(Originally Published at Irishleftreview.org in March 2014)
In April of last year, former Irish Independent journalist, Gemma O’Doherty did something that no journalist appropriately indoctrinated is supposed to do: She dared to question the received orthodoxy. The dogma in question related to prominent figures in Irish society having penalty points and Fixed Charge Notices (FCNs) cancelled. O’Doherty discovered that the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, had penalty points of his own cancelled and dared to approach him about it. Not long afterwards she was brought in front of an internal committee of Independent News & Media (INM), the company which owns the Irish Independent, and reprimanded for her approaching the Commissioner. By August she was made compulsorily redundant. Her former boss, Stephen Rae, also happened to have penalty points cancelled and was the former editor of Garda Review magazine, “the professional voice of the Garda” according to its website. This is just one part of the larger story surrounding the penalty points scandal which has been slowly coming to a boil over the last two years. The only reason that the cancellation of penalty points has been thrust into the public sphere is because of the actions of two whistleblowers; retired Garda John Wilson and Sgt. Maurice McCabe.
There has been much obfuscation on the part of certain elements of the media and amongst the political echelon. The two gardaí have been labelled as “uncooperative” and “disgusting”. Character assassinations of this kind are nothing new and neither are the reasons for their characters being attacked. They, like O’Doherty, also dared to tell the truth and challenge the status quo. Wilson related that he first became aware of the level of the cancellation of penalty points in 2012 when one of his colleagues was transferred to a particular district in order to “clean it up”. There were numerous problems there relating to discipline, lack of proper investigatory procedures, and in general “shoddy practices”. Wilson’s colleague contacted him and informed him that he felt isolated and unsupported by his superiors. It was this colleague of Wilson’s who informed him of “strange patterns in the penalty points system”, with “clusters” of cancellations being found. What this meant was that the same people were having penalty points cancelled on multiple occasions. Wilson decided to do his own investigating and began “mooching around” the PULSE system in order to “garner full knowledge” of what was taking place. He soon discovered that the cancellation of penalty points was widespread, i.e., countrywide. What’s more is that the same type of “clusters” described above were also discovered around the country.
Wilson then decided to make a complaint to the garda Confidental Recipient regarding a small number of the penalty point cancellations. The person in question contacted the offices of various government ministers, including the Taoiseach’s, in which he made it clear that there were serious allegations being made regarding corruption in the gardaí. Concurrent to this, Sgt. McCabe wrote to the Taoiseach in July, August, and September outlining his concerns with reference to the cancellation of penalty points. From here the Taoiseach passed the issue on to Alan Shatter who in turn contacted Garda Commissioner Callinan about the issue. Not long afterwards, Callinan appointed Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney to head-up a report on the subject. This report was apparently preliminarily completed within one month, in November 2012. In the meantime, months had gone by and neither Wilson nor McCabe were contacted. Wilson, fed up waiting, then approached TD Clare Daly with his findings. One month later in December of 2012, Sgt. McCabe was visited by Chief Superintendent Mark Curran who had arrived at McCabe’s station in order to issue him a directive from the Commissioner. Callinan claimed that McCabe was a directed to cooperate with the investigation being carried out by O’Mahoney. The transcript of the conversation, which was surreptitiously recorded by McCabe, says otherwise. McCabe was ordered to “desist searching PULSE” and from handing over information regarding the penalty points issue to a third party. This interdiction also included handing over the relevant information to the garda Confidential Recipient and the Taoiseach. It was mere weeks later when Daly was arrested on suspicion of drink driving, a suspicion which turned out to be completely unfounded. By the time Assistant Commissioner O’Mahoney’s report was finalised in March of 2013 neither Wilson or McCabe had been contacted by the report’s author.
This is the background to the whistleblowers being described as “uncooperative” and “disgusting”. This is also the background to the Garda Inspectorate being asked by Alan Shatter to investigate the Fixed Charge Processing System (FCPS). This is the system through which the issuing of penalty points and FCNs are dealt with. The report, published on February 28th, states quite clearly that when taking into consideration the reports of the Assistant Commissioner and a different report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, “there were consistent and widespread breaches of policy by those charged with administering the FCPS”. The report points out a lack of consistency in dealing with the cancellation of penalty points and lack of appropriate managerial oversight. Auditing was non-existent at the time of the Inspectorate’s investigation. There was a lack of “organisational reports on the operation and management of FCPS at divisional or district level”, and they found “no evidence of regular divisional or headquarters auditing of districts in regard to the processing of the FCPS”.
