Careful Nóirín O’Sullivan finds right tone at Oireachtas hearing

Gaps remain in Garda explanations of breath test data, but commissioner safe for now

Nóirín O’Sullivan arrives for the Oireachtas hearing on Thursday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan appeared mindful yesterday of George Santayana’s famous quote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

O’Sullivan’s experience before the Oireachtas justice committee was almost the opposite of that of her predecessor, Martin Callinan, in similar circumstances in 2013.

Back then, Callinan’s performance at the Public Accounts Committee – and particularly his use of the word “disgusting” to describe the allegations of Garda whistleblowers – signalled the beginning of the end for his leadership.

In marked contrast, O’Sullivan was fluent, careful and collected. She struck a sufficiently contrite tone for Garda mistakes and conceded too, for the first time, that the exaggeration of breath tests taken involved personal wrongdoing. She gave a reasonably plausible account of how the problem arose and how the force dealt with it.


It wasn’t all plain sailing. O’Sullivan and her colleagues left huge gaps and were not convincing in their explanations or in the detail of how quickly or thoroughly they addressed these problems. That said, O’Sullivan strongly defended her time as commissioner, in the face of some abrasive questioning.


It remains to be seen whether O’Sullivan will survive the series of scandals in which she has been embroiled. But she emerged from the hearing relatively intact.

It is clear that most Opposition parties still believe she should step down. Fianna Fáil has not recovered confidence in her. Even Fine Gael deputies did not spare her the sharp prose. But there was a sense that she had done enough to ease the immediate pressure on her.

Did we get to the bottom of all the issues? Hardly. On a lot of specific questions on the details of mistakes, O’Sullivan deferred to her two colleagues with responsibility in the area, Deputy Commissioner John Twomey and Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn. Both, at times, have struggled to explain their positions.

O’Sullivan also signalled, not for the first time, that bad practices might not be confined to traffic offences but might emerge in other areas. When Mick Wallace asked specifically about what areas these might be, she said that nothing specific had come to light yet. She used the analogy of turning over every stone to uncover what lay beneath.


A theme of the questioning has been the tardy nature of the way in which this problem was identified and resolved.

Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan asked why it had taken so long, from 2014 to March of this year, for the issue to be disclosed. He also asked why the force had waited until March this year to access Medical Bureau of Road Safety data, which showed the discrepancy of one million between its figures and the Garda’s, when the bureau had long since alerted it to the problem.

O'Callaghan wondered whether the flurry was created by a report by David Labanyi in The Irish Times on February 20th, outlining this gap.

O’Sullivan was asked several times about the tenability of her position, most pointedly by Wallace. She repeated several times that there was a statutory process in place to dismiss a commissioner. She could not have been clearer in her meaning: she will not go unless she is sacked. And, for the moment, that is not going to happen.