Former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan has said she did not want to retire as leader of An Garda Síochána.
Ms O'Sullivan was the first woman to lead the organisation when she served as Commissioner between 2014 and 2017.
Her retirement came as a surprise at the time, despite mounting pressure amid garda scandals including falsified alcohol breath tests, wrongful motoring convictions, financial irregularities at the Garda Training College, and the ill treatment of garda whistleblowers.
Announcing her retirement, Ms O’Sullivan said she was stepping down because the "unending cycle" of investigations and inquiries has made it difficult to "implement the deep cultural and structural reform necessary to modernise" An Gardai Siochana.
Speaking this morning on RTÉ radio, she admitted that she did not want to step down.
“I think it would be impossible not to get under your skin. I suppose, at one point I saw the impact it was having on people around me, particularly my family and people close to me,” she said.
“I felt that I had so much to do. Did I want to retire? No, I felt we were on the right path… Even with the Commission on the Future of Policing, everything that we were doing there, but c'est la vie.”
Ms O’Sullivan grew up in North Dublin, and she joined the gardaí in the early 1980s. Initially she wanted to be a vet and “travel the world” but she followed a friend into the academy. She said it was “probably meant to happen” and her first posting was in the Dublin’s C District, at Store Street Garda Station, in 1981.
She described working in the capital as the “university of life”.
“What you do in Templemore would never prepare you for it but, nevertheless, you learn very quickly and get your feet on the ground pretty quickly. I remember arriving on Saturday and by Monday I was in court,” she said.
Ms O’Sullivan said the culture in the organisation was very different in her early days, as female officers were jokingly known as “banners” – ban gardaí – and they were given daytime shifts. However, Ms O’Sullivan always felt there was “more exciting things happening” at night.
Her “break” came when the drug’s squad were looking for “banners to go on searches”, she said and she was later assigned to the special task force on a more permanent basis.
“I was delighted to volunteer to go on these searches. I wasn't really sure what I was doing, but it was a great way to get to understand,” she said.
“I think some of it was probably that sense of adventure but also I think it was something to do with social justice… Talking to some of the mothers and grandmothers, particularly in Store Street, they spoke about seeing their children almost disintegrate [from drug use] in front of their eyes… To listen to their stories, it was really grasping and they were willing to stand up against it,” she said.
She said there was an “explosive” rise of heroin use in the capital during the 1980s and to tackle the dealers, gardaí went undercover for the first time.
To blend in, Ms O’Sullivan and others “dressed down” and used “henna transfer tattoos” and “magnetic nose rings”, while the former Garda Commissioner even shaved her head and had “nice spikey hair”.
“Not ideal when you have a family wedding coming up and needless to say, I didn’t make the bridesmaid cut,” she said.
Ms O’Sullivan also spoke of the ongoing dangers facing gardaí and how she a chipped tooth and suffered a dislocated shoulder during her career as well as being head butted in the face on another occasion.
Ms O’Sullivan said she was surveying a home one night when she spotted two suspicious-looking men and searched one of them.
“I went put my hand in under the jacket and I could feel his forearm tensing,” she said.
“As my hand went in to see what he had, he had a loaded revolver and it transpired that the other guy was also armed and they were two INLA men who were going to carry out a punishment shooting.
“Sometimes I was very scared, but you have to think on your feet,” she added.