Friday 22 September 2017

Drink-driving checkpoints may not have been valued as much as crime detection - Commissioner suggests to Justice Committee

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan arrives for a Justice and Equality Committee meeting on recent controversies concerning An Garda Siochana at Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan arrives for a Justice and Equality Committee meeting on recent controversies concerning An Garda Siochana at Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Kevin Doyle and Laura Larkin

Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan has said she was “almost single-handedly” running the force when she took over in 2014.

The embattled garda chief has told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that people need to realise the situation she faced when she took up her post.

“We were dealing with such a depleted management team that I was almost single-handedly with a team of five assistant commissioners trying to run what was then a 14,500 person organisation,” she said.

Ms O’Sullivan said she was not making excuses for the falsification of breath test records, arguing that her team moved to put fixes in place as quickly as possible.

Noirin O'Sullivan addresses the justice committee
Noirin O'Sullivan addresses the justice committee

“In terms of the supervision management layers that go down around the organisation, we had come through a very significant recession.

“The guards were no different than anybody in the public or private sector but I think the legacy issues that we’re dealing with now is the deficit and depletion of the supervisory and management capacity,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

“I spent nine months in that position as interim acting commissioner. I was appointed in November of that year. It took a further 11 months to have two deputy commissioners appointed. And it was only in January of this year that we got the appointment of a full executive,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

“Last week we eventually got a panel of assistant commissioners,” she added.

Fine Gael TD Colm Brophey replied: “You said you’re nothing making excuses but then you delivered a list of excuses for why you didn’t do something.”

Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambvers demanded that Ms O’Sullivan provide a theory for why phantom breath tests were happening all over the country.

He said there was an “enormous cultural failure”.

“It’s beyond a marginal statistical mishap," he said.

In response, the Commissioner suggested that it may be possible that officer didn’t set a high value on drink-driving checkpoints because there were designed as “a preventative measure” rather than to actually catch offenders.

“Perhaps it wasn’t as valued as important as it was in terms of detections,” she said.

Noirin O'Sullivan addresses the justice committee
Noirin O'Sullivan addresses the justice committee

Ms O’Sullivan said in her opening statement that her “real fear is that this falsification is not confined to traffic data”. 

Asked to explain this, she said was not referring to any specific areas but there is an audit of domestic abuse reports.

“We do have a number of reviews going on,” she said.

Ms O’Sullivan said they were “turning over stones” which meant they would find problems.

She also said it may well emerge that gardaí  entered the incorrect data on breath tests deliberately.

"We now know some Gardaí recorded numbers that were false. At worst, this was deception. At best, this was incompetence," she said.

Clare Daly put it to the Commissioner that while she talked about people being held responsible for the problems, she was advocating her own responsibility.

“I am taking responsibility for this. I took responsibility for making sure that instruction were issues to address the problem,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

However, Ms Daly revealed that she was summons to court late last year for a road traffic offence despite not having received a Fixed Charge Notice.

She said this occurred after the time period during which an audit found 14,700 wrongful convictions took place.

“My own direct personal experience belies the narrative that you put forward which is that the problems in the system have been corrected,” Ms Daly said.

The committee heard that gardaí are confident issues relating to FCNs have been corrected and the Commissioner offered to have senior gardai review Ms Daly's case.

Reform

Under questioning from TDs Ms O'Sullivan made a strident defence of a programme of reform underway in An Garda Siochana. She said that "no less than 1,400 recommendations" were made in a series of 43 reports.

In response, she said, a comprehensive programme of reform was implemented that went beyond a "glossy" document she said.

The commissioner also said she has no specific information that there is an issue in other areas and Ms O'Sulivan has told the committee but she said if anything is uncovered gardai will make that information public and transparent.

There are a number of reviews on-going.

"We're introducing something we never had before, standard operating procedures," she said.

System

During proceedings the commissioner also said facts must be established before fixes can be put in place she said.

Gardai are "trying to keep the lights on while we are re-wiring the house," she added.

Oversight

The same committee also heard that it was a "complete oversight" that the Policing Authority was not alerted to the controversies earlier.

Competition

Responding to questioning from Fianna Fáil's Jim O'Callaghan Ms O'Sullivan said it "may well" emerge that garda figures were "erroneously or incorrectly" entered on the system. 

Competition

The committee has also been told there was “never a competition between regions or chief superintendents for the number of breath tests performed”.

A national review into breath tests is not yet completed.

In July 2016 the examination of the entire country commenced and it is not finished yet.

The focus was on making sure changes to the system, introduced in April 2016, were effective before the national review was begun the committee has heard.

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