It is the end for O’Sullivan – but the process of restoring trust in our gardaí has hardly even begun
AND so it has finally come to pass. Nóirín O’Sullivan decided to draw down the final curtain on her leading role in a drama seemingly without end. For her, the fight is over. She is departing for the sunny uplands of retirement – or perhaps some variant of her old career, either here or abroad.
She will no longer embrace the singular authority that comes with wearing the uniform of Garda commissioner. It was the late journalist and writer Con Houlihan who said sometimes three of the saddest words in the English language are “the last time”. For Nóirín O’Sullivan, there will be a lot of last times these coming days.
She must wonder how it all ended like this – having spent a lifetime clawing her way up through the ranks. The sheer unstoppability of the whistleblower saga did for her predecessor Martin Callinan in the end. Now she too has fallen by the wayside, as one dramatic revelation tops another, with no end in sight. Surely there is no longer any point in denying it. There is an ominous thread of dodgy practices and lack of accountability – coupled with a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality at the merest hint of outside threat – running through a certain strain in An Garda Síochána. This is the virus that ended her career.
O’Sulivan, operating at the coalface as a young garda and subsequently in various management roles, experienced the good and not-so-good examples of a ‘culture’ which evolved over decades. Yet all the evidence is that she remained, as do the vast majority of her colleagues, ‘an honest cop’ through thick and thin. However, charges of one kind or another kept her on the back foot throughout her tenure in the top job,
She may well have a point, as outlined in her departure statement, that she simply could not focus on the gargantuan task of reform and renewal in the force. The relentless and often highly personalised attacks meant she was fighting a rearguard action for most of her waking hours.
Yet being firmly placed in the dock was not her real problem. Rather, it was the never-ending drip-drip of ever more questionable practices within An Garda Síochána. Some of these went back decades. In fairness to the force, certain behaviour was indulged because sundry civil servants and politicians found it more convenient to look the other way.
But that never seemed to matter to her critics. For those who deigned to be judge and jury on such matters, the assault would always zone in on a single individual – the commissioner.
Her detractors, both inside Leinster House and outside – however legitimate their arguments – all too often were unwilling to take context into account. As far as they were concerned, she bore ultimate responsibility for sins of the past, as well as transgressions of more recent times. She did undoubtedly have some grey areas in her defence – but her critics would not indulge a presumption of innocence until matters could be proven beyond reasonable doubt. They simply wanted her to walk the plank.
She departs with many secrets. Whether she will ever tell us more about the shadows that now haunt the history of our police force may have to wait for her memoirs, should she ever decide to lay bare such a tale. In her quieter moments, she will ruefully reflect how some of her own colleagues thwarted her efforts to forge a new pathway following her appointment as commissioner. Yet this is not surprising; careers and reputations were on the line.
As she departs, she must also look with some irony on the fact her successor will most likely enjoy a much higher salary and the support of a beefed-up management team, including civilians appointed from outside. This seems to be the template for the future, as per the soundings emanating from the Government. We will have to wait for the Charleton inquiry, and other investigations, to establish if any specific accusations of under-performance can be levelled against the outgoing commissioner. Otherwise, there will remain a feeling that the power of the mob eventually got its way and that somebody was hounded from office on the basis of generalised condemnation.
Meanwhile, the latest debacle, involving allegations that the gardaí exaggerated the number of breath tests to stratospheric levels, is a rubicon of sorts. It surely suggests a systemic problem of non-accountability within the force of truly unacceptable proportions. Maybe the commissioner saw this development as a sign the game was up.
However, her departure will not ease the unprecedented attention on the force if similar revelations continue in the coming months. Going forward, there will no longer be a single personality on which to apportion blame.
While the Taoiseach and the Government are relieved to be rid of such a controversial figure, some of their real hassles with policing may be just beginning. Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan will find himself even more in the firing line, as Opposition TDs continue to make political capital in an area which will defy easy solutions.
Accordingly, the authorities need to move fast. They will most likely lure that well-remunerated outsider to spearhead a root-and-branch change of culture. But there must also be an early-retirement scheme to try and persuade some long-serving gardaí to retire.
A range of new appointments, including police officers from other jurisdictions and top-quality civilian management for designated roles, is needed. But the search for the kind of talent required, whether it be in Northern Ireland, the UK, or the US, will be difficult. There is also the added risk that those recruited may not transplant effectively into the Irish policing scene.
It has been a long road for An Garda Síochána, spawned out of the trauma of the War of Independence and the Civil War. It is remarkable that it was constituted as an unarmed police force. But that was as much to do with the intrinsic nature of Irish society at the time as anything else. Back in the early 1920s, Ireland was a place which, due to variety of factors – ranging from religious practice to property ownership – was essentially law-abiding. The generality of the citizenry wanted guardians of the peace. There would be no need for our police officers to carry guns; the public would be on their side. would trust them to do right by the communities they would serve.
So it is a tragedy that one of the institutions that has been a pillar of Irish life for almost a century has damaged this trust. It is now clear that with the passing of the decades, too much Garda thinking remained trapped in a timewarp. But the genie is out of the bottle.
Trust has to be earned all over again, especially for all those brave members of the force who put life and limb on the line.
All the evidence is that the outgoing commissioner remained ‘an honest cop’ through thick and thin
Nóirín O’Sullivan faced problems, many of which preceded her tenure of office