In July 2015, the following was the official line to be conveyed to the media by the minister for justice about the status of Sgt Maurice McCabe.
“Both the garda commissioner and myself have made it clear that Sgt McCabe is a valued member of the force.”
The quote is from a briefing note to then minister Frances Fitzgerald at the time. Its basic message is that we think the whistleblower is a top man.
The note was made public this week in the email that nailed the coffin on Fitzgerald’s tenure in cabinet. It’s a small window into how the official line is spun when there’s an uncomfortable reality nobody wants to talk about.
By July 2015, the valued McCabe was on medication for stress. He had, over the previous six weeks, seen his character attacked repeatedly behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins commission, which was set up to examine his complaints of malpractice.
An early apparent attempt to cast him as a man with a grudge against the force had been snuffed out.
But thereafter various Garda interests adopted an “aggressive stance” — as termed in the briefing note — towards him in the witness box. He was under serious stress at a time in a place where he thought his concerns would finally be addressed.
Things turned out all right in the end. O’Higgins largely vindicated his claims. What he considers an attempt to smear him is to be examined at the Charleton Tribunal. But back in July 2015, he was just about holding it together, while officially the public were told that he was a “valued member” of the force.
The incident highlights a way of life that is known to whistleblowers the world over. When serious people or institutions are forced to face up to shortcomings, the official line repeatedly conveys that everything is fine with that whistleblowering business, and we’re getting on great with the guy himself.
In McCabe’s case, there is a thread running through his efforts to highlight malpractice. At every turn, there are two versions of what is really going on.
One is dispatched from the official world, where things are motoring along just fine and we’re listening to what McCabe has to say although a lot of it doesn’t really stack up.
Meanwhile, in the real world, McCabe was the focus of, to put it at its most benign, severe ire behind the blue wall of the force, and later behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins commission. He was personally being targeted over his inconvenient truths and the facts were being rubbished.
One early manifestation of these dual worlds was the issuing of a circular to all stations in the Cavan/Monaghan division in June 2011 by chief superintendent Colm Rooney.
It concerned the internal Garda investigation into complaints of malpractice made by McCabe.
The circular was congratulatory in tone. “The investigation concluded there were no systemic failures identified in the management and administration of Bailieboro Garda District. A number of minor procedural issues were identified.”
It went on to congratulate all members who had served in Bailieboro. “The findings of the assistant commissioner vindicates the high standards and professionalism of the district force in Bailieboro.”
Everything was hunky-dorey.Why would anybody complain that things weren’t right in theBailieboro District, where McCabe had been a station sergeant? Could it be that McCabe himself is actually the problem, running around with nefarious fictions?
That was the official world in 2011. The real world from that time wouldn’t be known for another five years until the O’Higgins report was published.
Its version of the problems highlighted by McCabe was in sharp contrast to the circular.
Among the many criticisms were:
O’Higgins also found that McCabe had “shown courage and performed a genuine public service at considerable cost” in highlighting the malpractice.
None of that was available in the official world’s version of events back in 2011, in which everybody was doing a sterling job.
Another version of the official world could be seen in May 2013 on publication of the internal Garda report into abuse of the penalty points system, which McCabe had also highlighted.
In the official world, there was nothing much to see here. Back in the real world, McCabe had not even been contacted to check what he knew of the matter.
To do so might have meant he would point out the specific abuses thus “officially” handing over information that would have to be acted upon.
In a statement accompanying the release of the internal report commissioner Martin Callinan stated: “No evidence has been adduced to suggest any act of criminality, corruption, deception or falsification as alleged by the anonymous author.”
McCabe, the author in question, knew that that official line differed greatly from the real world. His reality was confirmed over the following years when a series of reports all vindicated his complaints of malpractice.
At the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee meeting about the penalty points in January 2014, Mr Callinan laid out the official line on whistleblowers to Deputy Shane Ross.
“The Deputy should be very clear that, from my perspective, as commissioner of An Garda Síochána, I will not allow anyone reporting wrongdoing to be bullied, harassed, intimidated…that will not happen on my watch.”
