Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan said the phantom breath test scandal could have been caused by gardaí not thinking it was “important” to accurately record the data.
The embattled commissioner told the Oireachtas justice committee that when gardaí were inputting breath test data — often days after the checkpoints — they either could “not remember the number or made it up”.
She gave the hypothesis when pressed by Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers and Fine Gael senator Martin Conway to explain the phantom breath test scandal. She was referring to the revelations that almost half of the 2m breath tests recorded by gardaí between 2011 and 2016 never actually occurred.
During a four-hour appearance before the committee, the commissioner said it was “administratively sloppy” and the scale of it was “staggering”.
The commissioner also appeared before the committee to discuss how 14,700 people were wrongfully convicted in the courts for road traffic offences, without first being given a chance to pay a fine and, in some cases, even after paying a fine.
In her opening remarks, Ms O’Sullivan “apologised for the grave mistakes and wrongdoing” during the last decade which led to the two current controversies.
She said some gardaí recorded breath test numbers that were “false” and added: “At worst, this was deception. At best, this was incompetence.”
Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan queried what the commissioner was specifically apologising for. She said it was for the “last 10 years” and not just the two current issues.
Asked did some gardaí act dishonestly in relation to breath tests, she said that was the purpose of the internal fact-finding investigation by assistant commissioner Michael O’Sullivan.
Mr O’Callaghan said increasing breath test numbers were part of performance targets of divisional policing plans.
Mr Chambers said gardaí of assistant commissioner rank up could get performance bonus payments since 2006 under a civil service-wide system — and asked was this the “cultural trigger” for boosting breath test numbers.
He said the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors raised concerns about the scheme in 2006.
The AGSI said €185,000 was paid in 2007 to 15 senior officers. It said the targets were not achieved by those at the top but by those on the ground serving the public.
The commissioner said she was “not aware” of the scheme but Assistant Comissioner for Traffic Michael Finn confirmed there had been one. It may have ended in 2009. The commissioner said she would return to the committee on the issue.
Independents4Change TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace questioned the accuracy of the 400,000 checkpoints between 2011 and 2016 as it would involve just 2.5 breath tests on average, and suggested the checkpoint figure was closer to 200,000.
Mr Finn said he had “no indication the checkpoint data was wrong”.
Fine Gael deputy Colm Brophy strongly criticised the commissioner for “excuses” in citing lack of resources for the slow pace of their investigations.
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