Garda reform: task too great for Government

Nóirín O’Sullivan and senior team are in full defensive mode

Questioning by the Oireachtas justice committee yesterday brought certain definitive answers: Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has no intention of stepping down; instead she and her senior team are in full defensive mode. Necessary Garda reforms will now require a political determination that, unfortunately, appears to be beyond this Government and there is little prospect of the transformation required.

Opposition parties are demanding change of the kind introduced by the Patten Commission in Northern Ireland. Although social circumstances are very different, some aspects such as early/forced retirements; restructuring and external recruitment would be central to a similar exercise within the Garda. In addition, the oversight measures that were provided here through a Garda Ombudsman and Policing Authority were resisted for many years. The task is to play catch-up.

The most striking aspect of exchanges between elected representatives and senior gardaí was their inability to convincingly explain a three-year delay in investigating the false recording of one million breath tests at stations throughout the State. Ms O’Sullivan blamed it, in part, on a lack of resources and a depleted management team. Those shortcomings have since been addressed but the matter remains under investigation. Her concern about possible dishonest behaviour brought a commitment that gardaí at all levels would be held accountable “if wrongdoing was established”. Why did that not reassure?

False records were systematically created in every Garda district. But why this took place continues to baffle Garda management. They were unable to offer any explanation, even when it was suggested it might be connected to the promotional ambition of officers or, much worse, to qualify them for productivity bonus payments. The Commissioner talked about openness and transparency even as she stonewalled elected representatives and sought to minimise the scandal by suggesting gardaí didn’t regard breath test figures as important because their primary concern was to prevent road deaths.

Having expressed a fear that the manipulation of statistics might extend beyond traffic matters, the Commissioner declined to be more specific. Three years ago, however, the Garda Inspectorate warned that ordinary crime figures were being massaged to portray a lower number of offences and an inflated detection rate. Details of those ‘mistakes’ and ‘administrative errors’ are likely to re-surface in further reports that are nearing completion within the inspectorate.

In addition, investigations into the treatment of whistle-blowers and completion of the Fennelly Commission’s report on the recording of phone calls at garda stations will maintain pressure on the Commissioner and the Minister for Justice. The time for change is now.