Fintan O’Toole: Nóirín O’Sullivan fluent in Wyssn and Mangleish
Obfuscating Garda Commissioner has taken unaccountability to a new level in Ireland
Its amazing when Politicians rants and rave for hours on end, and members of the media see no difficulty with it, but when someone gives it back they go into a frenzy and come with this this type of response. Mary Lou will have to stick to the Pilates to help her focus. !!
Nóirín O’Sullivan is bilingual. In the old days, this would have meant that the Garda Commissioner was equally at home in Irish and English. But in contemporary Ireland it means she has mastered two entirely different languages of obfuscation.
In her tour de force before the Public Accounts Committee on Tuesday, she showed it is not true that, when it comes to the art of sliding away from accountability, nothing ever changes. O’Sullivan is a native speaker of traditional Irish political verbiage. But she can also move effortlessly into a whole new vernacular. She is the first public figure to be fluent in both Wyssn and Mangleish.
Wyssn is short, of course, for Whatever You Say Say Nothing. It is native to the Gael and racy of the soil. Those of us fated to sit through endless tribunals of inquiry in the 1990s and noughties have been privileged to hear some of its greatest exponents in action, talking for days without giving a single straight answer to a single question. It is a language that flourished in its purest form during the high kleptocratic era of Fianna Fáil, characterised by a baroque syntax of circumlocution and exquisite patterns of relentlessly repeated inanities.
Any pessimism about the decline of Wyssn was banished by O’Sullivan on Tuesday. She is its Peig Sayers – a boundlessly rich source for future students of an apparently endangered language. She showed a perfect grasp of two of its most fundamental imperatives: never accept that you are personally to blame for anything and always insist that the past is another country.
A splendid example of her fluency in the first of these rules of Wyssn is the issue of why she did not inform the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2015 that her internal auditor had found evidence of extremely dodgy financial practices at the Garda training college in Templemore. For a mere speaker of English this would be a very hard question. O’Sullivan was briefed about the Templemore mess on July 27th, 2015. Just four days later she signed a letter to the C&AG as accounting officer for the Garda, certifying that she had disclosed all irregularities. The C&AG was present while O’Sullivan was giving her evidence on Tuesday and made it absolutely clear that she should have told his office of the concerns she knew about, even if she did not yet have a definitive grasp of what was going on.
At this point, for the poor Anglophone, there would be a clear choice: if the C&AG was right, she was wrong and vice versa. But for the speaker of Wyssn, this is mere petty literalism. O’Sullivan acknowledged that the C&AG was right that she should have informed him but absolutely refused to concede that she was therefore wrong not to do so. In Wyssn, there is a favourite escape clause: my mindset at the time. I wasn’t wrong to do the wrong thing because it didn’t seem wrong to me at the time: “I will talk about my mindset first. My mindset at that time and when I was presented with the statement of internal financial controls was that I certainly was not in possession of complete information.” And she’s off.
To be fair, not all of this language comes from Fianna Fáil’s golden days. Some of it was forged by the Catholic Church, which perfected the line that covering up child abuse by priests was a practice of the dim distant past when child abuse was not understood. O’Sullivan has avoided stating that what was going on at Templemore was outrageous by indulging in a similar kind of temporal relativism.
It is not just that she refuses to account at all for anything her predecessors did, though she does play that card with a flourish. It is that she endlessly repeats a formula that eludes all moral judgment, speaking of practices that “clearly do not meet modern corporate governance or financial standards”. This brilliantly suggests that there was some time when the kind of shenanigans that were going on at Templemore might have been thought okay and that modern accounting practices began in 2015.
This is all good old Wyssn. But what makes O’Sullivan so special is that she is just as eloquent in Mangleish. Mangleish is English put through the mangle of management-speak until every drop of meaning has been squeezed from it. Thus, for example, you don’t do something, you “action” it. A mere English-speaker might be embarrassed at all the things O’Sullivan didn’t do – inform the Minister for Justice, inform the C&AG, instigate a criminal investigation into possible fraud. But none of this matters in Mangleish because she “actioned” things – a word she used nine times on Tuesday: “the deputy commissioner . . . actioned that by way of a minute to me”; “the gravity and the seriousness of the issues were actioned”. Actioning meant setting up a committee and keeping the problems within Garda circles.
And then there’s that favourite word in the Mangleish lexicon: “team”. O’Sullivan was asked repeatedly by Alan Kelly whether she had confidence in each individual in senior Garda management, a highly relevant question given that one of those individuals suggested that another might be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for being too zealous in his pursuit of the truth. She answered every time in Mangleish: “I have confidence going forward that we will and can create a cohesive, effective team . . . Our job is to make sure we pull together that team into a cohesive, effective team and I am confident we are doing that.”
O’Sullivan probably won’t last as commissioner, but she should be preserved for linguistic study. She may be struggling to modernise the force but she has single-handedly modernised the language of evasion in Ireland. By stiffening the best traditions of old verbiage with the pure lead of the higher managerial waffle, she has forged a powerful new verbal shield against accountability.