Questions that can no longer be sidestepped over Stepaside station

A suspicious mind might conclude there were too many coincidences involved in the decision to reopen Stepaside station, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.

Further questions have been raised following the publication of the report into reopening garda stations. The report has been widely viewed as a ready-up to sort out Cabinet minister Shane Ross’ campaign to have Stepaside station reopened.

The most worrying question is this: Did anybody on behalf of the Government contact An Garda Síochána about the matter in early June to hurry along confirmation that Stepaside is to reopen? If so, did it have anything to do with the pending appointment of a Supreme Court judge?

The interim report into the reopening of stations was published on Saturday and was accompanied by a statement from Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who said he was publishing it “in light of the misleading public comment and baseless accusations which continue to be made”.

Ironically, the publication suggests the public comment to which he refers was entirely valid, and that the accusations (of a political stroke) have received further ballast.

The report was accompanied by a letter from then justice minister Frances Fitzgerald to then commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan on June 30, 2016, setting out the criteria to be employed in selecting six stations for reopening.

These included that “at least one station be reopened in Co Dublin (including Dublin City). In the event that you consider more than one station suitable for reopening in Dublin, at least one mainly urban and one mainly suburban station to be reopened.”

This obviously infers that the operation of policing not be the sole criteria employed in identifying the stations.

Of 139 stations closed in 2012-14, only four qualified for possible reopening in Dublin. This gave Ross’ Stepaside an excellent chance.

Should the report have thrown up a far more compelling case for another station in Dublin, Fitzgerald’s letter provided cover for including a second from the four. Stepaside could be identified as being either urban or suburban. Lucky Stepaside.

Crucially, Fitzgerald also instructed that the report take account of “crime trends in the geographic area that would be covered by the reopened station”. The letter did not instruct that there was an urgency about this matter. It did not direct, for instance, that at least one of the six selected stations be made known before the rest of the exercise is completed.

It gave no indication that an interim report on the reopening of one station be completed and forwarded to the department.

A first interim report was sent to the department on March 30, 2017, acting commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin told the public accounts committee last week. This largely laid out the process that would be involved in identifying the stations to be reopened. Such an interim report is relatively standard.

What is not relatively standard is that a second interim report followed just over two months later showing huge advances in the process.

The second interim report recommended the reopening of Stepaside and Rush stations. It did so in couched language. “In the event that it is decided to reopen Stepaside station…” assistant commissioner John O’Driscoll wrote. This effectively left what should be a policing matter up to the Government, albeit with a recommendation.

The report pointed out that if Stepaside was to be reopened, the only other two stations under consideration in Dublin — Dalkey and Kill O’ The Grange — should not follow suit due to their close proximity to Stepaside.

The report notes the number of property crimes in the area previously served by Dalkey “increased in the first quarter of 2017 compared to 2016”. In Kill O’ The Grange the increase was “slight”.

Yet in Stepaside, such crime “reduced significantly” in the same period. Yet, on the basis of an increase in population alone, Stepaside got the nod over the two stations where there was apparently a greater incidence of crime in the absence of a local station.

The report was furnished to Cabinet, which decided that Stepaside should be officially earmarked for reopening, but made no determination on Rush, despite it also being recommended by O’Driscoll’s interim report.

Last Thursday, on RTÉ’s Prime Time, Ross asserted that Stepaside was selected because the case to reopen it was “compelling”. The published report entirely disputes this assertion. Stepaside was reopened because it handily fell within the criteria laid out by the Government, and despite the steep reduction in crime in the area, which disputed the emotive argument used by Ross to demand its reopening.

The other issue is timing. The second interim report was completed on June 8. It was received by the department the following day, which suggests some urgency. Four days later, on June 13, the report was considered by Cabinet in jig time and Stepaside given the green light.

Why the rush? Here’s one possible explanation: Leo Varadkar was elected leader of Fine Gael on June 2.

We now know from Waterford TD John Halligan’s interview with Juno McEnroe in this newspaper on September 30 that around the same time, Varadkar told Halligan and Ross he would get their respective constituency concerns “over the line”.

The main issue that week for Fine Gael was the proposed appointment of attorney general Máire Whelan to the Supreme Court. She was Enda Kenny’s appointment and would be leaving government with Kenny, rewarded with an appointment to the bench.

The only problem was Ross, who had some months previously made a song and dance about refusing to green-light appointments to the bench until reforms were brought in to his satisfaction.

The issue of Whelan’s appointment arose at Kenny’s last Cabinet meeting on June 13, the same day the rushed interim report on the reopening of Stepaside was also on the agenda.

A whole series of remarkable coincidences occurred here. A suspicious mind might conclude that there were too many coincidences. Answers to the following questions would ease any suspicions:

  • Was there any contact between any element of the permanent or elected government and gardaí about the issue of stations reopening in May-June?
  • Why was an interim report on the matter, selecting only some stations and not others, required?
  • Why was there such a rush between completion of the interim report, its delivery to the department, and its consideration at Cabinet?
  • Why at Cabinet was Stepaside given the green light yet Rush was not? (Both have the same status in the interim report.)

Is it nothing more than a coincidence that all of this occurred at a time when there would have been fears of Ross objecting to the appointment of Whelan to the Supreme Court?

Flanagan may well believe his own statement about “misleading comment” and “baseless allegations” over sorting out Ross in this matter. Nobody else believes it, not the dogs in the street, not anybody who has ever darkened the door of Leinster House.

The bigger issue now is whether there was further interference in policing beyond setting up the process designed to sort out the Minister for Transport, Tourism, and Sport. Did somebody on behalf of the Government tell the gardaí to hurry along the report because it was needed to ensure the smooth passage of an outgoing attorney general onto the Supreme Court?

Could they really have that level of contempt for the integrity of An Garda Síochána at a time when the force is in crisis?

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