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The Blue Wall of Silence: The Morris Tribunal and Police Accountability in Ireland by Vicky Conway

Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2010 , pp. 217, €24.95 pb ISBN 978 0 7165 3031 2. To be used for all articles

Reviewer: David Gwynn Morgan*

This book is about three topics. The first concerns the events which led up to the establishment of the Morris Tribunal of Inquiry on policing and police accountability, which sat between 2002 and 2008 for nearly 700 days of hearings, and published eight reports totalling 4,000 pages. The deficiencies, which were the subject matter of the Tribunal, were very tangled. Oversimplifying, one can say that the Tribunal’s brief centred on allegations of corrupt Gárda practice in Donegal, including a protracted, unjustified murder inquiry. The book also covers the various Oireachtas and media attempts, first to get it accepted that something major was wrong and then to have a satisfactory form of investigation established. Earlier attempts had included: Assistant Commissioner Carty’s 1,000 page internal report; civil actions brought by the McBrierty family against the Gárdai; Oireachtas debate; and the Shane Murphy SC (non-statutory) review. Due attention is paid to the question of what is relevant to the national Gárda force and how much is an outcome of certain of Donegal’s particular features, including proximity to the Northern troubles, general neglect by, and isolation from, the Republic, and poverty.

There is also some general discussion on the purposes served by public inquiries, in particular Tribunals of Inquiry (established under the 1921 Act as amended and to be superseded in due course by the consolidated measure which is currently the Tribunals of Inquiry Bill, 2005). A significant point here, which is well made, is that Tribunals, although conventionally characterised as inquisitorial, have had imposed upon them, by judicial review in the Courts, a strong element of the accusatorial process which is modelled on the practices of the Courts themselves. The consequence of this substantial accusatorial element has been heavy and expensive doses of constitutional justice, as well as the reading out, before the Tribunal, of all documents, despite the fact that we now have almost 100% literacy.

The second major topic covered by the book concerns the part played by the media in reporting the proceedings of the Morris Tribunal, which was especially important since the Tribunal sat in Donegal for most of the time and the public attendance at the hearing was consequently rather low. There is a sophisticated appreciation of the fact that the news media is the mechanism by which most people get all, and everyone gets most, of their information on current affairs. And the basic fact is that the newspapers or broadcasting channels (RTÉ being only a partial exception) are businesses and their business happens to be ‘info-tainment’. They survive or fall by what their readers (or advertisers) think of them. The media’s attention to public affairs, therefore, depends on what they gauge to be the interest of the average reader/viewer/listener. In addition, sometimes, reporters are not sufficiently informed to comprehend all the nuances presented to inquiries by some of the leading lawyers in the State. The result is that the conveyor belt of information, acquainting the citizen with the performance of his or her institutions of government, functions only fitfully. This is well illustrated in the context of the Morris Tribunal.

That leaves the last part of the book (pp. 123-189) to deal with the third topic, namely the need for reform in the Gárda Siochána, (as evidenced mainly by the episodes investigated by Morris), coupled with the Morris recommendations and how these were, or to a large extent were not, implemented. The reforms came by way of the Gárda Siochána Act, 2005, put together with ensuing regulations and resource allocation. The Act overhauls the legislative basis for discipline, promotions, standard setting, community policing, auditing and international police co-operation. In particular, it replaced the Gárda Complaints Board (itself the response to the Kerry Babies Tribunal of 1985) by the Gárda Ombudsman Commission.

One of the author’s major conclusions is that these reforms were at their core “scandal driven … The problem with this response to corruption or misconduct is that it is so means driven it risks not getting to the heart of the real problem, addressing only those aspects that have caused greatest public alarm” (pp. 124-125). All too true. But it left this reader yearning to know what else was, or may still be, the matter; in other words, yearning for a comprehensive study of nationwide police corruption or abuse of authority, going beyond the particular misconduct uncovered by Morris (although there are summaries of any spectacular episodes of misconduct which have hit the headlines, at pp. 6-12). In the absence of such a study, it is difficult to assess the potency of the measures contained in the Act. However, one must not criticise a cat for not being a dog.

This fairly short book gives an excellent, well-organised and well-contextualised account of a significant event in Irish police studies. More broadly, it takes its place in a rather small collection of Irish institutional studies. Despite the complexity of the material, the book is written in a style which is clear and comprehensive, punchy and pacy, with occasional and agreeable similarities with a thriller.