Monday, May 15, 2017

Oversight of phone tapping in Ireland: still inadequate

Following allegations of abuse of phone tapping by Irish police, I have an opinion piece in today's Irish Independent explaining why oversight mechanisms in this area are ineffective. Here's a flavour:
The reaction of the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána to the latest phone-tapping scandal has been a predictable circling of the wagons. As usual, those bodies have refused to address the details of the allegations. We have seen generic statements, asserting that there is a legal basis for phone tapping and that it is subject to judicial oversight. 
The problem with that response is simple: it is clear that both the Irish law on phone tapping and the way it is implemented fail to meet fundamental international standards. 
Take the most basic starting point: who decides whether a phone tap should take place? International human rights law requires that interception of communications be authorised by a judge or an equivalent independent body. In Ireland, however, this power is given to the Justice Minister - leaving it open to allegations of political motivation. 
Irish law also falls down on the question of who can have their phones tapped. Contrary to international standards, there are no safeguards on phone tapping targeting lawyers, journalists or parliamentarians. 
Unusually for a Western democracy, Ireland does not have separate security and police agencies. Instead, both roles are combined in An Garda Síochána. The result is a blurring of the boundaries between the two functions which means that all surveillance ends up being concealed in unnecessary secrecy. 
The Irish oversight system is also out of line with international practice. In almost all EU member states, there are parliamentary committees which can oversee surveillance by security agencies. Ireland is one of only four EU states which does not make its security agency accountable to parliament. Instead, in security matters the Garda Commissioner answers only to the Justice Minister - the same person who is responsible for decisions to tap phones in the first place.
I've written more about the issue in the chapter "Judicial Oversight of Surveillance: The Case of Ireland in Comparative Perspective" (2016), full text online at the UCD research repository.

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