Analysis: Garda Commissioner winched to safety for now

O’Sullivan damaged despite ‘Prime Time’ revelations about Tusla role in McCabe saga

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin’s allegation under Dáil privilege that Garda Commissioner NóirínO’Sullivan had been involved in smearing whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe over alleged child sex abuse looked devastating for her.

Though she vehemently denied any wrongdoing, flashbacks of her predecessor Martin Callinan’s departure came to mind: a late-night visit to his house by a senior official from the Department of Justice explaining that, while he was not being sacked, he could not possibly stay on.

The Government announced a commission of inquiry, to be chaired by Mr Justice Peter Charleton, would assess whether Ms O’Sullivan and Mr Callinan instructed the former head of the Garda Press Office, Supt David Taylor, to spread false allegations about Sgt McCabe.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on justice Jim O'Callaghan said his party would not support calls for Ms O'Sullivan to stand aside as the commissioner and the whistleblowers were entitled to a thorough investigation. When RTÉ's Prime Time followed up with its revelations about Tusla's botched involvement in the episode, it also helped take the pressure off the commissioner. The story wasn't now just one of a Garda smear, but of the child-protection and health authorities also being implicated.


Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone was – and still is – very much in the line of fire over what she had or had not told her Cabinet colleagues about Tusla’s culpability.

That twist in the story – first broken by the Irish Examiner and followed up by Prime Time, with O'Sullivan owing thanks to both – took the controversy away from Garda Headquarters.

And in times of greatest crisis, it is often the boot released from the neck for the briefest of moments that ensures survival.

O’Sullivan may have weathered the storm for now, but she is damaged and there is no escape from that status any time soon.

The Garda force can go and bring every major criminal gang in the country down under her reign, but the commissioner will be linked to Howlin’s words in the Dáil last week until, and unless, irrefutable evidence exonerates her.

Just as Sgt McCabe was smeared by the very suggestion of sexual impropriety, no matter what the evidence said, O’Sullivan is now in the same boat.

Lost control

All the while, a gulf is emerging in the Garda organisation, according to informed sources at every level.

There is one camp within senior management – a small number who are seen as O’Sullivan’s people. And then there is everyone else.

And the O’Sullivan group is regarded as having lost control.

Many in the Garda now fear the Government will have no option but to look outside the force when hiring the next commissioner, whenever that might be. Currently, the Policing Authority is running a competition to fill vacant assistant commissioner positions – the third most senior rank in the force. But it is restricted to advertising those jobs to members of the Garda and PSNI only.

A review of that limitation – introduced under former minister for justice Michael McDowell – is under way.

And given the apparent inability and/or unwillingness of parts of the Garda culture to change, the hiring of senior officers from abroad – to at least lend the appearance of an opening up of the force – looks inevitable.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times