Commissioner short on answers about false breath tests

O’Sullivan casts herself as solution, not the problem, in getting to bottom of scandal

Anyone seeking answers about how the Garda falsely reported almost one million fake breath tests over a five-year period will not have found any at Garda headquarters yesterday.

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan and the two senior officers flanking her at the Phoenix Park HQ, Deputy Commissioner John Twomey and Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn, in charge of the Garda National Roads Policing Bureau, appeared as stunned and horrified as everyone else at the revelations.

O’Sullivan, in charge since 2014, was keen to point to the problems emerging within the Garda as evidence of the scale of the challenges she faces in trying to fix them, rather than bearing responsibility for them.

The extent of the false reporting of alcohol breathalyser tests – some 937,212 on the Garda Pulse system from 2011 to 2016 – suggests that the problem may have infected every Garda division.

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O’Sullivan admitted yesterday that the Garda had “a countrywide problem”, but she and her fellow officers were none the wiser about how it happened or if there was widespread fraud at play.

The wrongful issuing of 146,865 summonses for road traffic offences was blamed largely on human error, though a procedural IT fix could have stopped court penalties being imposed in 14,700 cases. O’Sullivan later admitted that her own officers may not have even understood the law.

Tipped off

Almost three years after being tipped off via an anonymous letter that there was a problem with how alcohol testing checkpoints were being operated in the west of the country, the Garda still does not have its own systems to figure out the extent of the problem. It had to rely on the Medical Bureau of Road Safety to find out exactly how many actual breath tests had been carried out by its own members during the period.

The information came last month and only then did Assistant Commissioner Finn realise that there was a “significant discrepancy” between the two sets of figures.

He disputed a report that the Medical Bureau of Road Safety informed the Garda that the number of drink-driving breath tests it was claiming was too high in the summer of 2014; he said that the bureau simply wrote to the Garda to ask whether they required “consumables” for the breath-testing devices.

Still, that the Garda should have to rely on an outside agency to verify its own records suggests that there is something rotten, not just with how its activities are recorded and verified, but with certain practices within the force.

O’Sullivan stressed repeatedly that the Garda had taken “corrective action” to “make sure that this cannot happen again”, but the absence of details on why this happened – and how it was allowed to happen – will do little to restore credibility or public confidence in a force whose statistics drive policy in road safety and members can convict a person in court.

Little reassurance

For the commissioner, with her role in the Garda whistleblower scandal still under examination, her performance yesterday will do little to reassure a sceptical public bewildered by these latest revelations.

The ham-fisted initial presentation around the phantom tests and wrongful summonses last week and the fact that she did not unveil the extent of the problems herself at that press conference has not helped.

Yesterday was the second attempt in five days to provide an explanation. O’Sullivan, in making her first public appearance since the scandal broke, presented herself as being part of the solution, not the problem.

She was on “a huge journey of very deep, very real cultural reform”, she said, and this would unearth issues that she would fix in the face of any opposition.

O'Sullivan indicated that that journey would not be disrupted even if the Dáil were to vote no confidence in her. The Policing Authority, which can recommend her removal, continues to monitor developments too.

She appeared to address the main “what did you know and when did you know it” questions, providing a detailed timeline around when the extent of the false tests and wrongful summons came to light.

But many significant questions remain and the investigation led by assistant commissioner Michael O’Sullivan that she announced yesterday will likely buy her time to try to answer them.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent