Garda itself has become ‘new Angola’ for Nóirín O’Sullivan

Commissioner is toughing it out politically, but Policing Authority won’t be fobbed off

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan: has faced down calls  to step aside already this year over the  whistleblower controversy. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan: has faced down calls to step aside already this year over the whistleblower controversy. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

 

Having come out of a week of intense activity when she was forced to fight for her credibility and, indeed, her job, the future looks beset with trouble for Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen once referred to the Department of Health as “Angola” because there were so many landmines ready to blow up at any time.

Such has been the sheer number of crises to emerge from An Garda Síochána in recent years, it is fast becoming the new Angola, for those at the top at any rate.

O’Sullivan, to her credit, is as tough as they come. She has faced down calls for her to step aside already this year when the whistleblower controversy – a minefield all of its own – erupted spectacularly.

And this week she made it clear she was going nowhere; that she would remain in her post even if the Dáil voted no confidence in her. She has put it up to the Government, essentially telling them that if they want her to go they have to sack her.

Stories were leaked this week suggesting the Attorney General’s advice to Cabinet was that if any Minister said publicly they had no confidence in her, such a statement would amount to constructive dismissal.

O’Sullivan is not for budging. Her position looks safe for now. In fact, in putting it up to the Government the way she has, she appears untouchable now.

But more crises will undoubtedly emerge within the Garda before long.

Aside from surprise events, there are so many problems to deal with – in both the short and long term – that the rest of her seven-year commissionership looks set to be filled with pressure.

Huge gulf

The Garda Representative Association and Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors have remained silent; but the concerns both have about current events will be aired before long during annual conferences.

The associations tend to back under-pressure commissioners. But their membership is likely to voice annoyance on two issues.

Firstly, O’Sullivan told the Oireachtas Justice Committee on Thursday that 2014 – when the flag was first raised about breath test figures – was a time of cutbacks in the force. She said she was struggling to run an organisation “almost single-handedly”, with a skeletal staff.

However, back in 2014 when she was interim commissioner she told the Public Accounts Committee that cutbacks had not damaged policing. Indeed, she said the cutbacks represented an excellent opportunity for the Garda to become more efficient.

On their knees

Many in the Garda were livid at the time that their leader had said resources were not an issue. They wanted her to go in and fight for them, to make it clear that years of cuts had Garda members on their knees and the service they offered had been rendered threadbare.

But now that it suits the commissioner to paint a very different picture, she has done so – an action that will only serve to widen the already huge gulf between the rank-and-file and top brass.

Secondly, there are early signs that a hunt is beginning for gardaí who inflated breath-testing figures.

Staff associations will strongly argue that some of their members were pressurised by senior officers into making inflated returns and should not now be blamed.

The Policing Authority is the body O’Sullivan will fear most. However, it also has the potential to be her biggest ally. If she can convince it she is truly a reformer and that her reforms are working, the authority will say so publicly.

If it does, the O’Sullivan commissionership could – in time – become one of genuine reform. Indeed, the current problems and those to come might be viewed as the price of reform, shining light into the dark corners.

So far, it is others who are shining lights, not the Garda management, including a member of the part-time Garda Reserve, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety and The Irish Times. But nuances will be forgotten if O’Sullivan succeeds.

Thus far, the Policing Authority is unimpressed. While the commissioner is a good performer in public and is tough, she has met her match in authority chairwoman Josephine Feehily.

Feehily has already called out O’Sullivan for failing to tell the authority about the audit into breath-test figures, and expressed deep concern that she learned of it through reading The Irish Times.

The authority has also declined the commissioner’s request to get the Garda Inspectorate to examine the remedies the Garda has applied to the latest problems with traffic policing, insisting it needed more information to measure the value of such a step.

Roads policing

It said it still did not have all the information it had long been seeking from the Garda and that it wanted that information by the end of the week.

It would also continue to examine the information the Garda supplies to it in advance of its meeting on roads policing on April 27th.

The regular meetings with the authority in public offer no place to hide, especially since they are chaired by Feehily.

Above all others, this is the body that can demand information some of the Garda leadership believes it can conceal from the public and the media, believing the interests of the force trump accountability.

Aside from the day-to-day firefighting likely to occupy O’Sullivan, there is the matter of the Charleton tribunal.

It is from this source that a constant barrage of negative press for O’Sullivan and the Garda generally will emerge.

However, O’Sullivan is very good at talking down the clock with prepared points on how well the Garda is doing – at one point before the Oireachtas Justice Committee she actually said “we’re very good at crisis management”.

Any awkward questions in public about the latest revelations from the tribunal will be met with the line “while a tribunal is ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment”.

O’Sullivan is only two years and five months into a seven- year term . And as previous tribunals demonstrate, the Charleton inquiry could continue well into the rest of O’Sullivan’s time in charge and maybe even beyond.

She has insisted repeatedly she was never involved in or even aware of a smear campaign against Sgt Maurice McCabe. And it is that issue the tribunal will deal with first.

O’Sullivan insists she can deal with the tribunal and also run the Garda. Before the events of this week the Policing Authority could only express “a degree of confidence” in her ability to do that.

She has faced down the statements of no confidence from political quarters; the next public utterances from the Policing Authority in relation to her will be very closely watched.