Fintan O'Toole: Nóirín O’Sullivan makes even Enda Kenny seem defeatist
Garda Commissioner survives because Government is asking absurd question
Nóirín O’Sullivan is in the wrong business. She is not much of a Garda Commissioner, but she is a truly brilliant politician. The primary political skill is the ability to hold on to power. O’Sullivan is making even the barnacle-like Enda Kenny seem weakly defeatist. And she is doing it with a strategy so boldly counterintuitive that people struggle to see it for what it is. To put it bluntly, the chief of police is demanding that we treat her like an alleged criminal. That takes a kind of genius.
Is she doing a good job? Is she relentlessly pursuing wrongdoing and transforming the whole culture of a dangerously corrupted force?
It has been obvious for a year or so now that the political establishment would like nothing better than for O’Sullivan to follow her predecessor’s example and “retire”. But she’s been way ahead of the politicians. She knew her hold on power would hinge on a subtle question: by what standard should we judge whether the position of a Garda commissioner remains tenable? And she managed to get both the Government and the shadow government of Fianna Fáil to accept (apparently without thinking) a startling answer: the head of the police force should be judged in exactly the same way as a jury would judge someone her force has brought before the courts accused of a crime.
Time and again, in scandal after scandal, when the question of whether O’Sullivan should stay in office has arisen, she has reached for the most basic defence: “I am innocent.” In the vernacular of the criminal justice system, this translates as: “I did nothing.” Logically, this is not really what you want to hear from the head of an organisation that is stumbling from one crisis to the next. But as a political gambit, it is as brilliant as it is bold. It shifts the argument away from the obvious questions: is she doing a good job? Is she relentlessly pursuing wrongdoing and transforming the whole culture of a dangerously corrupted force? Suddenly, she is not the supposed upholder of justice but the potential victim of a miscarriage of justice.
The strategy has been amazingly successful. Kenny swallowed it whole and regurgitated it in February when O’Sullivan was under pressure after the latest awful twists in the Maurice McCabe affair. Asked about her position, he said: “Everybody in this country is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.” Frances Fitzgerald has used the same formula when asked about O’Sullivan’s position in the Dáil: “Allegations are not convictions . . . and people are entitled to the presumption of innocence. That applies to all of the parties involved, including the commissioner.”
By making the issue one of innocent or guilt, O’Sullivan set a rhetorical trap. And the Taoiseach and Tánaiste ambled straight into it. They have set down a ludicrous criterion for judging whether the most powerful public servant in the land is doing her job well enough to stay in it: has she been found guilty of a criminal offence? Protections that are in place to stop people being wrongly sent to jail are being used to protect an extremely powerful office-holder from proper democratic accountability. To savour the absurdity, try it on your boss. Boss: “You’re two months late with that vital project.” You: “Sure, but I have not been found guilty of a criminal offence beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of my peers.” Boss: “Grand so, carry on.”
There are, of course, rather more obvious criteria that should be applied to the job of Garda commissioner. We might, for example, ask how O’Sullivan is getting on with her stated aim of making the Garda “a beacon of 21st century policing”. Or, if we don’t want to frighten the neighbours with our shrieks of hysterical laughter, we might just ask for the most simple standard of all: trust. Trust is to policing as numeracy is to accountancy. The chief of police, who in Ireland is also the head of national security, must have the complete trust of the government and of the citizens. It’s the most basic clause in the deal: we give you extraordinary powers because we trust you.
The Government does not fully trust O’Sullivan. This is not a statement of opinion – it is a matter of fact. She says she knew nothing about the smearing of Maurice McCabe. If the Government took her at her word, that would be that. But the Government has instead established a tribunal of inquiry whose terms of reference require it to establish whether or not she is telling the truth.
O’Sullivan’s insistence that the only real issue is one of guilt or innocence is a way of saying that trust doesn’t really matter
And public trust in O’Sullivan has evaporated: last week’s poll for Claire Byrne Live showed that 65 per cent of people do not have confidence in her, compared with just 14 per cent who do.
O’Sullivan’s insistence that the only real issue is one of guilt or innocence is a way of saying that trust doesn’t really matter. As a survival strategy, this is superb. As a statement about how power should work in a democratic republic, it is both damning and dangerous. Take away the need to earn and sustain public trust and you are left with nothing but power for its own sake and for the sake of those who cling to it.