Nóirín O’Sullivan’s brand became too toxic

Controversy defined her time as garda commissioner and made reform impossible

Former garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan was the first woman to lead the Garda. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Former garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan was the first woman to lead the Garda. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

She promised to create a world-class police service from the rubble of the controversies that have hit the Garda since the turn of the decade.

But Nóirín O’Sullivan, the former garda commissioner as of midnight on Sunday, simply couldn’t get out from under the rubble.

She couldn’t reinvent the image of the Garda and sell it to the public while fixing up the organisation behind the scenes.

Instead – and however fairly or unfairly – she slipped into that place in Irish society that Fianna Fáil occupied until the last days of Bertie Ahern; a septic limb that just had to go.

Having taken over as acting commissioner on the no-notice retirement of her predecessor Martin Callinan in March 2014, it looked for a time like she might reinvent the Garda.

An articulate and confident public speaker, she talked a good game, which was something Callinan never mastered.

She was also the first woman to lead the Garda in its history, a fact that for the briefest time lent her an air of new broom, even though her securing the job was a seamless continuation of the old regime.

But, like Callinan, she would lose control of events. The controversies came thick and fast and they soon defined her.

Sources close to her last night said there was shock in Garda headquarters at the timing of her departure. Many felt the moment of maximum vulnerability had passed and that the only thing she really needed to worry about was the Charleton tribunal.

Lost touch

“There was a sense of a huge gap between her and the frontline and also that the depot [Garda headquarters] was split down the middle and that she was responsible for that,” said one Garda source.

Since the start of this year her brand was rapidly becoming toxic.

It emerged that the Garda had been embellishing its enforcement records on drink-driving breath testing for many years.

Not even the Policing Authority knew an audit into the matter had been underway. When The Irish Times broke news of the problem, the authority was livid.

O’Sullivan suggesting she would stay on even if the Dáil voted no confidence in her, simply added to the sense she had lost touch with reality.

Then in April word got out that there may be problems with the accuracy of the Garda’s official homicide data. A protracted review has now been extended back 15 years and its outcome is awaited. The CSO is refusing to publish any more crime data until the figures are made clear.

Templemore

The full details of the shoddy financial governance at the Garda College, Templemore, has also emerged in recent months.

Most in the Garda believe the Templemore revelations undermined O’Sullivan and damaged her in a way whistleblowers Sgt Maurice McCabe and Supt David Taylor have not.

And the main protagonist in that regard was John Barrett, a senior civilian working in the Garda as its head of human resources since late 2014.

At a meeting in the college in July 2015, Barrett said he made it clear to O’Sullivan the issues in the college needed to be addressed. In early May this year, when that conversation in the summer of 2015 was pored over at the Public Accounts Committee, O’Sullivan’s reputation and authority were damaged so badly she never recovered.

She told committee members, in a hearing live on TV, the meeting with Barrett lasted minutes. Barrett said the meeting lasted hours and that the detail of the financial governance problems in Templemore was discussed.

The discrepancies in their accounts were crucial because a commissioner is obliged under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to inform the Minister for Justice of matters that would undermine confidence in the force.

The PAC report on the matter found she had acted in an “unacceptable” manner.

That was published in July and then came the summer break. The day before O’Sullivan went on holidays it emerged she was taking almost six weeks off. Many felt it was too long given the crises the Garda was encountering.

While she was on leave it was reported she had applied for a job at Europol. In football transfer parlance, she now became the “want away” Garda commissioner. It was then reported her application hadn’t been successful.

Curiously, in a very dignified and informative statement last night, she said she had never even applied for the job. She said international colleagues had encouraged her to apply, she agreed to consider it, but did not proceed with the application.

Breath tests

When she returned, last Monday, from her summer holidays Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan bounced her, against her wishes, into releasing the reports into the inflated breath tests and fixed charge notice system.

The Garda wanted to wait until independent reports commissioned by the Policing Authority were published before releasing their own reports. Any shortcomings, any holding back on how bad things really are, will now be exposed in the imminent independent reports.

Another, unrelated, Policing Authority report is also due soon which critiques the progress in O’Sullivan’s modernisation and reform programme for the Garda.

In the end, sources said nothing that happened in the last week represented the last straw for her. Instead, the events came as proof – if it were needed – that her commissionership was set to continue on a reactive and highly pressurised footing.

Try as she might she couldn’t reinvent herself. And so she decided to get out.