Open disdain for Garda Commissioner from TDs and Senators

Nóirín O’Sullivan takes pounding before PAC as members’ distrust and incredulity grow

Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader of Sinn Féin: questioned Nóirín O’Sullivan on whether she had the clout to be Garda Commissioner and accused her of “verbal pilates”. Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader of Sinn Féin: questioned Nóirín O’Sullivan on whether she had the clout to be Garda Commissioner and accused her of “verbal pilates”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Key witnesses in murder trials have had an easier time in the witness box than Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan enjoyed before the Public Accounts Committee on Tuesday.

To say many of the Senators and Dáil deputies applied distrust and incredulity as their default approach is an understatement. This was open disdain, pure and simple.

The most senior police officer in the country was at different times accused of talking down the clock, managing oversight processes to suit herself and was urged towards brevity in her responses, mostly while still mid-sentence.

She was openly questioned on whether she had the clout to be Garda Commissioner and was accused of “verbal pilates” by Mary Lou McDonald (SF) as she urged O’Sullivan to give shorter, clear and substantive answers to questions.

“We don’t always need a long narrative,” McDonald told her, with others also complaining their questions were not being answered despite long replies by O’Sullivan.

Several committee members, including Marc MacSharry (Fianna Fáil) and Catherine Connolly (Independents4Change), suggested it was “convenient”, “very convenient” and “incredibly convenient” that late on Monday O’Sullivan had referred to the Garda Ombudsman suspected fraudulent activity on a bank account link to the Garda College in Templemore.

Catherine Murphy (SD) said that referral, and the commencement of a Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) inquiry, meant questions about the bank account were rendered “out of bounds” just as O’Sullivan was due to face them.

Damaged O’Sullivan

All in all O’Sullivan was jostled, talked over and hurried along like an exasperated parent would a child who’d deliberately left their homework until bedtime so they could stay up a while longer.

It’s a mark of how damaged O’Sullivan, and the reputation of senior Garda management, has become in the eyes of many in the houses of the Oireachtas that at one stage she was compared to a hostile witness in a criminal trial. David Cullinane TD (SF) made the charge and when O’Sullivan told him she took issue with it in the strongest sense, he didn’t flinch.

Chair Alan Kelly TD (Lab) interjected, asking Cullinane to “refrain”. But he stopped well short of asking for the remark to be withdrawn and Cullinane didn’t offer.

“I’ve never been described as a hostile witness in my whole career,” O’Sullivan protested, clearly aghast at what had just been said.

We’ve incrementally journeyed to this point – of open hostility towards Garda management on the part of public representatives – for several years, of course.

Up until relatively recently, even five years ago, at Oireachtas committee hearings a Garda commissioner’s word was accepted in full in all but very exceptional circumstances, which rarely arose.

Change of mood

The mood changed when the Garda was under the stewardship of Martin Callinan. It was at a PAC hearing when he was being pounded over his handling of the whistleblower crises that he described their actions as “disgusting”. Two months later he was gone from office.

And since O’Sullivan took over – first as interim commissioner in March 2014 and then formally seven months later – her questioning in public has become something of a blood sport.

She’s been hit hard, early and often, and spends most of her time on the ropes trying to keep her guard up.

It would have been unthinkable to have seen former commissioners such as Callinan’s predecessor Fachtna Murphy and Noel Conroy before him, treated like a public nuisance in the way O’Sullivan on Tuesday.

She was in the ring for six hours from just after 9.30am and back again in the evening for another hour.

When those in her corner have been thrust in to answer questions in her absence, they’ve at times fought among themselves.

Ordinarily the fast-approaching Oireachtas summer break would offer some respite. It would normally provide time to regroup and rethink and for crises in other areas of public life to displace the Garda as the latest outrage.

But these are not ordinary times.

The Charleton Tribunal is limbering up and will soon begin substantive public hearings. It is probing, among other matters, allegations from whistleblowers Supt David Taylor and Sgt Maurice McCabe that O’Sullivan was involved in a smear campaign against McCabe.

She has protested her innocence and will hope for a less hostile reception from the tribunal barristers than she endured in Leinster House yesterday.

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