Garda account of breath-test debacle wearing ever thinner
Pressure mounts on Nóirín O’Sullivan over data discrepancy and slow Garda response
Crisis on her watch: Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins
The fact that breath-test numbers were being inflated is not the real issue now for Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. She says she is creating a world-class police force and that she is the greatest reformer in the history of the Garda Síochána. But she now faces the allegation that she has been much better at talking about reform over the past three years than actual reform.
She took over as acting Garda commissioner in March 2014. The very next month, an allegation that breath-test data was being inflated was brought to the attention of the Garda. An anonymous letter was sent to the Road Safety Authority to that effect, and passed on to the force.
The Garda circulated a briefing document for the media on Monday with a timeline for the information it had and the steps taken.
It does not make for happy reading. It shows that the Garda only sought the accurate breath-test figures from the Medical Bureau of Road Safety after The Irish Times made public the problems with the breath-testing data last month.
The Garda’s official timeline confirms the 2014 tip-off as having been received on April 24th of that year. The timeline then jumps to 2015, when it said it began a review of data from the Southern Region.
It does not say what it did in the eight months of 2014 that remained after the tip-off was received. Having reviewed the breath-testing data for the Southern Region in 2015, it then, in 2016, extended that review nationwide. And, earlier this month, when its nationwide audit failed to determine the extent to which the breath-test data had been inflated, it went to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety for its figures – the accurate and real ones.
The bureau supplies the Garda with the kit it needs for breath-testing. And when it examines the hand-held breath-test devices on a rolling basis every six months, it keeps a record of how many tests have been conducted since it last calibrated each of the devices.
Bureau director Prof Denis Cusack’s timeline of events in this controversy is very problematic for O’Sullivan.
He says that, in July 2014, because the Garda figures showed a very high number of breath tests being carried out, the bureau believed the Garda must have been running short of “breath tubes”. These are the disposable “use-once” plastic tubes motorists blow into.
But far from needing more of them, the Garda had an over-supply. When the bureau learned this, it became concerned and, crucially, in July 2014, it informed the Garda that “something didn’t add up” with the breath-test figures.
“It was an alert that something wasn’t adding up,” he says. “And some months later we got a reply to say that they weren’t seeking any more [breath tubes].”
The Garda already had enough tubes for all of 2015 and 2016.
Asked if he had said to the Garda at the time, in 2014, that it was claiming to carry out more tests than the number of breath tubes supplied, he said “that would have come up on the discussions and meetings in 2014 and 2015”.
This means that by the end of the summer of 2014 the Garda had three concerns being put to it: the RSA tip-off, the bureau’s “alert” in writing, and concern being expressed by the bureau at meetings.
The following year, in August 2015, the bureau’s concerns were heightened when what it believed to be inflated monthly testing data were still being published by the Garda. And so it decided to carry out a survey of 200 hand-held breath-test devices. While the Garda claimed more than 400,000 tests in the previous two years, the bureau found the real figure was “closer to 200,000”.
“We told the gardaí . . . we were quite surprised there was such a difference. So we alerted the gardaí in August-September 2015,” Cusack says.
At that point, the Garda agreed to carry out an audit and Cusack heard nothing more until three weeks ago.
On March 8th last, the Garda told the bureau it was unable to reconcile the figures from its audit with its website.
The Garda wanted the bureau to supply all of the figures it had, for all 1,200 breathalysers and since 2012. Those data were readily available at any time, but the Garda never sought it.
The timing is significant in that two and half weeks earlier The Irish Times published a front-page story about fears over inflated breath-test figures. The story also reported that an audit was under way.
Within days, the Policing Authority said it had not been told of the audit and that it was “disappointed” and “alarmed” to read about the audit in a newspaper.
The following week, the Garda finally went to the bureau to get the figures, and the full scale of the inflating was revealed: one million tests actually carried out between late 2011 and 2016, though two million had been claimed.
The Garda called a press conference for last Thursday and revealed the size of the problem. Incredibly, it only removed the inflated figures from its website on the same day.
O’Sullivan remains under pressure, not just over the figures but over the response to the problem, all of which was under her watch. She faces a nervous period now.