A serious issue has arisen over the continuation of Nóirín O’Sullivan as Garda Commissioner, writes Michael Clifford. Yes, the response to that might be what’s another issue?
A number of issues have arisen over Ms O’Sullivan’s continuing tenure. But this is somewhat different to the other controversies.
It has been reported that Ms O’Sullivan had failed in a bid to secure an appointment to a senior position in the European policing agency, Europol. The position has been described as being in the “area of specialist operations”.
Neither the commissioner nor the Government has commented on the matter.
A spokesperson for Europol yesterday informed the Irish Examiner that the only senior position currently being recruited for is that of director of the organisation.
This vacancy is expected to be filled by November, to facilitate the departure of the current director, Rob Wainwright, early next year.
There are no vacancies at assistant director level. The only other vacancies in senior management are at a level below assistant director, which is a management level for which Ms O’Sullivan would be overqualified.
Ms O’Sullivan has been on extended leave and has not responded to reports in the media over the last few months that she had applied for a senior role. A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said the press office does not comment on speculation.
However, in the wider interests of the force and the public, Ms O’Sullivan needs to clarify her position.
The reports that she had applied for a job fitted snuggly into the narrative of high flyers in the public sector who, having had their wings clipped, are dispatched to Europe.
Professionally, it would have presented a challenge which Ms O’Sullivan would no doubt have relished. All of that is apart from the fact that a move would have removed her from the centre of the various controversies in which she has found herself.
From the Government’s point of view, the move would have been nothing less than a Godsend. Every political party outside government — and more than one TD on the government benches — have let it be known that they no longer have confidence in the commissioner.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his ministers continue to express confidence in her. Nobody believes them. Nobody believes that under the prevailing circumstances the Government has confidence — in the full meaning of that word — that Ms O’Sullivan is the right person in the job right now.
The Government has been treading carefully around Ms O’Sullivan’s continuing tenure in office. It is operating in the long shadow of the de facto sacking of the previous commissioner, Martin Callinan. Nobody wants a repeat of that debacle.
They know that removing Ms O’Sullivan might result in a long drawn-out legal action and a large, politically embarrassing, financial settlement.
They also have to figure out how to replace her. The recent public hearings before Oireachtas committees and the Policing Authority have clarified one issue — Ms O’Sullivan has more ability than any of her senior colleagues.
Therefore to venture down the traditional route of promoting from within is not a realistic option.
Still, the replacement issue could be grappled if Ms O’Sullivan had at least departed the scene on the next flight to Brussels. She would have been treading a well-worn path.
Back in 2004, Charlie McCreevy’s unpopularity was threatening Bertie Ahern’s re-election prospects. Charlie did the decent thing and toddled off to become a European Commissioner.
The former secretary general of the Department of Finance Kevin Cardiff was another who was provided with a lucrative European stipend in 2011 when the Fine Gael/Labour government wanted shot of him.
In this instance, it looked as if Europe might comply once more. The timing was perfect. The commissioner went on leave at the end of July, and she would be stepping down around now in anticipation of beginning the new job in November.
All such speculation is predicated on the basis that she did apply for the job.
And it is imperative that she clear up that matter. For if she did, then questions arise as to her suitability to continue in office.
She has repeatedly stated that she is committed to driving through the reforms, even in the face of what she has described as opposition within the force.
If she did apply to get away then that infers her commitment is less than robust. It is entirely understandable that she would want away from the controversies and the heightened stress under which she now works. But does that mean that she is biding time until some other nice number arises? And what does that say about her resolve to do the job at hand?
Are we now to take it that Ms O’Sullivan is going to just sit tight until something comes up that might take her away from all the current awfulness?
Is that the kind of commitment that is required to drive reform in an organisation that has traditionally lashed out against reform?
Questions also arise for the Government. Last week, the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan refused to comment on whether he was aware of Ms O’Sullivan’s candidacy.
“My understanding is that the Garda Commissioner is on leave,” he said. “She is expected back at her desk I’m sure, in early September. And I look forward to working with her on the matter of her ambitious reform programme.”
Is that a genuine sentiment or was the Government actively pushing for the commissioner to fly to coop?
The job of director of Europol would require backing from a national government. Did Leo Varadkar see this as a means to rid himself of a turbulent situation?
If so, he can hardly sustain a position in which he claims that Ms O’Sullivan is the best person available to drive the biggest reforms in the history of An Garda Síochána.
Both Ms O’Sullivan and the Government need to come clean on the matter.
The public, but particularly the rank and file members of the force, deserve no less.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.