Miriam Lord: Irony-free Nóirín engulfs PAC in verbal dust screen

It’s hard work listening to O’Sullivan as she relays her grand plan to re-energise the force

At yesterday's Public Accounts Committee (21st June), Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, faced questions on financial procedures at Garda College Templemore. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

The first thing Nóirín O’Sullivan did upon becoming Garda Commissioner in April 2014 “was to set about restoring confidence in An Garda Síochána”.

That went well.

Three years on and confidence in An Garda Síochána – among serving members and members of the public – is soaring like a paper plane in a downpour.

It was all go in 2014. “I set up an environment where people can speak freely,” she told the Public Accounts Committee. That’s going well too. The Commissioner doesn’t do irony. She was back before the PAC yesterday, this time as a solo act, but with a sullenly silent backing trio sitting beside her – three supporting men expressly forbidden to say a word.

It’s hard work listening to O’Sullivan as she tells everyone about her grand plan to re-energise the force

The committee said she could confer with them – two Assistant Commissioners and the force’s Chief Accounting Officer - but only she was allowed to speak. A bit like University Challenge, where the answers must come though the team captain.

It’s hard work listening to O’Sullivan as she tells everyone about her grand plan to re-energise the force, something which involves concentrating on future management through the use of construction metaphors while being very hazy about the past.

After the third hour, you’ve lost the will to live

O’Sullivan doesn’t answer questions; she throws up a verbal dust screen. After the first hour passes, you begin to wonder if she is capable of a giving a simple, straight reply. After the second hour, you don’t really care. And after the third hour, you’ve lost the will to live.

How are things, Commissioner? Probable response: “Can I make it very clear that I am clear we are dealing with extremely complex architecture and that while, clearly, I cannot account for anybody’s actions before I was accounting officer, I am now fully confident I am enabling the architectural skill-set required to create an effective and cohesive team so that any matters arising from the structural issues will be put into the process and actioned. And I am unanimous with myself on that.”

PAC marathon

That’s Nóirín in a nutshell. Our favourite part of yesterday’s PAC marathon, where she was under sustained questioning over allegations of serious financial regularities at Templemore Garda training college, wasn’t the bit where Mary Lou McDonald accused her of indulging in “verbal pilates” (pilates being all the rage in Sinn Féin these days). No, it was when Mary Lou’s colleague David Cullinane put it repeatedly to the ultra-careful Commissioner that she made a mistake back in 2015 by not informing the Comptroller and Auditor General that issues had arisen over the handling of Templemore’s finances.

At first, O’Sullivan blustered about “issues” not being the same as actual “irregularities.” Issues must be examined in the fullest possible manner before anything is done, you see. Big, suspicious, irregularities, on the other hand, are given straight over to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

At times, this can be most unfortunate, as one might come to light just before a PAC meeting and then the poor guards can’t really say anything because they handed the problem over to GSOC the day before. It happened this week. Some committee members couldn’t help thinking this was an amazing coincidence but Nóirín reassured them the force isn’t trying to shove its dirty linen down GSOC’s chute.

But back to 2015 and the C&AG, who wrote to O’Sullivan as Accounting Officer of An Garda Síochána asking if she had anything to report on the money front. She dashed off a reply saying everything was totally in order within the Garda accounts. Anything at all amiss, wondered the State’s accountant? No. All tickety boo, wrote back Nóirín, a few days after attending a meeting at which matters such as “potentially compromised” accounts were discussed.

It was unfortunate for her to have Seamus McCarthy, the State’s accountant, sitting a few seats away

“Not good enough” chided Cullinane. “If I knew then what I know now... of course I would have...” murmured the Commissioner. But, of course, “this is very much a work in progress.”

It was unfortunate for her to have Seamus McCarthy, the State’s accountant, sitting a few seats away and not subject to the same speaking ban as her Garda colleagues, who had done so much of the talking at previous meetings. McCarthy turned out to be very forthright with his answers.

In 2015, when she knew quite a bit about the dodgy accounting rumours, Nóirín didn’t want to tell the C&AG anything until she had compiled all the relevant information (and God knows how long that might take, given the force’s abysmal track record in this department). But Seamus told the PAC that where there is even a question of irregularities “I feel that is something which should be made known to me”.

C&AG letter

He doesn’t need to be presented with an open and shut case. All he needs is some basic information. “It gives me the power to investigate.”

Under questioning from Cullinane, the Commissioner conceded her letter to the C&AG wasn’t all it should be.

“So, are you admitting you made a mistake by telling him all she knew?” Not a chance. “No.” But the information sent by the Commissioner to Seamus McCarthy was incorrect. Surely that amounts to making a mistake?

I’m sorry for robbing that cream bun, yer honour. But I’m innocent. It was my mindset at the time

Not in Nóirín’s world. “It was my mindset at the time” was her excuse. Which, apparently, is a different thing entirely.

That’s sounds like a great courtroom defence: “I’m sorry for robbing that cream bun, yer honour. But I’m innocent. It was my mindset at the time.” If nothing else, it would make a change from blaming the drink.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly got a rare admission from the Commissioner, who once tried to explain away the mounting number of allegations surfacing from the Templemore accounts as “legacy issues”. She accepted that this isn’t really the case.

Connolly is a very effective inquisitor: calm, incisive and insistent. She wanted to know why, after two major reports and the first allegations of alleged malpractice surfacing in 2008, nothing was done to address the situation. “I don’t know” said the Commissioner. But she can’t be responsible for her predecessors.

And then there was the question of civilian staff member, John Barreett, who raised the issues and persisted with his questions and concerns. Did she agree with what he was actually saying? O’Sullivan repeated he was right to “raise the matter” and agreed he “did the right thing.”

Barrett had given a very detailed account of a meeting they had. Did the Commissioner accept it? “I’d have to read it again.”

“I think you should. I think you should. It’s disappointing you haven’t,” remarked Connolly.

It was a gruelling session for the Commissioner, not least because she had to confer with her colleagues and more than once expressed her frustration that this had to happen. There were many different accounts of what transpired with the Garda college’s labyrinthine accounting system – some PAC members accused her of giving contradictory evidence on Tuesday.

When it comes to holding her own under intense questioning, Nóirín O’Sullivan is very impressive

“Different people have different memories” she suggested. “I’m sure we all have a different account of this meeting here.” Except it was being televised and held in public.

When it comes to holding her own under intense questioning, Nóirín O’Sullivan is very impressive. More than once she was accused of talking down the clock with her wall of management speak built around the complex “architecture” of the “structures” underpinning her force. Never mind the detail of bank accounts in Cabra and the like. Nóirín is busy creating an “effective and cohesive team” and that’s all that matters.

At least she didn’t say “strong and stable.” For that, we must be grateful.