More headaches ahead in McCabe controversy

Since he first approached the body politic bearing his uncomfortable truths, Maurice McCabe has been a thorn in the side of successive governments, writes Michael Clifford

Sergeant Maurice McCabe has highlighted malpractice within the force that has resulted in efforts to bring about real change.

Will nobody rid this Government of this turbulent cop? It might well be the case that some mandarin or politician in the inner sanctum is, in the style of Henry II, asking such a question this week.

Five years after Sergeant Maurice McCabe first began causing headaches in Government Buildings, he is once again prompting some to reach of the Solpadeine.

Just as Henry II wondered whether anybody would rid him of the turbulent priest Thomas Becket, so the Taoiseach may be musing on a similar question about Sgt McCabe.

It’s not that Sgt McCabe has done anything wrong. Far from it. He has highlighted malpractice within An Garda Síochána that has resulted in efforts to bring about real change.

But ever since he first approached the body politic bearing his uncomfortable truths, he has been a headache for successive governments, costing considerable political capital.

This week the issue is one that dogs many scandals — who knew what and when? It arises on foot of persistent inquiries from Labour party TD Alan Kelly.

In short, Mr Kelly, who says he is acting on very specific information, wants to know whether the Department of Justice and the minister of the day — Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald — knew of a plan to attack McCabe’s character behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins commission of investigation in 2015.

The current minister for justice, Charlie Flanagan, has not answered Kelly’s questions but he issued a statement yesterday which asks more questions of itself than answers anything.

Mr Flanagan points out that the Disclosures Tribunal is examining what McCabe may have been subjected to at O’Higgins, and suggests that the tribunal can examine the department’s role in anything that occurred, even though the department is not named in the terms of reference.

“I believe that members of the Oireachtas should be responsible in their public statements and I believe that as parliamentarians we should respect the operation of tribunals of inquiry,” he says.

Notably, Mr Flanagan does not say whether his department, or his predecessor, Ms Fitzgerald, have had engagements with the tribunal on this matter. If they have not, why not just say so? If they have, then the matter can rest there. One might well conclude that Mr Flanagan’s statement is designed to put out a minor fire before it gets out of control.

If the department and/or the minister did know about the attack on McCabe, then further questions arise as to why this was not made known when the controversy blew up soon after the O’Higgins report was published in May 2016. On Sunday, Ms Fitzgerald refused to answer any questions on the issue in an interview with Newstalk.

By this stage, any mention of anything to do with the handling of Sgt McCabe’s complaints should be setting off alarm bells in Leo Varadkar’s office.

For instance, the publication of the O’Higgins report in May last year and the controversy over the alleged attack on Sgt McCabe put then commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan under extreme pressure.

She had been installed by the Government in 2014 as a new broom to effect sweeping changes to the negative aspects of garda culture. The news about what happened at O’Higgins suggested that little had changed.

Thereafter, Ms O’Sullivan came under sustained pressure to resign as scandal begat scandal in the force, until her departure this September. Through all that time, ministers felt compelled to back her, many doing so through gritted teeth.

She, in turn, had succeeded Martin Callinan, who had resigned/retired in March 2014, two months after branding Sgt McCabe’s actions as “disgusting” at a Public Accounts Committee meeting. His departure was seen as a blow to the government.

To lose two commissioners was careless, but to also lose a minister for justice was politically reckless. Alan Shatter resigned on foot of the publication of the Guerin report in May 2014 into Sgt McCabe’s complaints. Subsequently, the Court of Appeal would rule that Mr Shatter had been treated unfairly by Guerin.

In October 2013, Mr Shatter had told the Dáil that McCabe and former garda John Wilson had not co-operated with an internal garda inquiry into ticket fixing. This sparked further controversy. Mr Shatter apologised for it six months later, but during that time the Government continued to be dogged by garda controversies, losing political capital along the way.

The farrago over the appearance of Sgt McCabe at the Public Accounts Committee meeting in January 2014 left the Government with red faces. Government TDs had been initially opposed to Sgt McCabe’s appearance but were forced to backtrack when presented with compelling evidence by the chair of the committee, John McGuinness.

Fallout from the McCabe case also led to the secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell stepping aside from his post in June 2014.

Then, earlier this year, when it was revealed in the Irish Examiner that Tusla had generated a false allegation of child rape against Sgt McCabe, Taoiseach Enda Kenny found himself high and dry because of the ineptitude of his response. Following that, he was forced to signal exactly when he would retire.

So repeatedly, the handling of issues around the cop who wouldn’t lie down has landed governments in hot water. The next 48 hours should determine whether that will once again be the case.

Ironically, the one government figure who was quickest to back Sgt McCabe in 2014 was the then minister for transport, Leo Varadkar.

Today, as head of Government, he may have different priorities as another controversy involving the gardaí and the Department of Justice blows up.

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