Analysis: Few are surprised by O’Sullivan’s resignation

Apparently damning report from Policing Authority awaiting publication

Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan is stepping down but the next Garda scandal won’t be far away.

Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan is stepping down but the next Garda scandal won’t be far away.

 

Few people in political circles, in Government or Opposition, believed that Nóirín O’Sullivan could really ride out the torrent of scandal that has beset the force she led.

Some expressed private admiration at her resilience thus far; most politicians have a sneaking regard for anyone who defies a media onslaught in the way that the commissioner has. But O’Sullivan’s difficulties weren’t a media construct – they stemmed from failings of culture, practice and management in a police force in crisis. And as the reports of Garda wrongdoing piled up, with some inquiries headed right into her own office, there was an inevitability about O’Sullivan’s departure that has been evident for months. When something is not sustainable, sooner or later it comes to an end.

So the bombshell announcement of her immediate retirement, which arrived in newsrooms shortly before six o’clock on Sunday evening, was a shock but not really a surprise.

It came after the publication of two reports last week into the falsification of breath test results by gardaí and also into more than 14,000 wrongful convictions of motorists. Another, apparently damning, report from the Policing Authority about Garda management’s implementation of the reform agenda and their willingness to communicate with the authority is awaiting publication. It would have piled even more pressure on O’Sullivan.

Further difficulties were in prospect for the coming months. Dáil committees were hounding the commissioner in relation to past scandals, her semi-regular appearances for lengthy questioning sessions becoming a fixture in the Dáil calendar and underlining just how much of her time in the job had become a rolling exercise in crisis management.

Whistleblower

So O’Sullivan’s re-signation-tirement – voluntary or otherwise – was one of the most anticipated and predicted developments in political discourse in recent years. But the sign that the writing was on the wall for her was when the Government established the tribunal of inquiry earlier this year into allegations that the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe was subjected to an organised campaign to blacken his name by senior Garda officers – including the departing commissioner and her predecessor.

O’Sullivan stoutly denied it. But the Government still went ahead and asked a tribunal to investigate whether it was true or not. This was an admission that it could not take her denials at face value. For a Government to have that sort of relationship with its chief of police – responsible for some of the most important and sensitive activities of the State – is an extraordinary state of affairs.

O’Sullivan apparently made the decision to retire when on a recent long holiday; but once they heard of the extended break, few people in and around Government expected she would return and stay in the job.

Crisis

Did she jump or was she pushed? Government sources on Sunday night denied any pressure had been exerted on the commissioner. But she cannot have failed to notice that the expressions of confidence in her in recent months have become more formulaic, clearly delivered only because not to express confidence in her would prompt an immediate crisis.

You know we have to say this, Ministers seemed to be saying. So we’ll say it. But we all know we don’t really believe it.

To be frank, had Nóirín O’Sullivan’s predecessor not suddenly retired in controversial circumstances – visited by the taoiseach’s emissary late at night and warned that the cabinet might not be able to express confidence in him – she would probably have stepped down before now.

And while there will be some relief in Government circles that Ministers will no longer have to answer constant questions about the Garda Commissioner, the next Garda scandal won’t be far away. The sudden departure of the second commissioner in three years amid the numerous scandals within the force signals a police force in crisis.

Fixing it now becomes the responsibility of the Government.

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