Pressure has eased, but Garda chief still has work to do to rebuild trust
Published 26/05/2016 | 02:30
So, just before the Taoiseach and Justice Minister went in to bat in a very tricky Dáil debate on policing, Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan's much awaited statement finally dropped.
That was a relief for the Government, and it again showed how the fortunes of the commissioner and the principals of this shaky minority Coalition are so closely intertwined. Ms O'Sullivan's statement came 10 days into a raging controversy about apparent contradictions in her stance towards Garda whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
How did she reconcile her public praise for Mr McCabe with instructions to her legal counsel to the O'Higgins Commission of Inquiry to challenge his "credibility and motivation?" Well firstly, she went back over what we already knew, via leaked evidence transcripts, that she never challenged McCabe's "integrity".
We are back again with fine nuances of language - often crucial on such occasions. Then the commissioner told us she had no option but to have Sgt McCabe's evidence tested just like any other witness.
"Having regard to the nature and seriousness of the allegations, and the duty to assist the commission in its task of establishing the facts and truth, I cannot see how it would be in any way unreasonable, improper or avoidable to appropriately test and cross examine the evidence of all persons giving evidence to the commission including Sergeant McCabe," she said.
It is on the face of things a reasonable point. Allegations of wrongdoing brought forward by anyone, including an insider whistleblower, must be tested. The big question is how this is done. Clearly there are lessons to be learned on how this delicate business is to be handled.
There is a fine balance to be struck between the whistleblower's rights and those of the subject(s) of serious allegations who could have ruined careers and personal lives. But she spoke of an attitude change in the force and the appointment of a 'Protected Disclosures Manager' and the establishment of a dedicated, specially trained team to deal with whistleblowers.
"An Garda Síochána agrees that whistleblowers are part of the solution to the problems facing the service," Ms O'Sullivan said.
Taken at face value it is sound talk. But so far it is just talk and the Garda Commissioner has some ground to make up with the force and the public. That ground can only be made up by action.
And what of the tricky question of how Sgt McCabe required a tape recording of a 2008 meeting with senior gardai to exonerate himself? Here, Ms O'Sullivan asked if the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) could be deployed to examine this issue.
"There has been a suggestion in recent reportage that two senior officers had sought to misrepresent before the commission the contents of a meeting they held with a Sergeant in Mullingar in 2008," she said.
In her favour it must be said that the commissioner is entitled to be sure about the quality of information she gets from senior officers.
But, again, we must ask why it has taken so long for this GSOC suggestion to dawn? Is invoking GSOC just another long-fingering device?
Mr Justice O'Higgins' report carries accounts of poor policing, with investigations not pursued, and information not shared. The generality of gardaí deserve better - so do the people they serve.
Ms O'Sullivan remains under some political pressure, and though it is diminished, she must yet account for herself before an Oireachtas committee.
Sinn Féin and some left-leaning Independents still maintain Ms O'Sullivan should not continue in her job.
But crucially, the Government has expressed confidence and Fianna Fáil remains ready to give her a pass.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin rejected the renewed calls by Independents, Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, for the Commissioner to resign.
He believed Ms O'Sullivan was "quite capable" of leading the reforms that are now essential" in the force.
"I don't think we need the statement that she should resign," Mr Martin said.