Acting Garda Commissioner defends Stepaside station decision
Dónall Ó Cualáin says he should never have promised to give the Public Accounts Committee a report on selection
Some PAC members told Dónall Ó Cualáin his replies to questions left ‘a lot to be desired’.
The acting Garda commissioner has defended the decision to reopen Stepaside Garda station in Dublin before a review of all the country’s stations was finished.
During what were at times robust and tense exchanges at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Thursday, Dónall Ó Cualáin said the review process for Dublin was much quicker than for other parts of the country.
He also said when the Garda recommended to the Government in June that Stepaside be reopened, it also recommended Rush in north Co Dublin should be reopened.
However, the Government chose Stepaside, which is in the constituency of Minister for Transport Shane Ross and which he has long promised his constituents would be reopened.
The revelation appears to contradict previous Government statements that the selection of Stepaside station over all others was made by the Garda.
Some members told Mr Ó Cualáin his replies to questions left “a lot to be desired”.
In June, Mr Ó Cualáin promised the PAC he could furnish it with a copy of an interim report compiled by the Garda on the selection of six stations, from 139 previously closed, for reopening.
However, he has now said he should never have made that promise because the report had been lodged with the Department of Justice and it was for the department to make the report available or not.
He was called before PAC at short notice to explain why the interim report could not be given to the committee.
“It’s just not in my gift to give it; it’s in the Department,” he told the committee.
“I said something I shouldn’t have . . . I made that realisation myself after the last meeting.”
He denied he had been influenced by the Government in any decision-making around what Garda stations to reopen or whether to give the PAC the interim report about the process.
He also pointed out the decision to reopen Stepaside was made by Noirin O’Sullivan, who stepped down as Garda Commissioner earlier this month.
“The reason there was so much information available on Stepaside is because it was one of four stations to be considered by the assistant commissioner in charge of the Dublin Metropolitan Region,” he said.
“(In contrast) his colleagues throughout the country had a far bigger number to consider.”
Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald immediately asked if Mr Ó Cualáin felt that was “a credible answer”.
“I’m telling you, I’m coming here to assist this committee; that is how it happened,” Mr Ó Cualáin replied.
Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry said some of his replies did not bode well for a “new broom” era of transparency hoped for in the Garda.
He pointed out the Department of Justice has indicated that although the report may be made available in the future, some sections would be redacted for security reasons.
“That means we’re never going to get the report,” he told the acting commissioner.
Shane Cassells (FF) said Mr Ó Cualáin’s very brief opening remarks to the committee were “certainly one of the shortest opening statements we are every like to get.”
He told Mr Ó Cualáin his decision not to honour his earlier commitment to make the interim report available was “hugely regrettable”. It was also a blow to transparency that had already been damaged in hearings with members of the Garda earlier this year, Mr Cassells added.
The TD expressed his frustration that without the promised interim report, the committee members could not review the criteria on which Stepaside station was chosen above all others for reopening and before a review into the process was completed.
“It’s going to cause huge anger to the rest of the country, especially in rural areas where those 139 stations have been closed and (others) have been scaled down to buzzer boxes,” he told the acting commissioner.
“At the same time, those people see pictures with the smiley head of Shane Ross holding up a poster with his local councillor saying ‘I’ve got you Stepaside reopened’. That’s the context for the background to this. People will find that very hard to swallow.”
Mr Ó Cualáin denied a suggestion by Ms McDonald that he was “waiting on Government instruction” before the other five stations to be reopened, as per the programme for Government, were selected.
The acting commissioner also indicated that at least two complete new stations, on sites with no station, were being considered.
The issue of the reopening Stepaside station is contentious because it is in Mr Ross’s constituency, and the Minister has been accused of having abused his position at Cabinet to secure the reopening of the station over others.
In occasionally robust and tense exchanges, Mr Ó Cualáin said one of the criteria for selecting stations for reopening was that at least one of the six to be reopened nationally should be in Dublin.
And he said the assistant commissioner charged with reviewing stations for possible reopening in Dublin had a much smaller amount of research to do compared to his colleagues considering stations for reopening in other parts of the country.
Mr Ó Cualáin said one of the criteria for reopening stations was that only stations still in State ownership, rather than those sold after a significant station closing programme during the recession, could be reopened.
Only four stations in Dublin that had been closed were still in State ownerships. It meant only those four needed to be reviewed, and so the review process for Dublin was much quicker than for other parts of the country.
An interim report was lodged with Government on June 9th, and the Cabinet considered it on June 13th, the same day Mr Ross made a statement announcing Stepaside in his constituency was reopening.
Mr Ó Cualáin said that in the interim report, all four stations in Dublin were listed as being in a position to be reopened.
But under close questioning by Ms McDonald he added both Rush and Stepaside were recommended for reopening.
However, he insisted the decision to select Stepaside for reopening was a Garda one and said he was not aware of any political pressure to select Stepaside over other closed stations in Dublin.
“The most important input in this process was from local Garda management,” he told Labour TD Alan Kelly.