An Garda Síochána and Nóirín O’Sullivan are not the same

Recent events would make you think the interests of Nóirín O’Sullivan are the same as those of An Garda Síochána. It is crucial we make it clear that they’re not, writes Michael Clifford.

The questions about the Garda Commissioner continuing in her role haven’t gone away, you know. If anything, more disturbing questions have recently been added to a list which the Government, and the Policing Authority, need to address.

Nóirín O’Sullivan is named in the terms of reference for the Charleton Tribunal, established to examine whether a smear campaign against Sergeant Maurice McCabe was carried out. 

Her predecessor, Martin Callinan, now a civilian, was also alleged to have been party to such a campaign. Both vehemently deny the allegations.

Ms O’Sullivan insists she can and must continue in her role while the tribunal sits. 

She sees no conflict of interest arising, and has professed herself perfectly confident of her capacity to continue as head of the force.

If the commissioner doesn’t see a conflict of interest, perhaps she is looking in the wrong places. 

Last week it emerged that a special unit has been set up in Phoenix Park to liaise with the tribunal. 

The unit is reportedly staffed by, among others, former assistant commissioner Michael O’Sullivan (no relation to Nóirín), who was promoted to the AC role by Ms O’Sullivan last May and retired recently.

It is unclear on what basis he is being re-employed, whether the job he is performing was advertised, how much he is being paid, or who is footing the bill. 

Within the force, Mr O’Sullivan was regarded as a close ally of the commissioner’s. Now he appears to be back in a highly sensitive, yet undefined role.

Another retired member brought back to work on this unit is former chief super Brendan Mangan, who once worked as personal assistant to Martin Callinan when the latter was commissioner.

A third reported member of this unit is Superintendent Tony Howard, a close associate of both the commissioner and her husband, chief superintendent Jim McGowan.

Is it a coincidence that these serving and retired members are regarded as being professionally close to either Ms O’Sullivan or Mr Callinan? Does it represent a conflict of interest?

Far more important is the actual remit of this unit. 

How will it liaise with the tribunal? Presumably, any IT information to be forwarded to the tribunal, such as texts, intelligence files etc, will come through this unit staffed by close associates of the commissioner or ex-commissioner.

Is that desirable or appropriate?

Even more worrying is the route for statements or evidence from individual gardaí, or civilian employees of the force. Will that go through the hand-picked unit? If so, it presents a major conflict of interest.

What employee of the force would, for instance, be comfortable giving evidence that the commissioner may not approve of if that evidence was to go through the hands of her close associates before even arriving at the tribunal?

Ms O’Sullivan and Mr Callinan have been named in the terms of reference as individuals, not the successive heads of the corporate entity, An Garda Síochána. Yet the structures being put in place are designed to protect a corporate entity in defending itself.

Ms O’Sullivan’s contention is that the allegations have nothing to do with her carrying out the function of her office. Yet major garda resources are being deployed to represent her interests at the tribunal.

Then there is Dave Taylor. Superintendent Taylor will be the star witness at the tribunal. He has alleged that when he was head of the Garda Press Office he was instructed to brief reporters in a manner designed to smear Sergeant McCabe. He alleges both Mr Callinan and Ms O’Sullivan were party to this campaign.

Last Friday, Supt Taylor received notice at work advising him that his disciplinary file is being reviewed. He had been suspended for nearly two years while a criminal investigation was conducted into whether he had released names of children to the media when he was in the press office.

The head of the team investigating him was the commissioner’s husband, Jim McGowan. Many within the force thought the investigation completely disproportionate to the allegation against Supt Taylor.

The DPP said no prosecution was merited. Supt Taylor was only allowed back to work a few weeks ago, when questions were asked as to parity of treatment between him and the commissioner.

He was suspended from work while investigated, yet the commissioner was saying she should carry on while the tribunal investigated her.

The disciplinary letter Supt Taylor received last Friday could, through some eyes, be viewed in a very bad light.

The superintendent is due to give evidence that may be highly damaging to his boss, at a time when management has decided that it is appropriate to hang a possible disciplinary action over his head. Conflict of interest somewhere?

In fact, the matter could be viewed as having the potential to undermine the tribunal if it were to affect the quality of Taylor’s evidence.

Ordinarily, it would not be unusual for Superintendent Taylor to receive such a letter over the leaking issue. But these are not ordinary times. That it was deemed appropriate to issue him with the letter now suggests, at its most benign, a cavalier attitude to the tribunal.

It was reported this week that Martin Callinan has put in an appearance — or two — up in the Phoenix Park. He met with Ms O’Sullivan to discuss aspects of the case.

What is a civilian doing up in Garda HQ discussing this kind of thing with the commissioner of the force? Are the resources of An Garda Síochána to be put at his disposal also?

The latest reports are that the commissioner and her predecessor may share counsel at that tribunal. Is this appropriate if Ms O’Sullivan is still serving as head of the gardaí?

At the O’Higgins commission of inquiry into complaints by Sergeant McCabe about criminal investigations, Ms O’Sullivan shared counsel with some of the senior officers against whom McCabe made allegations.

This portrayed any conflict as between McCabe and the force as a whole, rather than McCabe and another officer.

Now, it appears that the optics might be designed to portray conflict here as between Supt Taylor and the force as a whole, as opposed to between him on one side, and O’Sullivan and Callinan on the other.

One has to wonder about a serving commissioner being caught up in this stuff.

Ms O’Sullivan has repeatedly said she is innocent of any allegations, and she is entitled as a citizen to the total presumption of such innocence.

She is not, however, Josephine Citizen. She is the head of the police force, and recent developments suggest she is applying the philosophy of the French monarch Louis XIV who stated, ‘L’état, c’est moi’. 

Or, in Ms O’Sullivan’s case, ‘I am An Garda Síochána’.


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