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Tuesday 26 September 2017

Breath test fiasco was first revealed in whistleblower letter to Gay Byrne

Commissioner Noirín O'Sullivan staves off threat as FF turns on Tánaiste

Kevin Doyle and Niall O'Connor

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan has seen off the immediate challenge to her position, with Fianna Fáil now turning its fire on Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

The Garda chief bought herself some breathing space by convincing the main Opposition party that she "understands the gravity" of the crisis facing the force.

However, Fianna Fáil remains "unsatisfied" by the lack of any explanation for how almost one million breath tests were falsely recorded by gardaí.

Ms O'Sullivan has announced a three-month review "to get to the bottom of where this problem is" but repeatedly refused to speculate on the likelihood there was widescale forgery of statistics.

Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Picture: Mark Condren
Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Picture: Mark Condren

It has now emerged that problems with Mandatory Alcohol Tests (MATs) first came to light in April 2014 when an anonymous whistleblower wrote to the then-chairman of the Road Safety Authority (RSA) Gay Byrne highlighting issues in the Western Region.

The former 'Late Late Show' host forwarded the allegations about lack of enforcement to then Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, who in turn alerted Ms O'Sullivan.

On foot of the allegations, a probe was carried out but gardaí were unable to identify the author of the letter and as a result it was "not possible to progress the matter".

However, in July 2015, a working group was established to conduct an audit of breath tests in the Southern Region between 2009 and 2014. It identified a discrepancy of 17pc between the number of breath-tests recorded on the PULSE system and the number of tests recorded on the testing devices.

Significant

Ms O'Sullivan insisted yesterday it wasn't until earlier this month that it became clear this was "a countrywide problem" on a "very significant" scale.

Fianna Fáil's Jim O'Callaghan told the Irish Independent: "Gardaí should be able to provide some explanation. There must be a dominant reason or a couple of dominant reasons."

This is likely to be a key point put to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald today after Mr O'Callaghan wrote to the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil seeking time to be set aside for special questions.

Ms Fitzgerald met with the Garda Commissioner for two hours yesterday to discuss the breath-test scandal and the separate revelation that 14,700 cases relating to motoring offences were brought to court by mistake. She also had a one-hour meeting with the Policing Authority.

Mr O'Callaghan said his party remained unable to express confidence in Ms O'Sullivan, adding: "We are satisfied that senior management are now treating this with the gravity it deserves but we still do not have an explanation."

However, he suggested that an explanation could now come from Ms Fitzgerald.

"All the political pressure has been put on the Commissioner but it's time for the Tánaiste to stand up. She has obligations to the Dáil," Mr O'Callaghan said.

Ms Fitzgerald issued a statement on the controversy last Friday in which she expressed "very serious concerns".

However, Fianna Fáil described her silence in the interim as "deafening".

The Tánaiste will brief the Cabinet on the situation today, having privately convinced her colleagues to stand by the Commissioner over recent days.

The Independent Alliance will also meet to discuss its position but sources say there is "little appetite" to destabilise the Government by forcing Ms O'Sullivan out.

At a press conference yesterday, Ms O'Sullivan said the misreporting of tests dated back 10 years.

"Who, where and what exactly happened? As soon as we identify what that is, who is responsible for this, where are they responsible for it, the appropriate action will be taken. At this point we're not in a position to say that," she said.

"If we identify any individual or any group of individuals or any place where there are issues that need to be addressed, they will be addressed.

"That doesn't mean just pointing the finger at the guard on the ground or the closest to the ground. That means looking at individual responsibility, supervisory responsibility, managerial responsibility and, most importantly, looking at structural things in place that need to be addressed."

Sinn Féin has tabled a Dáil motion of no confidence in the Commissioner for April 12. Asked whether she would resign if a majority of TDs back the motion, Ms O'Sullivan refused to give a straight answer.

"I have a journey of work that I have to do and I have to make sure I see through that commitment," she said.

Despite its misgivings, Fianna Fáil will not back the motion denouncing the Garda chief.

