It is the end for O’Sul­li­van – but the process of restor­ing trust in our gar­daí has hardly even be­gun

Irish Independent - - THE WEEK - Ger­ard O’Re­gan

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

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