Another major problem with the FCPS is with the manual recording and issuing of offences using garda notepads which are distributed to gardaí for this reason. Each page in the notepad is used to record the details of a driving offence encountered by a garda, such as driving under the influence, speeding, no tax disc, etc. Each note in the pad has a unique number which is linked to a specific pad number, which in turn is linked to a specific garda, all of which is tracked by the National Tracking Allocation System (NTAS). When an offence is recorded on one of the pages, this particular note is then forwarded to the Fixed Charge Processing Office (FCPO) for entry onto the FCPS. The Inspectorate discovered “numerous” problems with the data on the notes, including “incorrect and incomplete recorded data relating to drinking driving tests; and incorrect car registration details”. When such an error is detected the proper procedure is to return the note to the district from where it came for correction by the issuing garda. These are referred to as “sendbacks”. These “sendbacks” are then supposed to be returned with the corrected information to the FCPO. The Inspectorate conducted an audit of all “sendbacks” from January to September of 2013. Of 64,330 notes issued in the mentioned time period, 8,199 (13%) were returned as “sendbacks”. Of the 8,199 “sendbacks”, 5,301 (65%) were never returned to the FCPO with corrected information. Is it possible that these “sendbacks”, which remained unreturned to the FCPO, are artificially inflating crime statistics regarding motor offences? At any stage are they entered on to the PULSE system, and if so, are they removed from PULSE if they are unreturned? This is not made clear in the Inspectorate’s report. I have contacted the Garda Inspectorate for clarification on this point, and as of the time of publication a response has not been forthcoming.
Of course the main justification for the commissioning of the Inspectorate’s report has to do with the cancellation of penalty points, or FCNs. The report makes it quite clear that the cancellation of FCNs is allowed under garda guidelines, but within strict limits. The authorisation to cancel only extends to the “district officer of the location where the fixed charge offence occurred or the district officer/superintendent responsible for the detecting member or the person in charge of the FCPO”. The Inspectorate notes that until September 2009, “all ranks had access to cancel FCNs on the FCPS”. This access was then rescinded with the guidelines being amended in order to restrict access to “district officers and acting district officers for cancellation of FCNs”. During the Inspectorate’s investigation though, they discovered that, “all chief superintendents and inspectors, both designated and non-designated offers for cancelling FCNs still had full access to the FCPS system to cancel a FCN in any district”. This verifies Wilson’s claims that the authority of the average member of An Garda Síochána was being undermined by other gardaí, including those in senior positions. The Inspectorate gave as one example a case they discovered in which “a FCN was cancelled using the registered number of a superintendent, two weeks after his/her retirement”. There is a cancellation policy regarding FCNs, which states that the “‘Cancelling Authority’ may cancel FCNs ‘only in exceptional circumstances’”. The Inspectorate noted, however, that some FCNs are cancelled for reasons under the category of “other”, with no other information given as to the reason(s) for cancellation. Despite, and in spite of these guidelines, between 2011 and 2013, 62,134 FCNs were cancelled.
When the Inspectorate looked at rates of cancellation more closely they found that in 2011 and 2012, an average of 5% of FCNs were cancelled. Nonetheless inconsistencies were found when the data was looked at on a district basis, with some districts having a cancellation rate of 48.6% above the national average. The Inspectorate also looked at the FCN cancellation files for nine districts for August 2012 and January 2013. Of 103 files examined, 51% “had no supporting documentary evidence present”, and in “only one of the nine districts examined was the cancellation policy implemented as required by the manual”. Once again large inconsistencies between districts were found, with one district denying all petition requests for cancellation, with another granting all petition requests. In general they found “poorly maintained cancellation files, with no audit process present”, with some “Cancelling Authorities” shredding their FCN paperwork when instead they were required to have it maintained. The Inspectorate noted and agreed with the Comptroller and Auditor General’s conclusion that “‘rates of termination in many districts are too high to be considered reflective of ‘exceptional circumstances’’”. The Inspectorate also looked at the level of FCN cancellations for garda members and found “no evidence where petitions for cancellation from off-duty members were denied by a ‘Cancelling Authority’”. When they examined the cases of five gardaí who had multiple FCNs cancelled they found that, “many of the FCNs should not have been cancelled”. In one of the cases investigated by the Inspectorate, the garda in question had five FCNs cancelled between 2007 and 2011. The cancelled FCNs were in relation to the following incidents:
•88km/h in a 50km/h zone (76% above the speed limit).
•105km//h in a 80km/h zone (31% above the speed limit).
•72km/h in a 50 km/h zone (44% above the speed limit).
•Non display of a tax disc on a private car.
•63km/h in a 50km/h zone (26% above the speed limit).