She also announced a "radical restructuring" of roads policing, adding: "This is a matter of real cultural reform." Taoiseach Enda Kenny and ministers Leo Varadkar, Richard Bruton and Simon Coveney have all publicly backed the Commissioner.

Explainer: Everything you need to know about the penalty points blunder

A staggering 14,700 were wrongly convicted of motoring offences after they weren't given the opportunity to pay a Fixed Charge Notice, it has emerged.

An Garda Síochana have released a lengthy statement explaining how 14,700 people were wrongly convicted of driving offences and what measures are being put in place to help those affected.

Here's all you need to know about the controversy:

1. What is a Fixed Charge Notice?

A Fixed Charge Notice (FCN) is issued to a person who a member of An Garda Siochana has reasonable grounds to believe breached Section 103 of the Road Traffic Act 1961, it can be delivered in person or by post. Over 10.5 million FCN have been issued since 2006.

2. How did this all kick off?

In December 2014 failing to have an NCT became a FCN, from then on no summons could be issued unless the driver has been issued with a FCN and subsequently failed to pay it. In February 2016 it emerged Garda Information Services Centre became aware of an issue regarding summonses for NCTs and ordered members to stop issuing them for this specific offence.

Two months later, in April 2016, a person appeared before court after being summonsed for not having an NCT Certificate, it emerged that they had already paid a FCN. As a result Gardai launched a preliminary review to determine how this happened.

3. What did the initial probe discover?

The initial probe found 759 cases where a person had paid a FCN for not having a valid NCT Cert and then been summonsed to court.

4. So, what happened then?

The investigation was widened to include all fixed charges offences and 1,130 cases were found where summonses had been issued for offences where the person had already paid the FCN. The Assistant Commissioner,  Roads Policing and Major Event/Emergency Management decided to carry out an extended review to see if there were any issues regarding the operation of the FCPs, it was carried out in conjunction with Garda IT.

5. And...?

From an examination of 830,687 summonses, which were issued between January 2006 and May 2016, they found 146,865 were brought before the court incorrectly - in other words when the person was given a summons without being given a chance to pay an FCN - 14,700 of these cases resulted in a penalty being imposed.

6. What were the main offences relating to the summonses?

The main offences relating to the 146,865 summonses are set out below:

Non Display Of TAX Disc (Use) - 68,664

Non Display Of Insurance Disc - 42,462

Use Vehicle without NCT - 4,511

Learner Driver Failing to Display ‘L’ Plates on a vehicle - 1,000

Non Display Of Insurance Disc Owner - 6,782

Driving Without Reasonable Consideration - 5,932

Failing To Stop For Garda -  3,658

Driving Past A Red Traffic Light - 1,903

Holding a Mobile Phone While Driving - 1,217

Other offences: Speeding, Lighting, bus lanes, Parking offence - 10,729

7. What's happening now?

An Garda Siochana spoke to the DPP and the Court Services about how to address incidents where a penalty has been issued and these cases will be brought before the Courts and requested that the convictions are set aside. An Garda Siochana are also writing to all those affected to explain what happened and outline how they plan to rectify the situation. Any fines will be reimbursed and all records will be corrected.

8. Any reason how this could have occurred?

Gardaí explained there are multiple reasons why the situation occurred:

  • The measurement from the breath testing device wasn't being read properly by Gardai before April last year, there was also no correlation between roadside breath tests returned entered on PULSE and the paper based returns as part of the monthly device test.
  • Paper records for these monthly device tests were not retained by An Garda Siochana.
  • Scheduled MAT Checkpoints were created on PULSE in advance but the results of the checkpoint may not be recorded until days afterwards, because of this inadequate record keeping updating the MAT Checkpoints was based on estimated rather than factual returns.
  • Instructions issued in the  2011 Garda Professional Standards Unit to include MAT Checkpoints weren't fully implemented.
  • Based on data from last year less than half of MAT Checkpoints are performed due to different reasons - as a result each cancelled incident is now recorded on each PULSE incident

9. Anything else?

A dedicated support service for those affected has been set up for anyone who has any queries, to get in touch email FCN.Helpline@garda.ie

Irish Independent

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