Elevating the debate over apportioning blame
Elevate: Raise or lift (something) to a higher position.
Throughout it all over the last five years, frontline gardaí have had to get up every day, dust themselves down, and face the public.
As the controversies and scandals buffeted the organisation, they patrolled the streets, responded to danger, witnessed violence and trauma and, in some cases, risked life and limb.
They did so during a time when their organisation was undergoing open-heart surgery.
They watched as their numbers were filleted; their ability to reassure communities and to respond to calls diluted.
They operated without much training and with minimal supervision. Those on regular beat duty complained they had no sergeants to supervise them, let alone accompany them.
The Garda Representative Association argued their case, highlighted their plight, and criticised Garda bosses for not telling it as it was with the Government.
The GRA could see how these working conditions and how the constant blows to the reputation of the organisation were impacting on the morale of members.
Cut to the latest scandal to hit the organisation — the 1.5m fake breath tests over a seven-year period — and the GRA’s response on Thursday and its impact on members.
The internal Garda report, conducted by assistant commissioner Michael O’Sullivan, said there was a range of factors behind the 1.5m phantom breath tests: “Inflating” of records by members, flawed and complicated recording systems, lack of supervision; and pressure (intentional or inadvertent) from management.
But Mr O’Sullivan said the “inescapable conclusion” was that “much” of the 1.5m fake breath tests was due to “inflation” by members.
He said he had identified between 106,000 and 318,500 breath tests that were inflated — representing between 7% and 22% of all 1.46m fake breath tests.
The report said more than 2,000 specific checkpoint incidents had been identified, involving almost 70,000 inflated breath tests.
The Taoiseach raised the issue of disciplinary action against individuals responsible, while Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan reportedly said those responsible should be punished for bringing the force into disrepute.
The O’Sullivan report was sent to regional assistant commissioners for investigation.
It will be passed down to chief superintendents as they are the only officers who can initiate disciplinary action against members.
The GRA did not comment for more than a week after the O’Sullivan report was published on September 6.
Its decision-making body, the Central Executive Committee, met this week and on Thursday issued a statement blaming Garda management “entirely” for the problem.
An interview by GRA spokesman John O’Keeffe with RTÉ’s crime correspondent Paul Reynolds (see Q&A) went a lot further.
He insisted from the start that GRA members “did not falsify” breath tests and repeatedly claimed they had been “put under pressure” from middle and senior management “to do so”.
He pointed out that there was competition among divisions and that members were told “to get these figures up”.
The O’Sullivan report quoted the GRA and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, both of which pointed this out. The latter body said there was a requirement from some Garda managers “to show increases in detections” month-on-month and year-on-year.
The AGSI said managers used increased enforcement levels at a time of reducing resources to “improve promotion profile”.
The Association of Garda Chief Superintendents rejected suggestions that they put pressure on members but did say that there was “comparison and scrutiny” of divisional records at regional meetings.
The O’Sullivan report said that by failing to review the capacity to carry out checkpoints, management was “intentionally or inadvertently applying pressure” and that this was a “contributory factor” to the discrepancies.
So some support for the claims of pressure.
Asked did gardaí falsify the figures or not, Mr O’Keeffe said: “They falsified them under pressure from gardaí — the problem was middle and senior management put pressure on the membership of the GRA to have these high elevated figures.”
When pressed for clarity on whether they falsified or not, he said: “They did not falsify the figures, that means the blame singularly goes on them.” He added: “The defence is one of duress: They were under duress from middle and senior management to alter these figures.”
He continued to insist throughout the rest of the interview that GRA members did not falsify.
“GRA members did not falsify figures, GRA members were told to elevate figures by middle and senior management and those figures were elevated thus.”
He refused to accept that this elevation or alteration was the same as falsifying figures and insisted the falsification “began” with the pressure being put on members.
Apart from the contradiction at one point, the refusal to equate elevation with falsifying (or whatever way you describe making figures up), is unlikely to wash with people. Furthermore, it gives a reason for people to believe that gardaí are yet again reverting to default “denial” mode — a trait that has already caused the organisation much damage.
“This isn’t defending members,” said one garda, “this adds pressure to members”.
Mr O’Keeffe’s statement that admitting falsification meant “the blame singularly goes on them” may explain why he persisted with the line that members did not falsify tests.
But he did not accept that Garda members bore any responsibility whatsoever, suggesting they were essentially coerced into it.
Another statement from Mr O’Keeffe may also partially explain his intentions.
He said: “The pressure was on them and, as a result, any action that is taken against a GRA member, the GRA will firmly stand behind each individual.”
This is a clear shot across the bows of management — and the Government — that any attempt to scapegoat frontline gardaí through disciplinary action will be resisted.
This appears to be a message to the GRA membership. But this is lost on the wider public — and the story has more to run. The independent investigation commissioned by the Policing Authority is due in the first two weeks of October.
The review by auditors Crowe Howarth is understood to have involved consultations with gardaí in stations at all ranks, including the frontline. Some Garda sources have expressed satisfaction with how those consultations went and have claimed that Garda management will fare worse in the Crowe report.
Does the GRA know something we don’t?
Presumably, given its media statements on Thursday, it has made an emphatic case to Crowe.
It remains to be seen if Crowe has sided with the GRA argument or not.
Its report is more keenly anticipated than ever.
Assistant commissioner Michael O’Sullivan, who conducted the internal Garda report, said of the 1.5m fake breath tests that ‘much’ was due to ‘inflation’ by members.
Charlie Flanagan said those responsible for fake tests should be punished.