A force for justice - the story of Sergeant Maurice McCabe

Some books have their genesis in the craziest places, but the origin of A Force For Justice is pretty mundane, writes Michael Clifford.

I was at home one May evening in 2013, minding the kids when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognise.

Answering these kind of calls is always a gamble. It could be somebody with a story, which might require patience, filtering, more patience, interjecting with a few questions, invoking Job for his patience, and finally realising that the person on the other end of the line has a grievance but no story.

It could be somebody with a story, an average guy who just wants an issue investigated, and is offering a few facts that might lead to more. Or it could be one of those rare times when you just strike lucky with the bones of an exceptional story. Or sometimes, the call is just from a voice flogging something or wondering whether you’re happy with your broadband.

On this occasion, the caller made himself known. He had some serious information about the ‘ticket-fixing’ scandal that had been in the news. A few weeks previously, an internal garda report was published into how thousands of speeding tickets had been quashed. The general outcome was that there wasn’t a whole lot to see here, except a few disgruntled cops spreading manure.

The man on the line was persuasive. He maintained that there was a story that was largely being ignored. The real story was a scandal that was being covered up. It was not just, he asserted, about well-connected people getting speeding tickets fixed. It was widespread abuse right across the gardaí.

Up to that point, the ticket-fixing story hadn’t floated my boat. I had considered it to be about a few high-profile individuals — a judge, a TV personality, and a sports star were among those mentioned — getting sorted out.

That kind of carry-on wasn’t much of a surprise and there were more important things going on in the world.

There was another reason that I hadn’t got stuck into the story. When it first surfaced six months previously, I’d mentioned it to a colleague — with whom I’d worked some years previously — who knew the crime beat. When we spoke about it, he pointed his index finger to the side of his head and twirled it around.

“Those lads are mad,” he said. He went on to detail how one of them had been involved in some minor incident years previously and was an attention- seeker. Having only had a passing interest in it, that little nugget of information was enough to steer me clear of the whole thing. 

Like most journalists, I’ve met my fair share of people who are drawn, moth-like, to the media, but who have little that needs to be disseminated in the public interest.

Looking back, that exchange with my colleague should have set off alarm bells for me. About 15 years previous to that, another garda scandal was in its infancy in Co Donegal.

The numerous instances of corruption that ultimately led to the Morris Tribunal sitting for six years were leaking out into the public.

Private investigator Billy Flynn had been hired by the McBrearty family in Raphoe to investigate whether they were being set up by the gardaí. I knew Billy well. (He died in 2010 at the age of 64.) We had worked on a few stories together, including that of the violent deaths of Una Lynskey and Marty Kerrigan, which featured on these pages last week. Billy first introduced me to the people associated with that 1970s tragedy in 2001.

In the late 1990s, Billy asked me to take a look at the goings-on in Donegal. I demurred. I’d heard in media circles that the whole thing was down to the crazy ravings of a garda sergeant’s wife.

This was Sheena McMahon, a courageous and graceful woman who would ultimately be highly commended for her service to the State by the chair of the Morris Tribunal. In the great tradition of whistleblowers, she was the subject of false and malicious rumours.

Big mistake on my part. Billy Flynn’s work broke the case wide open. Donegal was a hugely important story that led to the establishment of the Garda Síochána Act in 2005, the first real attempt to reform the workings of the force.

Now, with a story about quashing tickets and rumours, it was déjà vu all over again. False rumours were generated and spread to deflect any interest in the story.

That night in May 2013 changed it all. Against my better instincts, and probably to distract me from hyperactive kids, I told the voice at the end of the line to come to my home.

He arrived and we sat down. He opened a cardboard folder and showed me details of the real story behind the recently published internal garda report. The abuse of the ticket-fixing was widespread and the proof was easily accessible.

This man kept me up half the night. My wife arrived home at some stage and inquired whether the kids had brushed their teeth before going to bed. 

“What kids?” I replied. 

“Do you not realise that there are people out there having their speeding tickets fixed on the basis that they were returning home to stop ‘bees attacking livestock’?”. 

Another excuse given for quashing a speeding ticket was that the motorist was “late for a swimming lesson”. 

These were examples of the excuses inserted to sort out friends and acquaintances for their speeding tickets.

Thereafter, it was just a matter of following the story. That required perseverance, sleepless nights, and not a little stress, the kind of stuff endured in most jobs. Along the way, I met all sorts of people who left me with a lot of humility.

Mary Lynch is a taxi driver who was viciously assaulted in 2007 by a man who went on to murder another woman nine months later. 

Her case was mishandled by gardaí operating out of Bailieborough, Co Cavan and she was denied her day in court, she believes, because she would have publicly criticised the shortcomings in the investigation.

Mary showed bravery and fortitude in how she dealt with what had befallen her. She is a strong woman who initially was led to believe that Maurice McCabe was behind the mishandling. After meeting him, she realised the truth. Her case forms a chapter in A Force For Justice.

Many other people whom I interviewed for the book wished to remain anonymous, but felt compelled to tell what they knew about what Garda McCabe had been subjected to. This included both serving and retired members of An Garda Síochána.

I met the man himself in his home in Co Cavan. 

He was, and is, constrained in how he can talk about anything to do with the force as he is still a member. (Ironically, the law that prohibits him talking is a section in the Garda Síochána Act 2005, which was brought in by then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, who is now McCabe’s senior counsel.)

