Commissioner O’Sullivan resigns: A real challenge for all of society

YESTERDAY afternoon’s announcement from Noírín O’Sullivan that she would resign from her position as Garda commissioner with immediate effect was probably greeted more with relief rather than surprise in government circles.

 Some politicians may even have thought of Henry II’s line about Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered nearly a millennium ago — “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” — and uttered a sigh of relief. That would have been a dreadful, crisis-perpetuating misjudgement.

Ms O’Sullivan’s resignation cannot be regarded as a victory of any kind much less the closing act in the grand litany of scandal hollowing out our police force and, in turn, the reliability and integrity of our public life. Rather, it is another sad symptom of the dysfunction, the circle-the-wagons culture that resents accountability or democratic oversight that has so diminished a force that was once held in such high regard all across this country.

That she is the second commissioner to leave office in less than ideal circumstances in less than three years confirms this dangerous state of affairs. That it seems implausible if not impossible that her successor might be selected from among her former colleagues adds to that impression.

That those toxic characteristics are also found in so many other pillar institutions of the State cannot deflect the diagnosis made unavoidable by more than a million fake drink driving tests, the financial Wild West at Templemore, the deeply sinister treatment of vindicated whistleblowers and rafts of unjustified convictions for which the State — the taxpayer — is sure to pay a very heavy price.

Even though she has been a member of the force since 1981, and a senior officer since the turn of the century, Ms O’Sullivan is a victim of its culture too. She was shaped by it, she was of it and despite her regular and public commitment to instigating reforms it is questionable whether she had the authority or the political support needed to bring real change — assuming of course her idea of real change was, to paraphrase another besieged woman Theresa May, real change. That Garda representative bodies washed their hands of all culpability in the fake breath test figures is just one indication of the huge challenge she, and all of us, faced.

In her statement Ms O’Sullivan spoke of the great demands involved in trying to understand the past and they do indeed seem relentless. Nevertheless, that task is unavoidable as her successor will discover. She also spoke of how she had to deal with inaccuracies. Many commentators believed she had applied for a Europol position but had been unsuccessful. Ms O’Sullivan clarified the issue yesterday by saying she had considered it following encouragement by colleagues, but that she had not proceeded with the application.

The question of who might become the next commissioner moves centre stage. However, that detail is hardly relevant unless a renewed honesty reshapes our police force. And if the truth be told, all of society faces that challenge if this cycle of failure and institutional collapse is to be broken.

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