Monday 24 October 2016

If the Garda Commissioner is a wrong 'un, deputies, prove it

Opposition TDs have laid serious allegations against Noirin O'Sullivan, but failed to back a single one of them up

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan cannot have been relishing her appearance before the Dail's Justice & Equality Committee on Wednesday morning.

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Its members include two of the TDs - Clare Daly and Mick Wallace of Independents4Change - who have laid the most serious charges against the Commissioner over the force's handling of allegations by whistleblowers; and the sitting was coming at the end of a week of calls either for her to resign or for the Justice Minister to sack her.

By the end of the day, O'Sullivan surely couldn't believe her luck. Rarely can two deputies working in tandem have failed so woefully to land a single blow on a public office holder that they have insisted is unfit to hold her post.

To see how poor the contributions of Daly and Wallace were, one need only compare the not so dynamic duo's subdued and unconvincing cross examination with their speeches in the Dail the previous week. On that occasion, Clare Daly not only insisted that it was "inconceivable" that Noirin O'Sullivan "would not be aware of" what was happening on her watch; she added that the campaign to "not just discredit but to annihilate" whistleblowers had been done "with the full involvement of the present and former Commissioner".

"Full involvement" - no room for ambiguity there.

On Wednesday, Daly had the Commissioner herself sitting feet away. She now had the chance to put this to her directly, robustly. Instead she was listless, uncertain; she repeated herself; rather than coming up with concrete evidence of her own, she mentioned things she had seen on Prime Time or read in the newspapers about Garda collusion in the drugs trade. Her questions lacked any direction or conviction. She kept looking down at her desk, and appeared to be chewing gum.

The Dublin Fingal TD was masterful compared with Mick Wallace's mumbling, bumbling performance, however.

The following, halting question, during which the Wexford deputy stared at length at his notes, as if desperate for help, and even managed to wrongly address the Commissioner, was typical: "Minister, er, what do you say to the, er… the, er... word that many would have put to us that, er, you have… promoted a lot of people who complaints have been made about?"

The inquisitors may well say that the Garda Commissioner fobbed them off, hiding behind a mantra that she was "not privy to, nor would I approve, nor would I condone" any harassment of whistleblowers. She also kept saying that she could not discuss specific cases when she was not being asked to do so. For all that, she can be criticised. But this was Wallace and Daly's baby; they should have come to committee prepared for that, and had a back- up plan.

What did they think she was going to do? Crumble before them? It takes a certain forensic cunning to get answers required at a committee; the rhetorical tricks that work on a march or in the Dail do not suffice. By their own testimony, the two TDs have been working on this issue for two whole years, but they lacked any apparent expertise in the matter and seemed wholly unprepared.

Clare Daly was ultimately reduced to saying that if the Commissioner was indeed not aware about what was happening, then it didn't say much about her authority in the force. That may well be true, but saying it at that point was as good as admitting that she didn't have anything more damaging to lay against her.

Even worse, they actually helped O'Sullivan in the end by pitching some questions so slow and easy to defend that she simply had to wait for them to come before swinging the bat and knocking one ball after another out of the park.

That was particularly so when Mick Wallace asked about allegations that she had promoted her own bridesmaid. To chuckles, she replied: "I didn't have a bridesmaid."

It could be that games were being played with words, but Wallace should have anticipated what he would do if he got the brush-off. Nor did he have an answer when, asked if she had promoted others close to her, the Commissioner replied firmly: "I do not make appointments or promotions."

Again, there may be more to it than that, but Wallace patently did not have a strategy to elicit the information he felt was being withheld from him. She even invited Deputy Wallace to come to Garda HQ to see how these matters are dealt with for himself.

Throughout the three-hour sitting of the Justice Committee, the Commissioner was cool, steadfast, in total control, and it was they who were at sea. By the end of it, she'd been able to present a coherent case that she was not involved in what she'd been publicly accused of orchestrating, and that An Garda Siochana would "co-operate fully" with Mr Justice O'Neill's review into these disturbing allegations.

She also showed flashes of steel when, asked by Wallace about other lurid claims, she said: "I am not in the business… of messing with anyone's lives or families."

It's important to reiterate - this is a man who, only days earlier, had told the Dail: "The dogs on the street can see that there was a deliberate effort on the part of the Commissioner to undermine the credibility of Maurice McCabe." If that's so, then perhaps the dogs in the street would have been better off conducting the questioning of O'Sullivan, because they couldn't have made more of a hash of it than he did.

It could be that time will prove Wallace and Daly right; he has certainly done some service in pursuing the issue of Nama's Northern Irish loan book. But the chance to directly put questions to an individual against whom you have made serious allegations does not often come around.

Clare Daly and Mick Wallace cannot be given a free pass simply because they claim to 'know' the truth. If the Garda Commissioner has done a quarter of the things they're happy to allege under Dail privilege, and about which they claim to have evidence, then it is up them to back up those words to her face when they get the chance.

Sunday Independent

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