The report notes that of the FCNs mentioned, three were “cancelled by the ‘Cancelling Authority’ outside of the district in which the offences occurred and therefore, constituted a breach of policy”.
Whilst on duty, gardaí are exempt from speeding offences under the Road Traffic Act of 1962. This exemption has been abused by members of the gardaí with “it appear[ing] that some members are placing themselves on duty outside of rostered hours to attend an incident or take police action as a means of avoiding payment of the FCN and receiving penalty points”. This appears to have been the case in one of the five garda cancellation requests looked at. The Detective Sergeant in question had three FCNs cancelled on the basis that they claimed they were rostered on duty whilst using their private car. The Inspectorate pointed out that, “No documentary evidence was provided that the sergeant was rostered on duty at the time of the offences or authorised to use their private vehicle”.
Then there is the issue of members of the public having multiple FCNs cancelled. With regard to this, the Inspectorate pointed out that certain “repeat offenders” were submitting cancellation requests to “different district officers for cancellation,… [thereby] avoiding detection of multiple offences”. The Inspectorate reviewed a sample of the multiple cancellations which were referred to in the Assistant Commissioner’s report. In one of the cases examined, a taxi driver was granted five FCN cancellations across a 10 month period between 2011 and 2012. The offences included the following:
•Parking offence – vehicle broken down.
•Driving without reasonable consideration.
•Travelling at 59km/h per hour in a 50km/h zone (14% above the speed limit).
•Travelling at 45km/h per hour in a 30km/h zone (50% above the speed limit).
•Travelling at 73km/h per hour in a 50km/h zone (46% above the speed limit).
All of the requests for cancellation were received in writing, but the cancellations were granted “by a superintendent outside the district in which the offences occurred, which is a breach of policy”. The first offence was considered as an “exceptional circumstance”. The second offence was entered onto the FCPS by mistake, however this was not rectified, thus constituting a breach of protocol. In the remaining offences, “no further documented evidence was requested to support to petitioners request for cancellation”, apart from their written request. The Inspectorate bluntly points out that, “No consideration was given to the numerous cancellations granted to this offender or the prolific disregard for road safety”.
The report of the Garda Inspectorate is quite clear in its findings. There is a mixture of inconsistency, incompetency, mismanagement, and potentially malice in how the gardaí has dealt with the issue of penalty points and FCNs. On Morning Ireland the chief of the Inspectorate, Robert Olsen, was clear to point out though that it was not his job to look for corruption. His role and that of the Inspectorate was not “to do investigations of individual incidents that may or may not have been more than just mismanagement”. Their role was simply to look at the functioning and management of the FCPS. Nonetheless, in the same interview Olsen stated that, “Everything that he [McCabe] presented to us on the FCPS was clearly credible”. On the same show, Wilson stated that the report was a “damming indictment of garda management”, and that he and Maurice McCabe have “been totally and completely vindicated”. The report itself states as much, with the Inspectorate writing that senior gardaí informed them that without the publicity surrounding the issue, “the extent of the deficiencies within the fixed charge processing system would not have been detected”. Callinan is currently being put under pressure to apologise to Wilson and McCabe, but his resignation this morning makes it uncertain if he will apologise. Even if he does, that does not mean we should all simply move on, as the Labour Party would like us to do. His resignation, important and unprecedented as it is, should not distract us from other and more important issues. Questions still remain as to whether or not it is corruption that is rife regarding the cancellation of penalty points, or if it is simply mismanagement.
It is likely a mixture of the two. The reaction of Commissioner Callinan and certain elements of the government and the media have been enough to show us that some people had a lot to lose by this information becoming public. If they didn’t, why was Clare Daly detained? Why was Alan Shatter privy to information regarding a road offence by fellow TD Mick Wallace? Information, we must remember, which was given to him by Callinan personally. If there wasn’t corruption of some kind, why did Wilson and McCabe continually get nowhere with their protestations before they went public? And another even larger question looms over the whole saga: Is all of this related the bugging of the GSOC last year? Even if there is no direct link between the bugging of the GSOC and the cancellation of penalty points, the reaction of Alan Shatter and Commissioner Callinan to both incidents has been telling. In both cases they roundly criticised those they saw as attacking them and their domain. They and their subordinates can never do wrong, even when the evidence may suggest otherwise. There is nothing remotely unique in this. Power protects itself at all costs, and for a simple reason: “Power”, as Orwell wrote, “is not a means; it is an end”. The report of the Garda Inspectorate goes part of the way to explaining the reaction of the powerful in Ireland to accusations of corruption. It remains to be seen if the rest of the parts coming our way in the approaching months will be as elucidating.