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Garda Commissioner rolls with the punches as TDs go heavyweight

The Commissioner faced a gruelling session at the Public Accounts Committee this week but she let TDs know she is not going anywhere.

I am not protecting the identity of any individual.
I take issue with being described as a hostile witness.
I’m a professional police officer and I’m very proud of that fact.

IT WAS ‘ROUND 2′ of the Public Accounts Committee for Garda Commissioner this week and she had a clear message for her challengers – she wasn’t going to let them land a knock-out blow.

The first PAC session two months ago examining financial irregularities at the garda college in Templemore was somewhat of a disaster for Nóirín O’Sullivan. She was blind-sighted when her HR director, John Barrett, openly contradicted her about the length of a meeting they had about these issues back in the summer of 2015.

She said it was brief. He said it lasted two hours. And it was he who was able to provide lengthy notes to the committee which – to add insult to injury – the Commissioner then had to read in front of them.

There were early indications Tuesday that TDs were planning to come out swinging. Though flanked only by Deputy Commissioners John Twomey and Donal Ó Cúalain and chief administrative officer (CAO) Joe Nugent, Labour’s Alan Kelly told her she would not be allowed to pass on questions to her colleagues like she has done in the past. But as sole witness she was, at least, less likely to contradict herself.

Fraud

In her opening statement she revealed a new audit report found there is “reasonable cause to suspect” fraud has been committed in relation to a garda bank account connected to the college in Templemore. This report has now been referred to Gsoc for investigation.

The first round of questions focused on why this new report was sent to the watchdog so quickly, when it took 16 months for O’Sullivan to tell the Department of Justice about the irregularities.

“Now, all of a sudden, we cannot ask questions here today because we have to afford due process to people who were in control of taxpayers’ money, without prejudice to whether they did a great or a terrible job with that,” said Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry, the first member of the committee to take on the Commissioner.

“We are now not entitled to know that because very conveniently, it was kicked into Gsoc yesterday evening and we are not going to know. It is on the never-never.”

O’Sullivan held firm – insisting it was the correct path to take:

I would like it to be on record that under no circumstances was this matter referred to Gsoc to keep it from the public view or the view of this committee. It was referred to Gsoc because that is the appropriate impartial and objective statutory body that is there to carry out examinations and investigations into any matters relating to serving or retired members of An Garda Síochána.

MacSharry also accused her of “protecting the identity” of the signatory on the ‘suspicious’ account – something she rejected.

Confidence

She later, under questioning from Catherine Murphy, revealed a retired senior officer is linked to this account and the amount of money involved is above €90,000.

As the questioning shifted to an ‘interpersonal dispute’ between some members of the management team, Alan Kelly asked O’Sullivan eight times whether she had confidence in each and every one of them.

Her final answer in this tense exchange was: “I have confidence in the collective ability of the team.”

“That doesn’t mean you have confidence in every individual. I find that absolutely alarming,” a triumphant Kelly told her.

The gloves were off when Sinn Féin’s Mary-Lou McDonald had her turn. She asked O’Sullivan whether she believed a letter sent to her by the executive director of finance, Michael Culhane, was intended to discourage her from making a disclosure about financial irregularities to the minister.

Nóirín O’Sullivan: “Absolutely not. I wish to point out that the document is dated 24 October 2015.”

Mary Lou McDonald: ”Yes.”

O’Sullivan: ”As I said earlier, there are many ways of…”

McDonald: ”No, no.”

O’Sullivan: ”Excuse me…”

McDonald: ”No, excuse me. Ms O’Sullivan is not doing that. Stick to the knitting.”

As the Commissioner battled to give an answer longer than a couple of words, the Sinn Féin TD accused her of “doing a bit of verbal pilates”.

“No, I do not do pilates and I do not do knitting,” she replied.

“I am delighted. I am not interested in her pastimes,” McDonald hit back.

Ding, ding, ding.

After a break for lunch, the Commissioner’s patience appeared to be wearing thin when she was asked about a document she had not received beforehand.

In a strong reprimand, she pointed out that she was now on the back foot.

“I have no knowledge of this correspondence. I would like it recorded that I have serious concerns about the manner in which these documents have been circulated,” she said.

It is impossible, therefore, for I, as accounting officer, and I, as a witness, to give a fulsome account of anything where I am advantaged.

However, she was soon told TDs had received this email thread from the man sitting to her right, Joe Nugent, who, remember, was not allowed to speak to the committee during the session.

‘I’ve never hidden behind my gender’

Several deputies questioned the Commissioner’s abilities as a leader. She was asked at least three times how long she had worked in the organisation – it’s 36 years. In perhaps a subtle suggestion that her time is running out, Alan Kelly told the Commissioner he was recently at a retirement party for a member of the force, and he had 39 years’ service.

Mary Lou McDonald asked the Commissioner what “clout” she carries in the job and then played the gender card telling her she was conscious O’Sullivan is the first women in this post – “a trailblazer”.

But the Commissioner was not taking that particular bait.

As the deputy leader of a growing party, and a female deputy leader of a growing party, I’m sure that during your political career, and I don’t want to make any assumptions on you, but I can certainly say throughout the 36 years of my year, I’ve never chosen to hide behind my gender, I’ve never chosen to allow my gender to be a barrier to anything that I do and I’ve never defined myself by my gender.
I’m a professional police officer and I’m very proud of that fact.

At the end of this six-hour interrogation, Kelly told the committee O’Sullivan would be back before them on “a great date, my birthday”, 13 July.

“We look forward to it with joy,” quipped McDonald.

Kelly remarked he could “see it written across the Commissioner’s face”.

Managing to muster up a smile for TDs, O’Sullivan joked: “I am sure we will share a birthday cake, Vice Chairman.”

Read: The 8 answers the Commissioner gave when asked if she had confidence in her team>

More: Commissioner refuses to name retired officer who was signatory on ‘suspicious’ account>

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