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Questions, unanswered: Scandals are 'at best, incompetence and, at worst, deception'

Although many questions were asked, few were answered.

HOW DID GARDAÍ record 1,000,000 imaginary breathalyser tests on their official systems?

Why did it take three years for the scale of the Phantom Breath Testing to become known?

Who out of 14,500 officers is responsible for this game of make-believe?

According to the most senior of garda management, the wizardry that magicked up the non-existent has been eradicated.

So, what was the problem, you ask?

Well, that’s the thing. They’re not quite sure just yet.

But it is fixed.

That’s why they took so long to tell us.

“The initial action was to address the problem,” Deputy Commissioner John Twomey explained yesterday.

“In April 2016, new measures were brought in to make sure the problem couldn’t occur,” he assured the numerous deputies and senators lined up at the Justice Committee, eager to be enlightened.

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The motley crew of cross-party members invited the Commissioner to the hearing to uncover more details around what happened within An Garda Síochána which led to almost one million alcohol breath tests that never happened being recorded. There was also the second controversy, which saw more than 14,000 drivers convicted without proper process, to deal with.

Fresh and armed with questions at 9am, they faced an embattled Garda Commissioner, Twomey and – the man who can be credited for putting all these details in front of us – Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn yesterday.

Cut to four hours later with only the one toilet break (and not a coffee in sight), it was the politicians who were battered, bruised, frustrated and frantically repeating words while, presumably, refraining from banging heads on tables. (Clare Daly might still be in Committee Room 1 asking, ‘What is the figure? What is the figure? What is the figure?’)

Although they had the right questions, few were answered.

“We haven’t got to the bottom of exactly what [happened],” O’Sullivan explained to Deputy Jim O’Callaghan, who wondered what ‘grave mistakes and wrongdoing’ the witness had earlier apologised for.

“But what we do know is that the numbers do not match. Therefore the Assistant Commissioner [Michael O'Sullivan] has to establish how exactly this was done.

She pondered out loud:

Was it entered erroneously? Was it entered in error? What was it?

Later, she conceded that these two controversies highlight ‘at best, incompetence and, at worst, deception’.

And in a pre-prepared opening statement said, “Those mistakes and wrongdoings are unacceptable in policing terms, unacceptable in ethical terms, unacceptable in terms of public trust, and, most critically, unacceptable to the advocacy and support groups involved in road safety and to those who were wrongly brought to court.

They have raised serious issues about how we managed the service, how certain Gardaí operated on the ground and their supervision. Given the scale of these issues, they can’t simply be blamed on one individual or one area. It is a collective failure. From top down to bottom up.

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While Deputy Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin was mostly concerned about why the fault was being laid on every single foot soldier, others were curious about the Medical Bureau for Road Safety’s contacts with gardaí about nonsensical data all the way back in 2014. Senator Frances Black floated the idea that the creators of the Phantom Breath Tests may – or at least could – have clocked up some overtime hours (and pay). Mick Wallace went straight for the person, asking, ‘Who is going to hold you to account?’

The trio, as a team, batted the questions away.

“Collective responsibility.”

“Major programme of reform.”

“We are turning over a lot of stones.”

“If you look at the staggering figures that are there… I can tell you that they feel collectively embarrassed and sorry.”

“The [2014]  conversation was about procurement, not at management level.”

“I was almost single-handedly with five Assistant Commissioners running an organisation of 14,500.”

“We have been brought up as police men and women – we want to get the facts before going public.”

“It’s a very interesting question. We hold each other accountable in the first instance. There is a statutory framework there that can hold me to account.”

Another repeated query: Why wasn’t the Policing Authority told about this?

“An administrative error.”

“It was a complete oversight that it wasn’t done. It was notified to the department, and to the Authority and we apologised.”

There were a couple of bright spark moments for the non-uniformed in the room. Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers landed a couple of questions as he sought information on whether An Garda Síochána’s performance and bonus structures (roundly criticised by AGSI when they existed) could have encouraged some massaging of figures on behalf of the higher-ups.

