mitigated against many people reading those in full.

The extent of public disquiet is of course related to the extent of reforms introduced by the government on the back of the Tribunal. In 2005 the government enacted the Garda Síochána Act 2005, after just two of the eight reports had been published. The reforms which this brought in are examined in the book and it is argued that they fall far short of what was required. They were introduced before all of what happened in Donegal was known, but also that tribunal was focused on just one district. There was little knowledge of what was happening in other parts of the country. In addition to this, Conway compares the reforms introduced with what was specifically called for by Morris and a number of substantial gaps are identified. The reforms which were implemented internal to the force are also considered.

In conclusion Conway argues that Morris represents a missed opportunity to neglect serious problems in Irish policing. She calls for a Patten-type Commission to understand the state of policing in Ireland and to enable us to move forward and enhance our policing. As it is, the danger is run that people believe that all ills have been cured and that we can be satisfied with what has happened. In the final pages this is placed in the context of recent legislative measures to tackle gangland crime which have expanded garda powers and placed substantial pressures on the police to achieve results in this area. This should be of great concern given how adequate reforms have not been introduced in the wake of the Morris Tribunal.

Dr Vicky Conway will be speaking on “ROTTEN APPLES OR ROTTEN BARRELS: POPULAR DISCOURSES OF POLICE MISCONDUCT” on Wednesday 13 October, 1.00-2.00pm, in Room 1.37, 6 College Park in the School of Sociology Seminar Series, in Queen’s University Belfast.

She will be speaking in DIT on Monday 18 October “Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk: Reforming Policing and Police Culture in Ireland” at 4.30pm in DIT Aungier Street

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