Nóirín O’Sullivan tells tribunal she felt like ‘political football’
Former Garda commissioner tells Charleton tribunal of being caught in media storm
Former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan told the Charleton tribunal she was left feeling “isolated” and in need of a public expression of support from then minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has said she felt like a “political football” when allegations broke in the media that she intended to question the integrity of whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe.
In her evidence to the Charleton tribunal, she described the situation as being like “a vortex” and “a frenzy” and said the allegations led to calls for her resignation.
Ms O’Sullivan said this left her feeling “isolated” and in need of a public expression of support from then tánaiste and minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald.
She said this is what led her to email Ms Fitzgerald with a draft statement to be read out in the Dáil expressing confidence in her as Garda commissioner.
Much of yesterday’s early session of the tribunal dealt with a period in May 2016 when the political and media “frenzy” broke out following a newspaper article alleging Ms O’Sullivan had instructed lawyers to challenge the integrity of Sgt McCabe during the O’Higgins commission, which had been set up to examine his accusations of Garda corruption in the Cavan-Monaghan division.
The article in the Irish Examiner stated that Garda lawyers had instructions to accuse Sgt McCabe of acting with “malice” when he made his corruption allegations. Ms O’Sullivan told the tribunal the article contained “erroneous facts” based on leaks from the commission, which had sat in private.
Ms O’Sullivan has repeatedly insisted she instructed her lawyers at the commission to only challenge Sgt McCabe’s “motivation” and to test the evidence, not to challenge his integrity or suggest that he had acted in bad faith.
However, transcripts from the commission show Garda lawyers had instructions to challenge Sgt McCabe’s integrity.
Counsel for the tribunal, Kathleen Leader, suggested the article set off “a significant media storm”. Ms O’Sullivan replied that she remembered it well.
Ms O’Sullivan said that after the article appeared the accusation featured in every newspaper and on every broadcast. This led to calls for her to resign by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, she said.
Ms Fitzgerald appeared on RTÉ’s Prime Time on May 18th, 2016, and was asked repeatedly if she had confidence in Ms O’Sullivan as commissioner. Ms Fitzgerald declined to express her confidence.
The tribunal heard that after the programme, Ms O’Sullivan sent Ms Fitzgerald an email containing suggested remarks she could make in the Dáil outlining that she had no intention of impugning Sgt McCabe’s credibility.
Ms O’Sullivan’s draft statement suggested that Ms Fitzgerald say: “I wish to state here and now that I have full confidence in the commissioner.”
Ms Fitzgerald did not read the statement in the Dáil and instead sought a meeting with Ms O’Sullivan the following day.
Ms Leader put it to Ms O’Sullivan that she was, in effect, drafting a speech for the tánaiste to make. Ms O’Sullivan denied this and said she was merely providing points of information.
She told counsel the email was a way of “demanding” a public expression of confidence from the minister because if she did not receive it she would have to consider her position.
“At that point in time I felt completely isolated,” said Ms O’Sullivan. “I felt that if this was the only way to set the record straight and put the truth in the public domain, then this was the thing to do.”
She said she felt she was being used “as a political football and this is something that continued right up to my retirement last year”, Ms O’Sullivan said.
“Distorted facts led to a situation which was completely unfair to everyone in the process,” she added.