Nóirín O’Sullivan’s remarks on the gardaí are at odds with many other accounts, writes Michael Clifford.
Nóirín O’Sullivan has a recurring problem that goes to the heart of her capacity to continue as Garda Commissioner.
She has repeatedly told outside agencies of what is going on behind the blue wall, only for her utterances to be contradicted by others.
The unfortunate conclusion is that she cannot be trusted by parliament. That, for the head of a police force in a democracy, is a very serious situation.
Her tendency to explain how things are rosier than they seem behind the blue wall first reared its head while she was still serving as interim commissioner.
In May 2014, at the height of the whistleblower controversy, she told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that Sergeant Maurice McCabe was receiving full support from management, which had been in touch with him “on a daily basis”.
A few hours after that utterance, Sgt McCabe rang the commissioner’s private secretary to inform him of a major error in the commissioner’s sworn evidence. Nobody had been in touch with him, not on a daily basis, not even at all.
Later that day, Ms O’Sullivan rang Sgt McCabe and assured him that she would find out who had misinformed her. (Strangely, this was the only occasion that the commissioner contacted Sgt McCabe directly. Even when the shocking Tusla allegations against him emerged last February, she didn’t think it appropriate to pick up the phone to one of her officers who had been maligned).
She also reported back to the committee to correct the record. If Sgt McCabe hadn’t contradicted her, then the Justice Committee would have been left with an impression of garda management engaging in a caring and positive manner with whistleblowers.
A number of times after that incident Ms O’Sullivan repeatedly praised Sgt McCabe, even temporarily appointing him to the Professional Standards Unit of the force to reform the ticket fixing problem. Her public stance on Sgt McCabe was that he was a fair man for one man, whom the force must value.
In May 2015, behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins commission, her legal representative, Colm Smyth, said he had instructions to attack Sgt McCabe’s character, and in particular his motivation in making complaints of malpractice. At one point, the chairman, Kevin O’Higgins, asked Mr Smyth to go out and get his instructions reconfirmed, which the lawyer did.
Mr Smyth returned and said: “My instructions are reconfirmed.” Judge O’Higgins replied: “Very good. Your instructions, as I understand them, are that Sergeant McCabe acted as he did for improper motives?”
“Yeah,” replied Mr Smyth.
Then, after Sgt McCabe produced a recording of a meeting, there was no more about “improper motives”. Once this issue came into the public domain, Ms O’Sullivan issued a statement of denial.
“I want to make it clear that I do not, nor ever have, regarded Sergeant McCabe as malicious,” she said.
Perhaps she had been misled by one of her subordinates, as she apparently was before giving evidence to the Oireachtas committee in May 2014.
At the Policing board meeting on 27 April last, Ms O’Sullivan described the review that uncovered a million fake breath tests as “an audit”. This gave the review a particular status of credibility. The chair of the authority, Josephine Feehily, pointed out that it was not an audit.
“Audit is a word used in An Garda Síochána to cover a lot of things,” replied Ms O’Sullivan.
Now it has emerged that the civilian head of the garda audit team, Niall Kelly, has written to the authority, saying that neither he nor his audit team had any input into this alleged “audit”.
Another civilian in the force, head of analysis Gurchand Singh, has also written to the authority to point out that a report into a review of homicide figures, presented on the eve of the last meeting, was not his work.
Again, without his intervention, an impression would have been created that reports before the Policing Authority were endorsed by civilian number-crunchers. That is not the case.
On Thursday of last week, Ms O’Sullivan told the Public Accounts Committee that she had a brief five-minute “chat” over a cup of tea in 2015 with the head of human resources, John Barrett, in which they discussed financial irregularities at the garda training college.
Such a casual “chat” might excuse Ms O’Sullivan from not complying with Section 41 of the Garda Síochána Act, which obliges the commissioner to inform the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, of any serious matters. Nothing serious could come out of a brief chat. The minister was not informed of the irregularities for 14 months after the “chat”.
Except Mr Barrett had detailed notes of the brief chat that went on for over two hours about specifics of the irregularities. That raises a question as to whether the commissioner was in breach of the law by not informing the Minister for Justice soon thereafter.
There is a theme running through all these examples. The commissioner is presenting, in one form or another, a picture to outside agencies that reflects the force in a relatively positive light.
In times past, Ms O’Sullivan’s predecessors could have been assured that there would be no contradiction of the commissioner’s position from behind the blue wall.
That no longer applies. Other accounts are now seeping out and they are repeatedly at odds with the versions given by Ms O’Sullivan.
The commissioner is a highly articulate, able public servant. This is naturally an asset to somebody in her position, who has to be accountable in public before Oireachtas committees and the Policing Authority.
She presents herself as an agent of change, but the evidence is mounting that she remains captured by the culture that moulded her.
Ms Fitzgerald, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and other ministers have all come out in recent days to say that they retain confidence in the commissioner.
A more appropriate question might be whether they trust her? And, if they do, on what basis?
And if not, where does that leave the relationship between the head of the police force and the democratically elected representatives to whom she is supposed to be accountable?
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