Troika of change point way for commissioner

Nóirín O’Sullivan has had luck on her side but she will have to perform her new role under greater scrutiny than any of her predecessors have faced, writes Michael Clifford

NÓIRÍN O’Sullivan got her shot of luck in November 2012. The then Deputy Garda Commissioner dodged what could have been a serious metaphorical bullet.

Her boss, Martin Callinan, had been instructed by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to set up an investigation into allegations about abuse of the penalty points system.

These had come to the fore through independent TDs, who have been briefed by two Garda whistleblowers, Sergeant Maurice McCabe, and retired garda John Wilson.

Callaghan appointed O’Sullivan’s colleague, Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahony to do the investigation.

The results were predictable within the culture that prevailed. Apart from a few ‘slap on the wrist’ instances, there was really no problem, according to the O’Mahony report, which was published in May 2013. Nothing to see here, folks, now move along.

Within 12 months, the truth would finally emerge, kicking and screaming, into the light.

The O’Mahony report had failed to instance wholesale abuse of the system by a plethora of senior officers. If anything, the anodyne nature of the report highlighted all that was wrong within a force in serious need of reform.

This was no reflection on O’Mahony himself, but there was no way that he would ever be appointed to the top job thereafter. He had pulled the short straw. Step forward the other leading candidate, Deputy Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.

Her appointment as Commissioner on Tuesday has elicited a mixed reaction. Staff associations within the force, like the GRA and the AGSI, have welcomed the move.

“The cream always rises,” GRA general secretary PJ Stone said. “It sends a clear message that the leadership can be found within the men and women of An Garda Síochána.”

Within those ranks, the prospect of an outsider heading up the force would have been too much to bear. It would have been regarded as inferring that no serving officer could be trusted with the job of reform.

Elsewhere, the reaction has been less than effusive. Independent TDs, Mick Wallace and Claire Daly, who were to the fore in highlighting Garda malpractice, have both said that an outsider was required to repair the damage.

“The old boys’ club is alive and well,” Daly said. “We can look forward to the blue wall of silence continuing.”

Yet, in the round, it’s easy to see why O’Sullivan was the choice. She has an excellent CV. Since her ascension to the role of Interim Commissioner, she has been making all the right noises about reform.

She has repeated ad nauseum that the force must be more open, efficient, and concerned with the victims of crime. Her priority will be to surround herself with those in senior management who are of a like mind. That won’t be easy. Changing the culture of a closed police force will be extremely difficult and a major task will be to root out those not willing to adapt.

In reality, however, the appointment is not as crucial as some might have painted it. Change is coming, irrespective of who now heads up the force.

There was something of a false start in the wake of the Morris Tribunal, when the Garda Síochána Act 2005 was presented as a roadmap to a new way of policing.

Its shortcomings were dragged out into the public glare over the last 18 months. This time around, the whole infrastructure has ensured that change is inevitable.

The Garda Inspectorate was introduced on foot of Morris, but has taken a few years to really find its feet.

During Alan Shatter’s tenure, it was largely ignored. Shatter did not even meet the head of the Inspectorate Bob Olsen during his term office.

Its two recent reports into the penalty points and criminal investigations have shown that when properly used it will be a vital instrument in highlighting shortcomings and designing proper standards.

If, for instance, the inspectorate was to issue a report in two years time that showed there was no improvement in the investigation of crime, it could well cost O’Sullivan her job.

The Garda Ombudsman, GSOC, is the second leg on the new stool. Prior to the recent controversies, the Ombudsman’s office was continually undermined by various elements within the force which were opposed to outside investigation of its work.

Now, GSOC’s powers have been extended to include the work of the commissioner. GSOC’s role in policing the police has been enhanced, as has its corporate confidence.

The third leg is the new Garda Authority. It hasn’t got off to a good start. The inaugural chairperson, Josephine Feehily, was selected in a less than transparent process. She was supposed to have a role in selecting the new commissioner, but it’s difficult to see how she could have had any meaningful involvement, as she was in the job just ten days before Ms O’Sullivan’s appointment was announced.

Time will tell how effective this body is in overseeing the force, but its mere existence suggests that management of the Garda will have to be on their toes in a manner that was never necessary when the department was the overseer.

In that context, the new Commissioner will be under serious pressure to ensure that the nefarious elements of the Garda culture are reformed.

She will face resistance in some quarters and the manner in which she deals with that will tell a lot. She obviously impressed her interviewers. She is certainly making all the right noises on the public relations front. She is entitled to a chance to prove that despite serving at the heart of management under the old regime, that she can perform as a new broom.

Now all that’s required is to find somebody to head up the Department of Justice.


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