Sighs of relief as Garda Commissioner does enough to survive in role

Government can breathe easy it won’t lose a second commissioner for now, writes Michael Clifford.

Nóirín O’Sullivan did enough to survive as Garda Commissioner.

Her appearance at the Oireachtas Justice Committee was typically polished and professional. She has even learned from past utterances.

She is no longer on a “journey” — a favoured term of hers heretofore. The management speak was kept to a minimum. The emphasis though was on a journey, in which the commissioner is an agent of change, dragging the force all the way into the 21st century.

There is still an outstanding problem with the commissioner’s credibility. This reality was put most bluntly be Fine Gael senator Martin Conway at the hearing. “The dogs in the street don’t have confidence in senior management in An Garda Síochána,” he said.

It may be an exaggeration to suggest that the topic is a pressing one among the canine constituency, but not by much. The surreal fact is that most of the national parliament, and most likely a good chunk of the wider population, don’t believe the head of the police force is fit to continue in office, but it doesn’t really matter.

From Ms O’Sullivan’s point of view, yesterday’s performance was all about providing Fianna Fáil with enough to get off the “sacking” hook. The absence of any smoking gun, or verbal faux pas, did just that.

The party has managed to remove itself from a position where it would be seen to be forcing the Government to sack her. It also means that Sinn Féin’s vote of no confidence in the commissioner will now be redundant.

Beyond that, the hearing before the Oireachtas Justice Committee wasn’t terribly enlightening about how a million breath tests were wrongly recorded, or how 14,000 motorists were wrongly convicted.

Pearse Doherty speaks to media on the plinth at Leinster House.
Pearse Doherty speaks to media on the plinth at Leinster House.

The commissioner admitted that there may have been “wrongdoing”. If there wasn’t wrongdoing the level of incompetence is so frightening somebody should call out the army.

Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan explored the theory — which is definitely a hot topic with the dogs in the street — that breath testing was exaggerated in order to bump up statistics for competitive purposes. This view is based on the premise that senior gardaí were driven by careerism, intent on getting one over on competitors for career elevation.

Deputy Commissioner John Twomey was horrified that anybody would think that gardaí got up to such carry-on. “This has to be seen in the context of saving lives,” he said. Don’t hit me with all this career stuff when I’m busy out saving lives.

O’Callaghan’s party colleague Jack Chambers was more interested in the why of one million breath tests being falsified, rather than the where, what or who.

“Surely you have hypotheses,” he asked.

The commissioner responded that perhaps it was because gardaí on the road didn’t take the mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints as seriously as they might have.

“They are designed as preventative measures,” she said. Perhaps it wasn’t as valued in terms of detections.” Then it emerged that there was a bonus scheme for senior gardaí in place at one stage. Assistant commissioner Michael Finn remembered the scheme.

“Each Assistant Commissioner had their own set of targets which they set and if they reached them then what you’re referring to happened,” he said. Chambers was referring to the awarding of a bonus, but AC Finn couldn’t bring himself to let words like “bonus” or “money” pass his lips.

Possibly the most surreal moment was when Ms O’Sullivan raked over her record for reform since ascending to the top job. She noted that, among other things, she had “created “an environment in which people can speak up”.

As the committee was sitting, over in Dublin Castle a tribunal was getting under way examining what happens those who do “speak up”. The Charleton Tribunal has been set up to examine how a man who did speak up, Sergeant Maurice McCabe, may have been subjected to the most grevous character assassination by senior management in recent years. Is that the environment to which Ms O’Sullivan is referring?

These allegations have yet to be examined by Charleton, but the fact that a tribunal has been set up is surely enough to scare off anybody else with any notion of “speaking up”.

Apart from that, the commissioner has made zero contact with any of those who have spoken up in the force over the last few years. That’s some environment to create, alright.

There is no getting away from the kernel of the problems concerning An Garda Síochána. After four years of continuing scandals, trust in the force, and particularly in senior management, has broken down.

Ms O’Sullivan is fatally compromised through association with various scandals, irrespective of whether she bears culpability, which she denies in all cases. The job of fixing the guards is most likely beyond her or any other senior officer who has spent a career immersed in a culture that is 50 years out of date.

All of that stuff is for the real world. In the surreal world of the current interface of the gardaí and politics, she has done enough to carry on.

Fianna Fáil has seen enough to back off. The Government can breathe a sigh of relief that it won’t lose a second commissioner for the moment. It won’t cost a scandal.

The poor dears in the Cabinet won’t have to consider the nuclear option of bringing in somebody from the outside to clean up the whole mess.

In the later stages of yesterday’s hearing, Pearse Doherty put it to the commissioner that she didn’t have the confidence of the majority of the Dáil, that the public’s confidence was ebbing away, that would she ever consider, for the good of the force, walking away from it all?

Chairman Caoimhgín O’Caoláin told the commissioner she wasn’t obliged to answer but she had no problem with it.

“I feel passionate about the Garda Síochána but as a citizen I feel passionate about the role of An Garda Síochána in the State. And I’m committed to delivering the reforms necessary to ensure the garda is ready to adapt to those challenges.”

Still, just to be on the safe side, Ms O’Sullivan would be well advised not to answer the front door late at night in case it is an emissary bearing tidings from Leinster House that all bets are off.

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