The right person must be found to fill Garda Commissioner post

For the second time in three years, Fine Gael — the law and order party — has lost a Garda commissioner prematurely.

Having backed Nóirín O’Sullivan to the hilt for months, the party did little, in the end, to try and convince her to remain and so into retirement she has passed.

Retirement and not resignation, just like Martin Callinan before her.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan yesterday said he “was not surprised” when Ms O’Sullivan tendered her resignation on Sunday.

“The possibility that Commissioner O’Sullivan might retire was flagged to me over the last couple of weeks,” he said on RTÉ Radio.

“Of course, it was treated as confidential until such time as the commissioner made her final decision which was communicated to me at approximately five o’clock yesterday.”

Mr Flanagan said there were discussions between Ms O’Sullivan and officials in the Department of Justice while she was on her  summer break. He said the commissioner had used her five-week break to consider her future in An Garda Síochána.

Asked why he did not seek Ms O’Sullivan’s resignation earlier in the wake of several Garda scandals, the minister said “she was Garda Commissioner; she was engaged in the process of reform”.

“Obviously the Garda Commissioner took a decision that she felt the right thing to do was retire and of course I accepted that,” he said.

On one level, the departure of a deeply controversial commissioner solves a major conundrum for the Government.

Her exit, while painful on one level for her, will be rewarding for her on another. Based on what we know of her terms and conditions, she will get €300,000 by way of a lump sum and an annual pension of up to €100,000, meaning her total pension pot will be worth in excess of €3m over its lifetime.

Some ministers will argue that, given the ongoing controversies in recent times, the price is worth it, and they would correctly argue she is getting only what she is entitled to after 36 years of loyal service.

Mr Flanagan denied that a deal had been done with the commissioner so she could resign on a full pension.

“The pension arrangements are entirely in line with guidelines, rules and regulations from the Department of Public Expenditure,” he said. 

“She spent 35 years in An Garda Síochána and reached the highest position. Her pension will reflect that and no more.”

But, how can she have been the right person to lead the reform in the force on Sunday morning and, come Sunday evening, she had taken the right decision to go?

Fine Gael had to back Ms O’Sullivan to the hilt publicly having been seen under Enda Kenny to have pushed her predecessor, Martin
Callinan, out the door rather unceremoniously in 2014.

He was sacrificed to save the Government and when that proved insufficient, then Justice Minister Alan Shatter was thrown to the wolves by Mr Kenny in order to insulate himself.

It was ironic that, ultimately, it was Mr Kenny’s own fabrication of a conversation with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone about the ills done to Sergeant Maurice McCabe, the garda whistleblower, which led to his demise.

The standing of the force among the public is at a low point and there is a strong case to be made to scrap the brand of An Garda Síochána and replace it with something else, but politically Fine Gael has a huge amount to answer for.

The party, like the force, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into reforming a deeply broken culture.

It derided whistleblowers, targeted opposition TDs such as Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, who repeatedly and doggedly pursued the case in the Dáil, and it hit out at papers such as the Irish Examiner, which has majored on the Garda crises.

As Labour leader Brendan Howlin said at his party’s think-in in Athy, Fine Gael has dragged its heels and resisted his party’s attempts to give real powers to the Policing Authority.

“In truth, the version of our bill we pushed through and enacted was one we had to negotiate with Fine Gael,” said Mr Howlin.

“If it was Labour alone in Government, it would have been stronger, no doubt about it. I would like to listen to the Authority about what new powers it needs.

“But there would have been additional powers if we had our way, the general reluctance to give complete authority to an independent body was a traditional Fine Gael stand.”

Time and time again, Fine Gael has proven itself to be resistant to change and it must carry its portion of the blame for where the force finds itself now.

The talk has now obviously begun to focus on what happens next, and Mr Flanagan’s willingness to increase the pay cap to attract an international candidate of calibre is to be welcomed.

But, it can do more. It can give the Policing Authority more powers and streamline the lines of accountability that An Garda Siochána have to deal with.

Do we really need the Policing Authority and GSOC and the Garda Inspectorate, as well as the Department of Justice, essentially all doing the same job?

It will be for the Government ultimately to approve the next commissioner.

It cannot afford to get it wrong again.

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