Nóirín O’Sullivan has little to show by way of Garda reform

Wildly exaggerated breath-test figures and long delays reveal Garda resistant to change

The language used by Oireachtas Justice Committee members towards Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan on Thursday underlined the battering her reputation has taken.

Senator Martin Conway (FG) told her he hoped she could win back the public's confidence. "But if you do, you will have put Lazarus in the ha'penny place."

Colm Brophy (FG) began by asking if she'd like to apologise for the way she and her team had "conducted yourselves" during an as-yet uncompleted audit of breath-test figures. When pressing her on why there had been such delays in getting a fix on the issue under her watch he at one point snapped: "You've answered nothing I've asked you."

Jim O’Callaghan (FF) was unimpressed with the delays in taking action when the flag was first raised that they had a one-million-sized hole in their two million breath-test figures.


He was incredulous that the Garda had wasted 19 months before it went to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety for the accurate data on breath tests performed.

"It's interesting there is a flurry of activity after an article is published in The Irish Times on February 20th; I find that interesting," O'Callaghan said.

Medical bureau’s data

The implication was, of course, that the Garda was not only keeping this scandal quiet but didn’t really want the medical bureau’s data as it would be like a bomb going off in Garda Headquarters.

For example, a Garda audit suggested the inflating of the breath-test data in the southern region was 17 per cent. But the accurate data later showed the scale of the inflating in the region was 138 per cent.

A cynic would say it is little wonder the force wanted to count the numbers itself and not involve anybody from outside. That theory, if it sticks, would destroy O’Sullivan’s claim she is the bravest reformer in the force’s history.

The details thrashed out yesterday really don’t help her.

O’Sullivan said the inflating problem predates here time in charge – from March 2014. The very fact there was a problem first emerged on her watch. And the question now is whether the responses of the Garda under her leadership were the actions of a reformer unafraid of the truth, or a circling of the wagons in a culture where loyalty has a higher value.

What we know is that the medical bureau staff told the Garda in July 2014 that the force’s breath-test figures were overstated. The Garda was not using the number of disposable plastic mouth pieces that would have been needed for that many tests.

When the inflated figures continued to be published for the rest of that year and into the next, the bureau’s concerns heightened. And, in August 2015, it decided to check 200 of the Garda’s handheld breathalyser devices.

Distorted figures

Each one contains a reading for the number of tests done. And when the bureau had been calibrating each device every six months down the years it was keeping a note of their readings. It very quickly established the Garda had carried out about 200,000 breath tests during a period it claimed to have carried out 400,000. It passed on that data to the Garda in writing.

From that point on, August-September 2015, senior Garda management knew the bureau was now saying the figures were grossly exaggerated, probably by 100 per cent.

Crucially, senior management also knew by then that the medical bureau had on record – or could quickly generate – data to show how many tests were actually carried out on all 1,200 testing devices for years.

An audit began but it was not until last month that the Garda finally went to the medical bureau and sought its records; just days after The Irish Times revealed the secret audit into the inflated figures. Neither the public nor the Policing Authority knew anything about it.

After the article appeared and the Garda went to the medical bureau and sought the real figures, it had the data within about 10 days. And the full scale of the problem was out. The long and drawn-out audit paints a picture of an organisation that does not appear on its way to reform.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times