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Sunday 25 March 2018

'Relentless': Meet the 'Iron Lady' taking on garda management

Policing Authority chair Josephine Feehily Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

The new Garda watchdog is described by former colleagues as "relentless" and driven to get to the bottom of complicated tasks and controversies.

Josephine Feehily, the chair of the Policing Authority, has stunned Garda bosses with the ferocity of her attack on the management of the force. Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan is now under immense pressure to show that she is willing to drive a change of culture.

Ms Feehily, the former Revenue Commissioners chief, is said to dislike any bending of rules to give preferential treatment. She believes in confidentiality and is strong at seeing through waffle.

"If you were trying to get something across on her and being sparse with the truth, she'd see through that sort of stuff," a former colleague said.

The woman who oversaw the introduction of the property tax has never shied from controversy - and this week launched a startling broadside against the force for its repeated shortcomings.

She has also ordered Garda chief Nóirín O'Sullivan before two meetings next month to answer - in public - questions raised by the O'Higgins Commission's report into allegations of garda malpractice.

The pressure on the embattled Commissioner continues to ramp up as Independent minister John Halligan says he is "deeply concerned" after the Authority expressed "unease" at Garda culture and management.

The former Revenue head would have made an excellent detective herself, which is another irony unlikely to have been lost on the Garda Commissioner.

The chair of the Policing Authority has a track record as a 'cool-headed' seeker of the truth and relentless accountant of the finer details.

Feehily's most recent output has made it very clear that - whatever the fallout - she will not quit until she has unravelled the truth behind the shambolic, spiralling series of ongoing crises which has left the force on the ropes.

A cordial and calm four-hour meeting between the two women on Thursday ended at around 7.25pm.

At 8.30pm on the dot, a four-page missive in reaction to that encounter was swiftly dispatched to all and sundry, blindsiding senior gardaí.

Written off-the-cuff - though tersely and most concisely, the statement kicked off with an unholy trinity of "serious concern" "dismay" and "deep unease" expressed at the workings of the Gardaí and their treatment of certain victims.

At the heart of it all lay her concern at the state of the organisation and the need for "an urgent response".

Of particular worry to O'Sullivan will have been the ominous sentence that the Policing Authority has begun an examination of these issues "in a broad Garda context, ie not confined to the Cavan/Monaghan division".

With it comes the implied sense Feehily feels the situation may be even worse than it appears below the bubbling, deeply troubled surface.

When first nominated, Fitzgerald described Feehily as "a woman of unimpeachable integrity and unquestioned ability" who would bring "a wealth of experience and competences, including in the area of investigations, to her new independent role".

Former colleagues of Feehily's recall how "relentlessly focused" she was, even describing her as an 'Iron Lady'.

"If you were trying to get something across on her and if you were being sparse with the truth, she could see through that sort of stuff because she'll have her own view on how things should be," warned another.

"If she had a strong view on something, she'd let it be known."

"But these were never hot-headed notions, they'd be considered views and she would speak her mind in a considered way," the colleague added.

Another spoke of her as "incredibly bright and focused" with an ability to "marshal the facts".

As head of Revenue, in an exchange with TD John Deasy at the Public Accounts Committee two years ago, Feehily expressed disquiet over the tax amnesty which came to an end in 1993.

She said it was "designed to create a brick-solid Chinese wall between everybody and the office of the chief special collector", mentioning Revenue's frustration that 38,000 people had availed of that amnesty.

Feehily knew tax business had to be carried out confidentially at all times. What she clearly did not like - despite her tempered, parliamentary language - was anything under the table, special deals or anyone being treated unfairly at the expense of others.

Feehily may turn out to be the unwavering saviour of the Gardaí if she sticks to the thought process revealed in remarks made at a Limerick Chamber of Commerce lunch last winter, in speaking about her time with Revenue. "Looking back, I now fully appreciate how important it was that we maintained confidence in all our stakeholders, whether it was Government, staff, taxpayers or the troika, particularly through the crisis," she said.

The key to maintaining morale, she claimed, was "lots of visibility and communications with staff".

Born in 1956 to plumber James Curran and his wife Teresa, Feehily grew up in Clarina, Co Limerick, where the family ran the Ferrybank Tavern pub.

She joined the civil service straight out of school and at one stage, worked as personal assistant to Charlie Haughey in his time as health minister, later describing him as a "very exacting taskmaster".

In 1979, she married Paddy Feehily. The couple live in Co Meath. After a period with the Pensions Board and other positions, she was appointed head of Revenue by Bertie Ahern.

Feehily is no stranger to controversy herself.

In 2012, again before the PAC, Feehily was forced to apologise for Revenue's handling of the Property Tax when a letter sent out which suggested that anyone paying by debit or credit card would have the money taken out of their accounts the following day. The letters greatly distressed many householders, particularly pensioners.

Joe Higgins, then a TD, asked when she found out that the deputy prime minister of the country and government TDs were "screaming objections" to her letter, if she had said to herself: "How pathetic - who do they think they're fooling?"

Feehily allowed herself a small smile, saying: "I most certainly did not - I would never use those phrases or sentiments in relation to the Government of the day.

"What I did say to my colleagues was, 'how did we get into this space when I thought we were offering seven different ways to pay?' That's the question I was asking myself."

Once again, Josephine Feehily now finds herself in a 'space' where she is pondering how we got here - and more importantly, how on earth to get out.

Irish Independent

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