“What were the performance-related targets linked with bonuses paid to senior people? Could that have been the potential trigger for driving data upwards? Was that the trigger… to have maximised data outcomes?”

Deputy, I’m not aware of the bonus payment scheme in relation to the members of the force but we can certainly check that out for you.

“You were the Assistant Commissioner for Human Resource Management at the time.”

Yes, I was. But I wasn’t aware of the bonus payment scheme… One of the deficits we have as an organisation is performance management and performance issues.

The commissioners finally came up blank, telling the Castleknock deputy that they’d have to find out for him if there were any links between data and performance-related bonuses.

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A win of sorts for Chambers. His fierce questioning on cultural triggers paid off too and we got an hypothesis of sorts on why of this may have happened.

“Can you give us an hypothesis about why, in your opinion, this may have happened? I understand you’re continuing an audit but surely as senior people in An Garda Síochána, you have some indication about how this happened in every part of this country, in every station.

He pushed again.

“Do you have any hypothesis at all about how this happened on such a systematic level?… What was the specific trigger within the force that drove this systematic failure? In your opinion, right now.

And again.

“Do you have an opinion? Do you have one? I asked for a hypothesis. Surely you have some hypothesis about what triggered this systemic failure. Surely you have some answer to that question.

“I can’t give you a specific answer to be honest… I have a range of ideas,” responded Finn.

“I’d like to hear some of them… Could you refer to some of your ideas?”

“There may well have been individual locations…”

“We know they weren’t individual locations, because we know it happened everywhere. I don’t want to hear about individualisation or specific divisions… What is your overarching hypothesis as an experienced member of the force on why this happened on such a systematic level…?”

O’Sullivan swiftly stepped in to aid her Deputy, clarifying that she wanted to be careful because of the Assistant Commissioner’s impending inquiry.

A hypothesis may well be… MAT checkpoints are a preventative measure. They are actually not designed to catch people. They are designed to encourage compliant behaviour… Perhaps, it wasn’t as valued as important as it was in terms of detections.

“If you take it – and I would not like to detract from the really really good, diligent, professional, ethical work that is done by the men and women of An Garda Síochána every single day…

“But a hypothesis may well be that the fact that this was a preventative measure, the accuracy and the importance of reporting the accurate numbers – be it 24 or 48 hours after a very busy period of time – it doesn’t lessen it, it doesn’t diminish it – but a hypothesis may well be that it wasn’t seen as important as being accurate in terms of the detection of offences.”

There were even stickier questions to come as Clare Daly got the calculator out.

400,000 doesn’t go into 1,000,000 too many times, she discovered.

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“You expect us to believe  - and have stated repeatedly here – that there were 400,000 checkpoints carried out during that time. I put it to you Commissioner, ‘How in God’s name could that be possible?’ That would mean, in effect, that every checkpoint tested about 2.5 people.”

Finn said he could stand over that particular number, saying all the checkpoints were validated.

“I have no indication to say our checkpoint data is wrong. I have presented the data in relation to our breath test. I have verified that externally,” he added.

Twomey confirmed that there are no set guidelines about how many drivers should be tested at any given site. Finn explained that MATs are often carried out at night and in rural locations. And not everybody is breathalised, either.

O’Sullivan moved quickly away from numbers.

“It is important to focus on the outcome and the purpose of the MAT checkpoints,” she said. “The purpose is to reduce road deaths and fatal collisions and that’s what we’re achieving.”

It’s true but those in Leinster House weren’t enamoured.

Daly said she felt “like the parent who finds the child with the biscuit jar and chocolate all over his mouth, sitting there saying, ‘It wasn’t me’”.

Colm Brophy of Fine Gael wasn’t “interested in the excuses used four times already”.

And his party colleague, Senator Martin Conway, summed up his opinion on whether O’Sullivan can restore the public’s confidence in just one succinct sentence.

“If you do, you will have put Lazarus in the ha’penny place.”

Read: Nóirin O’Sullivan calls country’s top officers to garda HQ and urges them to support her

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