An Interview With John Wilson

Following his recent appearance in UCC, Motley’s Deputy Editor Eoin McSweeney spoke to Garda whistleblower John Wilson about the scandal that cost the Irish Government millions

What is the meaning of the word corruption? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is defined as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power.” It can be interpreted as a deviation from an ideal, or even a spiritual or moral impurity. However since when has corrupt become a word used to describe the practices of our national protectors, An Garda Síochána?

The exact date is hard to pinpoint, but suspicions were initially raised at the turn of the decade. It was Maurice McCabe who first noticed the irregularities in the fixed charge penalty notices that were being giving out daily. He was soon supported by John Wilson, a now former Guard, who began using the Pulse system to collect data. Soon, it became obvious that there was a serious problem. Too many notices had been unlawfully terminated as favours for it to remain uncovered. Something had to be done and speaking to me, John Wilson outlined what he did next.

John Wilson“In March 2012 I made a complaint to the confidential recipient, a man called Oliver Connolly, who has since lost his job. That initial complaint related to four speeding tickets that had been, as far as I could see, corruptly terminated. It would have taken a couple of hours to investigate my complaint. That was handed to Martin Callinan (the then Garda Commissioner) in April 2012. And I waited and I waited and nothing happened. I got no response.”

While looking at the situation from the outside, it may seem like an innocent deed – A few penalty points quashed here or the odd fine terminated there. However the figures that John had unearthed were astonishing. A number in the region of 90,000 tickets were terminated by senior Garda officers between 2004 and 2012. Between 2009 and 2012, An Garda Síochána issued 1,668,349 summonses, 646,509 of which were not served. If we were to apply just a minimum figure to the fines not served, we are looking at a possible loss of 65 million euro to the Government.

The startling revelations were soon brought to the Oireachtas and the scandal broke. Terminations of penalty points, intimidation of whistle blowers and the media and cold cases were all part of the accusations in what could only be described as a disaster for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. The resignations of the Minister of Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan followed. The situation only became worse when more news was leaked of the office of the Garda Ombudsman being bugged.

Yet how did all of this affect John Wilson? He was certainly brave in denouncing the organisation he worked for, but at what cost? Was a mere fine a fair reason for denouncing friend? Intimidation tactics, cold shoulders and a clear misuse of power to discontinue his ability to perform his job properly were used by superiors and colleagues alike. It was impossible for him to continue and he had to leave his post after thirty years of service. As one headline put it, was he a rat, or Ireland’s answer to Edward Snowden?

Garda whistleblower John Wilson shakes hands with Acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan outside Leinster House in Dublin last May

“I can’t say that it was easy. I have known no other job. I was a Guard for over thirty years when I went last year. I recall walking into a canteen, and I was very loud individual, you’d hear me coming before you’d see me; there were three people there, two of them walked out and one said ‘those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ And then he walked out too. It does take a toll on family life. To me, this was always about right and wrong. I saw a system that was rotten, a system that was broken, and a system that had to be repaired. These corrupt practices had to stop.”

On New Year’s Day, 2012, he was searched on a public motorway while wearing his full uniform. A few weeks after that he found a rat tied to his door when he went to let his dog out in the middle of the night. His credibility was questioned, his sanity was questioned and “a few other little things happened.” He was undermined at every turn, but still managed to prevail. When he initially went to a Sergeant to voice his concerns he was shot down. Speaking at a recent discussion in UCC, he mentioned the incident:

“What he was saying in effect there was, ‘I make the laws. I am more powerful than the Oireachtas. S.62 of the Garda Síochána Act doesn’t count (this lets Guards confide in members of the Oireachtas). You have no right to go to members of the Oireachtas,’ even though it is written in law and we acted lawfully at all times. I could have been caught twenty times since 2004, and I would have got away with it. Any member of my family could have been caught speeding and I could have had them ‘taken care of.’ Any people who came to me, people who I knew or whatever.”

A more exact definition of corruption is given by An Garda Síochána, as given by John Wilson: “Falsehood and prevarication, corrupt or improper practice, abuse of authority, misuse of money or other property belonging to a member of the public, theft, fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, bribery or corruption, deliberate falsification of records, serious breaches of health and safety rules, assault on another person in the workplace, incapability through alcohol or being under the influence of illegal drugs or misuse of prescribed medication, serious negligence which causes loss, damage or injury: engaging in prohibited activities, improper influence to make personal/family gain or acceptance or improper gifts/hospitality: or any criminal conduct.” Can the actions of our peacekeepers be justified after reading this?

Gemma O’Doherty, famed Irish journalist, who also received condemnation for her role in the exposing of the Garda corruption scandal, also spoke at the discussion in UCC. She bemoaned the size of the Irish population and the cosy relationship many have with those in power. She described it as a leading cause of corruption in a society where it is too easy to ‘know someone.’

“4.5 million is the problem, we have such a small population and everyone really does know everyone. That is why it is so hard to prevent this wink and nod culture that does exist. That is a problem, we can’t do much about our population.

As a journalist, it is frightening to see the relationships that some journalists have with senior Gardaí and with politicians. They’re friends, they drink together, they share stories, they tell stories, they get favoured and they get their points quashed. They become compromised and they become a shame to their professions as a result. It is an epidemic, it is hard as a journalist when you stand up and you become blacklisted.”

What can be done to solve the crisis at hand? Both offered their views on the matter, stating that serious changes needed to be made to the organisation before any sort of improvement may be seen. An outside Garda Commissioner is needed, someone with no previous connection to the organisation. A serious clean-up was noted as being required and a shakeup of the organisation as a whole can’t wait.

“As we now know, these practices continue. I’m not shocked. When something is as ingrained in the culture of An Garda Síochána as these corrupt practices are, it will take a long time to correct. The next Garda Commissioner has got to be from the outside. It cannot be from inside the ranks, it must be an individual, with absolutely no loyalty to An Garda Síochána, an individual that can reform the organisation, from the very, very top to the very, very bottom and then in a few years, we can choose a commissioner from within the ranks.

We were told as a people that all of these corrupt practices had ceased. We were told that by the Garda authorities and by the government that transparency and accountability were to the fore. I always maintain that nothing will change. It is the nature of the beast. These corrupt practices are ingrained in the culture of An Garda Síochána. You’re not going to just change it overnight, you’re not going to change it with some window dressing. It is as bad now as it ever was. Nothing has changed.”

So, from an objective point of view, is An Garda Síochána a corrupt and decrepit organisation or should the odd offence be looked over for the greater good? Is it enough to say that because everyone is doing it, that makes it okay? Looking at the above definitions, does terminating fines sound like “engaging in prohibited activities or improper influence to make personal/family gain or acceptance or improper gifts/hospitality?” I would assume so.

Edward Snowden or a rat-faced troublemaker? It is hard to imagine how someone’s life could change so dramatically, and I don’t believe you would sacrifice so much for something that you didn’t believe was inherently true and morally correct. Looking into the eyes of John, I saw a steely glare of defiance and a belief that anything corrupt, no matter how little, should be opposed. I may have mistaken that for stubbornness, but after looking at the information above, I feel that justice is yet to be done. Is reform needed?

John Wilson has since declared his intention to contest the next General Election as an Independent candidate in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency.