THE PAC v O’Sullivan fight has gone the full 15 rounds. But at the end of it, the Garda Commissioner is still standing in the ring, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.
The Public Accounts Committee brought all its power and purpose to the fight and certainly flexed its muscles during its hearings with Nóirín O’Sullivan.
But she kept her hands up and shadow-boxed. She ducked and dived and took the punches, throwing the odd left hook herself.
It was a questionable set-up, where members of the committee had separately called for the commissioner to go, reflecting the positions of their parties.
Given the endless capacity of O’Sullivan to exasperate and frustrate members seeking answers, the “robust” style of the PAC could be forgiven.
The PAC report yesterday — module one, it says — no doubt damages the commissioner’s reputation.
Of the 17 uses of the word “unacceptable” in the report, four directly refer to the commissioner’s actions.
It says that even though she became aware of the issues at Templemore in July 2015, most of the changes needed had not been implemented. Also unacceptable was her decision to delay informing relevant authorities about the issues pending the gathering of information during 2015 and 2016.
She failed in her letter to the Comptroller and Auditor General on July 31, 2015, to inform him of the financial issues — the PAC says she should have done so “without delay”, as soon as it came to her attention.
This is the closest to a body blow in the report — as it was in the hearings. Related to this was the failure to inform the C&AG until 10 months later.
The PAC rejects O’Sullivan’s contention that she took “decisive action” on learning of the issues in July 2015. It says a working group was already in existence when she said she set up one. The committee says there were “grounds” for the commissioner to inform the Justice Minister under section 41 of the Garda Síochána Act.
There are wider findings in the report which include the commissioner.
It details delays and an unwillingness in the force to involve the internal Garda auditor, Niall Kelly, in investigations and a “persistent reluctance” to inform the oversight authorities.
Given how reform and modernisation has been the constant mantra of the commissioner, this finding could undermine her standing, particularly in the Policing Authority.
Another question mark over her ability to modernise the organisation, and of her authority, is the dysfunctionality at Garda HQ, evidenced by public divisions between senior civil servants, particularly HR boss John Barrett and finance boss Michael Culhane.
The report refers to the “profound professional disagreement” among the senior managers, between those who wished to “preserve the status quo” — whose principal concern was to protect the “reputation” of the force — and those who wanted to reform it.
It says this split “will undermine” the ability of senior management to resolve issues and implement the reform programme of the organisation. Again, this finding will be of worry to the Policing Authority.
And there’s more: “It is the committee’s view that there was a culture within An Garda Síochána of withholding information, providing inadequate information, and keeping issues external to avoid external scrutiny.”
It says correspondence in 2016 and 2017 in relation to the first draft of the interim internal audit shows an unwillingness to address the significant financial issues for “reasons of reputation”.
The report says there was a practice within senior management of “containment”. It says there was a “significant increase in tensions” between senior managers in October 2015.
It says correspondence suggests a “lack of concern” about issues raised by Barrett and that there was “a greater concern to minimise reputational damage” to the force.
These findings are like messages from the bad old days — a time that the commissioner has hung her hat on to bring to an end.
There was a bit of a farce at the PAC launch, where chair Seán Fleming tried to make sure committee members didn’t express an adverse view of the commissioner, such as renewing calls on her to go, but it was clear where many members stood.
Fine Gael’s Peter Burke said at the launch that he had “full confidence” in the commissioner, even though he said he agreed with “everything” in the report.
And that is essentially why the commissioner is continuing to go the full 15 rounds — the Government is in her corner and shows no sign of throwing in the towel.
But this is just module one. Expect a PAC v O’Sullivan rematch in the autumn.
Q&A: PAC hears myriad claims
— Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
What is the Public Accounts Committee’s garda college investigation about?
The PAC opened an investigation earlier this year into serious concerns about financial matters at the garda college in Templemore. This was in response to whistleblower revelations that a damning internal audit was not acted on, and that similar concerns raised in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2011 were also ignored.
What was uncovered?
The PAC heard claims that the reports were covered up, and that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan failed to tell the Department of Justice or the Comptroller and Auditor General of the issues. It heard allegations that internal auditors were blocked from accessing information. The hearings involved further questions over 50 unauthorised bank accounts at the Garda college and that significant sums of money were sent to an AIB account in the Cabra branch controlled by a former senior garda for unknown reasons. It was told of the alleged misuse of tens of thousands of euro in EU funds since 1999, issues over St Raphael’s Garda Credit Union, and concerns that the gardaí may not be tax-compliant.
When issues were uncovered and what did senior garda management do?
Ms O’Sullivan says she was told of the situation in late July 2015 and acted swiftly by setting up internal review teams and implementing reforms. The PAC says Ms O’Sullivan was, in fact, informed by at least July 10 and possibly sooner; did not inform the C&AG for 10 months; gave misleading all-clears to the C&AG about the garda college’s finances; and did not inform the justice minister about the serious concerns. It is claimed similar failures to act were also apparent in previous reports on the garda college in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2011, and that there were specific attempts by garda management to conceal the issue.
Is this the only garda college investigation?
Far from it. In addition to the PAC investigation, the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF has launched an inquiry into evidence that hundreds of thousands of euro in grants meant for frontline services may have been misused since 1999. The garda college controversy is also being examined by Revenue due to claims the gardaí are not tax compliant and issues surrounding the 50 bank accounts; the C&AG; and potentially the Central Bank under “money-laundering” legislation.
Will Ms O’Sullivan be forced to step down?
Yesterday, Sinn Féin, Labour, and Social Democrat members of the PAC were unanimous — when speaking as TDs, not as impartial PAC members, the garda commissioner had to go. Fianna Fáil said she should consider her position. Fine Gael’s Peter Burke did his best impression of Schrodinger’s cat by backing the PAC report and Ms O’Sullivan in equal measure.
— Conall Ó Fatharta
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