Sunday 26 January 2020

Major Cabinet stand-off as Noonan warns garda scandal is damaging public confidence

Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan faces fresh calls to stand down following the latest controversy
Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan faces fresh calls to stand down following the latest controversy

Kevin Doyle and Niall O'Connor

A major stand-off erupted at Cabinet over whether embattled Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan should be asked to step down.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan and several other Fine Gael ministers warned that the latest controversy surrounding phantom breath tests was sapping public confidence in the garda force.

Ministers directly challenged Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, demanding to know "what's next" in terms of garda controversies.

At one point at the "emotional" meeting, Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor raised the prospect of a "straw poll" of ministers to determine the level of confidence in Ms O'Sullivan. Arts minister Heather Humphreys also voiced serious concern about the garda scandal.

No such poll was held but a Cabinet source said: "The level of anger and hostility towards the gardai was palpable."

Significantly, ministers last night said they believe the Cabinet's confidence in Ms O'Sullivan could end if she fails to allay concerns at her committee appearance tomorrow.

Cabinet sources also said they are braced for further fallout from the publication of an audit into Templemore, as well as the completion of the finally report from the Fennelly Commission into the taping of phone calls in and out of garda stations.

Meanwhile, bill for compensating people who were wrongly brought to court is likely to be footed by taxpayers, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has admitted.

An independent probe is now to be ordered into why one million breath tests were either faked or never took place, indicating the Government no longer trusts An Garda Siochana to get to the bottom of the controversy.

Ms Fitzgerald faced two hours of intense questioning in the Dáil last night during which she was accused by Fianna Fáil of “doing nothing” despite knowing for nine months that citizens were brought to court in error.

And as the crisis in justice deepened:

  • The Policing Authority gave the Garda Commissioner a deadline of Friday to provide it with all documentation relating to the Fixed Charge Notice and breath test scandals.
  • The Cabinet agreed a ‘root and branch’ review of the culture within An Garda Siochana.
  • External inquiries into the two controversies were announced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
  • And the Dáil heard repeated calls for Noirin O’Sullivan to step down as the head of the force.

The intervention by the Policing Authority is another major blow to the position of Ms O’Sullivan who retains the confidence of the Government – but no other political party.

In a hard-hitting statement the body criticised Garda management for not providing a “clear sense” of how problems arose with breath testing data and wrongful prosecutions “despite questioning over several months”.

“The Authority is anxious that any actions arising from its consideration of these matters will take cognisance of the full breadth of the issues involved, not least the potential cultural, ethical and behavioural issues in order to reassure the public,” it said, adding that Ms O’Sullivan has been warned to reply “in a timely manner”.

The Government’s response was heavily debated at an extended Cabinet meeting yesterday, resulting in a decision to establish a Patten-style commission to come up with a new plan for Garda reform.

Initially just 24 minutes of Dáil time was allocated for questions to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald but following uproar in the Chamber it was agreed she would make a formal statement and take questions for two hours.

During the robust debate Ms Fitzgerald confirmed she first became aware that there “some issues” relating to Fixed Charge Notices last June.

“The Garda was concerned that some people were summoned to court who should not have been,” she said, adding: “No figure was mentioned, so I was not aware of the 14,700 cases.”

Ms Fitzgerald said she only learned the full scale during the Garda press conference last Thursday.

However, Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan said: “The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality has been aware for nine months that there were wrongful convictions that took place before the District Court.  In my submission, she did nothing about it.”

Under questioning, Ms Fitzgerald said compensation may now have to be paid to those affected.

“Each individual case will have to be assessed… Of course, there could have been the serious situation when the penalty points when have reached the level where someone lost their licence. 

“In terms of the numbers, we are not clear on the detail until all of the information emerges after the court cases,” she said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was important to now take “a broader view of the nature and structure of the Garda force for the years ahead in order that we can, for once and for all, try to put in place a system that will restore pride to the uniform and the trust and confidence of the ordinary people of the country”.

Online Editors

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