Thursday 22 February 2018

Acting Commissioner clashes with watchdog over breath test fiasco

Acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin. Picture: PA
Acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin. Picture: PA
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The head of the policing watchdog and the Acting Garda Commissioner have clashed over who is to blame for the fiasco over the recording of 1.45 million fake breath tests.

Policing Authority chairperson Josephine Feehily said she expected an expert report would conclude rank-and-file gardaí were not directed to inflate the test figures but that there was an implicit expectation they should do so.

However, Acting Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin disputed this assessment.

Asked whether he agreed with Ms Feehily's comments, he said: "Based on the evidence I have at this point in time, no, I do not."

The significant difference of opinion comes less than three weeks after Mr Ó Cualáin took temporary charge of the force following the sudden retirement of Nóirín O'Sullivan.

Auditor Crowe Horwath is due to deliver a report to the Policing Authority in the coming weeks on how so many breath tests came to be recorded despite never being carried out.

Questioned about the report at the Oireachtas Justice Committee, Ms Feehily said: "They are likely to report to us that there was an implicit expectation in relation to breath tests rather than an explicit direction.

"I suspect we will be getting indications from Crowe Horwath of a belief throughout the organisation that certain performance was expected but they're unlikely to find, I think, a directive or direction," she added.

The authority chairperson also challenged the Garda Representative Association (GRA) to produce evidence to back up its claims that rank-and-file members acted under duress from their superiors.

"It's a serious allegation, but it needs to be stood up before anything can be done about it," she said.

Ms Feehily also said it was difficult to conceive that there hadn't been knowledge of the breath test discrepancies "at various levels throughout the organisation".

A GRA spokesman said it would not be commenting further until the Crowe Horwath report had been delivered.

A fortnight ago, the organisation, which represents more than 10,000 gardaí, blamed management for requiring the data and using it to improve chances of promotion.

Prior to her retirement, Ms O'Sullivan said the inflated figure was "a failure of the entire organisation" and that rank-and-file members had to accept their share of responsibility.

Meanwhile, Ms Feehily said she would not be surprised if the force was hit with civil actions over a separate controversy - erroneous prosecutions over penalty point offences.

Approximately 14,700 people got convictions and court- imposed penalties, including the imposition of penalty points, despite never being sent a fixed-charge notice.

The force has begun a process of appealing the cases of those involved, so their convictions can be quashed, penalty points removed and fines returned.

However, a number of motorists who lost their licence or lost out on work due to being convicted are now planning civil actions for damages.

"It is something the authority put on the Garda agenda as far ago as last March," said Ms Feehily.

"We pointed out to them that they would need to think very seriously about those broader impacts on people that might have lost their livelihood, that might have lost their licence and so on, and be prepared for actions that might be taken against them.

"So I wouldn't be at all surprised if civil actions ensued in a number of cases."

Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire suggested there were a number of people who would have substantial cases for compensation.

These included a motorist who was jailed and forced to emigrate to find work after he was wrongfully convicted and banned from driving.

He also said a woman who was committed to Limerick Prison may have a substantial case for compensation.

Ms Feehily said the process under which convictions were being overturned appeared to be "moving reasonably efficiently".

However, she said she was unaware how the cases raised by the TD were being dealt with.

Irish Independent

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