MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Gardaí continue to throw up roadblocks

Bumping up the figures for the number of motorists breathalysed constitutes one level of deception. Actually falsifying that a checkpoint took place at all is of a different order completely, writes Michael Clifford

It’s bad enough that members of An Garda Síochána falsified hundreds of thousands of breath tests, but what of the falsification of actual checkpoints?

Bumping up the figures for the number of motorists breathalysed at a checkpoint constitutes one level of deception. Actually falsifying that a checkpoint took place at all is of a different order completely. To do this, a garda would have to record that he attended at a particular
location and record the number of breath tests he conducted while ‘there’, even though he had never darkened that patch of public highway at the time in question.

The publication of the Crowe Horwath report into false breath tests on Wednesday revealed checkpoints were falsified. But what is really telling about the cultural dishonesty within the force is the story of how long this vast deception
remained buried.

Last year, before the story about the breath tests ever emerged, a retiring garda sergeant prepared a report for his district officer into what he saw as deception in recording checkpoints.

Later, in a letter to the Policing Authority, he recalled reporting that the system “needed to be reviewed as I was concerned that many scheduled checkpoints were not being done for various legitimate reasons but were still recorded on Pulse and used in data return figures
although invalidated”.

His concerns were not received with open arms. “The reply I got dismissed my concerns and criticised me,” he wrote. “Garda management had issued instructions to record all checkpoints on Pulse even if not performed and then invalidate the Pulse incident record of the unperformed checkpoints.”

As a result, he said, the returns showed both performed and invalid checkpoints were recorded as having been completed.

After the story broke last March about the 1m fake breath tests — since inflated to nearly 2m — the Irish Examiner ran the story about the checkpoints.

A few weeks later, at an Oireachtas justice committee meeting, Independent TD Clare Daly brought the matter up with Garda management. Assistant commissioner Michael Finn pointed out that more checkpoints were scheduled than actually took place, but those that didn’t take place were recorded as invalid: “I can say categorically that the data we publish relates to validated checkpoints only. No invalidated checkpoint is counted by our IT. I can stand over the figures.”

Daly asked whether Finn was totally satisfied with that.

“Yes I am,” he said.

So the issue of false checkpoints was off the table. If it had emerged at that time that checkpoints had been falsified, the political and media storm would have been ramped up at the idea that the deception ran so much deeper.

Gardaí continue to throw up roadblocks

Roll on to September and the publication of An Garda Síochána’s own report into the false breath tests. Again, there was nothing about the possibility of some members making up data for checkpoints that never occurred.

At a subsequent Oireachtas committee meeting on October 4, Clare Daly once again explored the issue. She pointed out that the Garda’s own report stated that the number of breath tests in the period in question dropped but the number of checkpoints went up: “The report states this is surprising, but it is not surprising at all if checkpoints were not being
carried out. My contention is that they were not being done.”

Acting commissioners Dónall Ó Cualáin and Finn then went around the houses talking about supervision and technology but neither accepted that checkpoints were falsified.

The Crowe Horwath report into the matter, commissioned by the Policing Authority, sets out exactly what did occur: “From our engagement with frontline gardaí and supervisors (sergeants) across the organisation, it was reported that some members would inflate the number of MIT checkpoints recorded on Pulse, and thereby the number of breath tests, in order to be seen to have delivered the number of checkpoints authorised for that tour of duty.”

The report set out how this was done: “If three checkpoints were authorised and only one was carried out, two checkpoint incidents might be registered on Pulse and false data entered in respect of the checkpoint which had not been operated. We were also advised that on occasions, supervisory sergeants would suggest that the numbers be inflated in order to comply with management expectations relating to MIT checkpoints being operated.”

So the truth finally comes dropping. If any notice had been paid to the retiring sergeant’s concerns last year, an attempt might have been made to address the matter. This would have involved some rigorous self-examination within the force at a time when it is claiming to be on a journey to higher standards of governance and accountability.

Even if that opportunity had been missed, there was a chance for a second run at it when the story appeared in the Irish Examiner last March. At the subsequent Oireachtas meeting, senior management could have pledged to examine whether things were really so bad that checkpoints were falsified.

Gardaí continue to throw up roadblocks

Such an approach would have been refreshing and even signalled a willingness towards change. Instead, deflection was the order of the day, in deference to a corporate ethic that prioritises burying the bad news as long as possible.

Another opportunity to properly address the past was presented with the internal Garda report. Once again, it was spurned. Instead, it took an external body to go right into the heart of the deception.

We have been here before. An internal Garda report into the abuse of the penalty points system in 2014 failed to uncover the systemic failures that only became obvious when the Comptroller and Auditor General reported on the same issue a few months later.

From a media management point of view, the deflection and obfuscation might be deemed a success. In the last six months, the public’s capacity to be shocked has been softened up. Some 1m false breath tests have become nearly 2m.

Everybody is now reconciled to the widespread deception that took place. The reality that hundreds or even thousands of members of An Garda Síochána falsified tests, and that their superior officers never once questioned the most outlandish of these, has settled in the public psyche.

In that milieu, the discovery that checkpoints were also falsified no longer has the capacity to shock. So in the purely academic approach to media management, the negative impact of the latest revelations has been lessened.

So on this issue, it could be argued that the force has done well on managing the bad stuff leaking out into the public domain. But what does that say about other more mundane matters like honesty, ethics, integrity, and even giving lip service to the notion of public confidence?

Unfortunately, the manner in which this episode has been handled over the last six months suggests that absolutely nothing has changed.


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