Garda McCabe’s home environment is completely at odds with the stereotypical image of a whistleblower as a loner, or somebody who wrestles with their conscience.

He was simply a guard who was thrown, by circumstances, into a scenario where he felt he had to do the right thing. He is a family man, a father of five, married to Lorraine, another woman of quite amazing strength who was his rock through the years of ordeal.

TD Clare Daly relates in the book how she grappled with the distance between the mild-mannered Cavan man she met and the man she considers a hero who has done more for modernisation of the gardaí than anybody else.

There are three separate aspects to the Maurice McCabe story.

In the first instance, there is the shoddy and incompetent work which left the victims of crime bereft. This strand also includes the corruption of the penalty-points system which saw favoured motorists let off scot-free, arguably compromising efforts to bring safety to the roads.

The second strand concerns Garda McCabe’s efforts to have these issues addressed. Time and again, he came up against the impenetrable blue wall behind which the force operates.

The most shocking strand is the efforts made to silence Garda McCabe, to ostracise him from his colleagues and the institution that was his life. There were a number of attempts to boomerang blame for cock-ups back onto him. None of these succeeded.

At one point, there was even what could be interpreted as a death threat. Former garda John Wilson related to me how, when attending a large gathering of members in 2010, one openly said: “What Maurice McCabe needs is a bullet in the head.”

Garda Wilson related this back to Garda McCabe and an investigation was launched. Nobody was prosecuted. Inexplicably, no disciplinary process was ever initiated against the member alleged to have made the comment.

An insight into the lengths that some appeared to be willing to go to target the whistleblower is evident in the chapter about the missing computer. This featured in the O’Higgins Commission, but was first reported in the Irish Examiner in 2014.

A computer seized from a priest, who was subsequently jailed for child abuse offences, went missing in Bailieborough station. Garda McCabe had nothing to do with the investigation into the priest or the exhibits seized. Yet, when the vanished computer became an issue, a disciplinary process into Garda McCabe was initiated.

Through his fortitude and with the help of a colleague who had sympathy for what was being done to him, he managed to clear his name.

The O’Higgins Commission ruled that Garda McCabe “formed the view that there was a plot against him and other gardaí were out to blame him”.

“While there is no evidence of any concerted attempt to blame Sergeant McCabe it is understandable that he might connect the commencement of disciplinary proceedings with the complaints he had made a short time earlier and that he might feel aggrieved,” the commission stated.

Delving into the story was both challenging and rewarding. In the early days, there were times when I felt I was missing something. There was little take-up for the story elsewhere in the media. Rumours abounded about Garda McCabe’s character. 

The spin machines, both in the force and among large swathes of the body politic, was working overtime against him.

Now and then I was riddled with doubt. The evidence was clear. Garda McCabe’s character suggested a
serious and genuine man. Yet could everybody else be wrong?

One day in early 2014, I briefly found myself in the company of Conor Brady, the former editor of the Irish Times and former chair of the Garda Ombudsman Commission. We barely knew each other, but in the course of a conversation about the garda controversies, he asked had I met Garda McCabe.

“He’s an impressive guy,” Mr Brady said. “A serious man who should be listened to.”

Mr Brady had encountered the sergeant via his former role in GSOC.

At that point I realised my doubts were unfounded. I was not crazy (well, not too crazy). Everything did make sense. Three days after that encounter, Mr Brady went on the This Week programme on RTÉ Radio and said much the same thing in public. To my mind, that was a crucial moment in the tide of public opinion turning in relation to Garda McCabe.

A crucial juncture in the Maurice McCabe story was his appearance at the Public Accounts Committee in 2014 where he outlined the corruption in the ‘squaring’ of speeding tickets. For the first time in six years, he felt that he somebody was actually listening to what he was trying to expose.

The chair of the committee, John McGuinness, told me that he had been highly impressed by Garda McCabe’s presentation to the committee behind closed doors.

“I got the impression that on one level he felt he was speaking for the ordinary guards in the country,
the type of individuals we know and respect who want to do their best at the job,” McGuinness said.

There would be low points even after that vindication. Behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins commission in 2015 there was an alleged attempt to smear him. That episode will be examined by the Disclosures Tribunal currently sitting in Dublin Castle.

There was the devastating impact of the errors in Tusla that had him falsely labelled as a child sex abuser. The detail of how that came about makes for chastening reading and was heard at the tribunal last July.

One element of the story that leaves a lasting impression is the account given by Lorraine McCabe of the years of stress and worry had on their growing family.

In particular, Lorraine remembers the negative stories that were peddled about Maurice.

“The run-up to any events that had a public dimension [e.g. First Holy Communion] was filled with dread in case another story would ‘hit the press’ and ruin the occasion,” she says. 

“I have also had to constantly worry about the next item of publicity, to figure out how to shield our children from its effect and to worry about what they might have heard in the schoolyard.

“Many times I have simply chosen to abandon plans and to stay at home rather than face the world in the wake of yet another story.”

The Maurice McCabe story is about the perseverance of one man against some of the most powerful forces in state. It is about the
interface of policing and politics. However, it is also about a personal journey of that man and his family. They paid a high price for discommoding the centres of power.

Hopefully, A Force For Justice does some justice to their story.

A Force for Justice — The Maurice McCabe Story is published by Hachette Books and is out now

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