Garda breath test report: no laughs in endless black comedy

Sacking Nóirín O’Sullivan might create a short-term sensation but would not change behaviour within the force

 

It is a black comedy that keeps on giving. Garda Síochána investigations have found that half-a-million additional breath tests were falsified during a seven-year period, bringing the total number of imaginary tests to 1.5 million. The time span covered three governments and two commissioners. Offending gardaí may face unspecified disciplinary action. New procedures for collating figures will be introduced. But the reports contain no direct criticism of senior Garda management.

Sacking commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan in response to these findings might create a short-term, feel-good sensation, but it would not change behaviour within the force. In every single Garda district, members inflated the number of breath tests, some by as much as 300 per cent. The practice was well established before O’Sullivan became commissioner. And it was not confined to traffic offences. Three years ago, the Garda Inspectorate warned that other crime figures were being massaged to portray a lower number of offences and to inflate detection rates. In that context, talk of accountability at the very top of the force is an easy option. Punishment for dishonest behaviour is required at all levels.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan was “greatly disturbed” by the number of phantom breath tests. But the manner in which the fixed-charge processing system had been operated concerned him more. He promised “all appropriate action” when the Policing Authority reported to him on the issues. Such action is unlikely to be dramatic. Last week, the Minister indicated that necessary reforms will not take place overnight and could take up to four years. The Commission on the Future of Policing is expected to provide a template for the changes required.

“Systemic failure” has been the traditional, ministerial excuse when departmental managers and State agencies fail spectacularly. It suggests that individuals are not at fault and therefore, should not be punished. As an excuse, it has lost its sell-by date. The appointment of a Policing Authority to oversee the Garda Síochána and encourage accountability and engagement with the public reflected a tougher approach. But the authority is less than happy with the progress being made and has experienced some of the difficulties met by the Garda Inspectorate and the Garda Ombudsman.

The Policing Authority wants a greater number of civilians within the force, along with changes in perspectives, including at senior management level. It is a tough ask, particularly for an increasingly isolated Garda Commissioner. Allegations against O’Sullivan remain under investigation by the Charleton tribunal, and serious questions remain about unorthodox financial arrangements at Templemore training college. The storms engulfing the force rage on.

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