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Strain shows on Irish police in crisis

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan Image copyright RTÉ
Image caption Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan faces a Dáil confidence vote on Wednesday

The sun may be shining on the Killarney lakes this week, but the Garda Síochána is operating under a cloud.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) began its annual conference in County Kerry at a difficult time for the Republic of Ireland's police force.

This week will also see the Dáil (Irish parliament) debate a vote of confidence in Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan.

Issues of pay and conditions usually dominate the AGSI gathering: In December, members voted overwhelmingly to accept an independent labour court offer.

Timeline of Garda controversies

Public unease

This year, delegates gather at a time when there is great public unease about the force's culture and leadership.

Earlier this month, the government announced a "root-and-branch" review of how the Garda carries out its work after a number of worrying revelations.

In March, it emerged that gardaí recorded nearly one million more roadside alcohol tests than had actually been carried out in a five-year period to 2016 - almost twice the real figure.

Senior officers conceded it was likely some of the 937,000 tests were simply made up by members of the force.

Image caption Officers recorded nearly one million more roadside alcohol tests than they had actually carried out in a five-year period up to 2016

Commissioner O'Sullivan said the bogus breath tests were due to incompetence at best, and deception at worst.

At the same news conference, senior officers revealed that about 14,700 people convicted in the courts were prosecuted without a fixed-charge notice first being issued.

Gardaí, who have apologised to those affected, now have to appeal against all those convictions and have the court-imposed penalties removed. The state has to cover all costs, estimated to run into millions of euro.

It is not the first time Garda numbers have been called into question.

Last September, the Central Statistics Office said that gardaí were not recording up to one in six of crimes on their computer system, which meant, either intentionally or unintentionally, inflating their crime detection rate.

'An ethical matter''

The Policing Authority, an independent body that oversees the performance of the Garda Síochana, says the road traffic offences and breathalyser controversy "is not just an academic, statistical matter, it is an ethical one".

It also says the controversy raises serious questions of integrity for the Garda Síochana organisation and, combined with previous issues regarding inflated activity levels, erodes confidence in the credibility of Garda data generally.

All of this is also happening at a time when there is a question mark over the future of Commissioner O'Sullivan.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Police whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe was the subject of false child abuse allegations

Even before the latest controversies, she was already under pressure over her alleged involvement in a campaign to smear a garda whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe, with the false allegation that he was a child sex abuser.

She strongly denies the charge, which will be investigated by a sworn public inquiry headed by Supreme Court judge Peter Charleton.

On Wednesday at 16:30 BST, Sinn Féin is to table a motion of no confidence in her leadership of the force, with a vote the following day.

'Huge question mark'

She can only be sacked by the government, or by the Policing Authority, but if the Dáil passes such a motion there has to be a huge question mark over her stewardship of the Garda Siochana.

Much will depend on what way the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, votes.

It has said it cannot express confidence in the commissioner until credible explanations are given for the latest roadside controversies.

The party, which supports the minority government in motions of government confidence and on budgetary matters, is to put down its own motion seeking more powers for the Policing Authority.

'Under a cloud

It is calling for the authority to be asked to assess whether it has confidence in Commissioner O'Sullivan's capacity to restore confidence in the force.

That looks very like Fianna Fáil looking for a way not to support the Sinn Féin motion.

So, the expectation must be that the Dáil will not vote that it has no confidence in Commissioner O'Sullivan, which is not quite the same thing as saying it has confidence in her.

Whichever way the vote goes, the Garda Síochána will remain a force under a cloud until the whistleblowers issues and the "root and branch" review are dealt with.

And it is likely the AGSI at its conference next year, wherever that might be, will be dealing the fall-out of similar controversies.

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