This was a pledge to protect. In the real world, McCabe had by that point been continually bullied, harassed and intimidated. He had been the focus of a disciplinary procedure about a missing computer seized from a priest later convicted on child abuse charges.
McCabe had nothing to do with the disappearance, but believed — understandably, according to the O’Higgins report — that he was being targeted because he had made complaints.
By then, his family had been put through the wringer. Lorraine McCabe would later record the stress and worry they had endured.
“One of the most difficult episodes for me was when Maurice was so low that he was admitted to John of Gods for help. I will never forget the desperation I felt that night after leaving him and driving home alone and wondering how could I shield the children from this.”
That was all a world away from Callinan’s official line about protecting whistleblowers at the PAC meeting.
The day after that meeting, Callinan met the chair of the PAC John McGuinness in a car park on the Naas Road outside Dublin.
McGuinness alleges Callinan told him that McCabe had questions to answer about child sexual abuse, that he had abused family members, and that he was under investigation.
Callinan denies saying anything of the sort.
If McGuinness’s recollection turns out to be accurate, then the commissioner was offering a strange version of protection to a member of the force who had highlighted malpractice.
In May of that year, after Callinan had been replaced by Nóirín O’Sullivan, she was asked at an Oireachtas justice committee meeting about reports that Sgt McCabe was still being bullied and harassed at work. She replied that she had heard these reports but that McCabe was entitled to his privacy.
“What I can say is that senior Garda management are very portive of Sergeant Maurice McCabe and certainly are in contact with him on a daily basis,” she said.
In the official world, senior management was supporting the man, protecting him, in touch with him all the time to check that he’s not being targeted. In the real world, nobody had contacted McCabe.
There had been no contact with any senior officers. Nobody even inquired as to whether he was being bullied and harassed.
A few hours after the commissioner’s utterance, McCabe phoned her private secretary. He pointed out that the commissioner had made a major error in sworn evidence. Nobody had been in touch with him, not on a daily basis, not at all.
Later that day, Ms O’Sullivan rang McCabe and ensured him she would find out what the mix-up was. She went back into the committee and corrected the record.
If McCabe hadn’t informed the official world what was going on in the real world, the impression would be that the man was in good hands.
That was the only time that Ms O’Sullivan ever contacted McCabe directly. Her predecessor Callinan, hell-bent on protecting whistleblowers, as he told the PAC, never called McCabe.
THIS sergeant was highlighting very serious issues between 2008 and 2014. He was the source of a major headache for senior management in a disciplined force. Yet never once did the commissioner of the day pick up the phone and ask him what it was all about.
To do so might well have been to allow the real world pollute the official world in which the commissioner was running around protecting whistleblowers.
His successor, Ms O’Sullivan, had declared herself as a new broom when she took over as interim commissioner in March 2014. She welcomed internal criticism from those she termed “our critical friends”. She encouraged new recruits to speak out when they saw something wrong.
The incident at the Justice committee two months later raised doubts about the quality of her brush. But at least she picked up the phone. It was something she wouldn’t repeat despite McCabe’s plight getting a lot worse over the years to follow.
The chasm between the official world and the real world widened further in May 2015 at the O’Higgins commission. On day two of the hearings, the judge was told by Ms O’Sullivan’s lawyer that McCabe’s motivation and integrity would be targeted.
This related to an allegation that he had some seven years previously expressed a grudge at a meeting in Mullingar.
McCabe produced a recording of the meeting and that avenue of inquiry came to a halt.
McCabe was devastated at what he saw as an attempt to destroy him.
Meanwhile, a few months later, while McCabe was still under attack, the official line from Ms O’Sullivan and Frances Fitzgerald was that he was a “valued member of the force”.
When the whole thing became public through the pages of the Irish Examiner in May 2016, the Garda Commissioner denied ever attempting to impugn McCabe’s character.
She also provided a line straight out of the official world.
“In relation to whistleblowers, I have been consistent at all times; dissent is not disloyalty and as a service we are determined to learn from our experiences.”
The impression from the commissioner’s statement was that any suggestion that she had attempted to impugn McCabe’s character — as he believed — was a misunderstanding of the facts.
Yet she did not think to pick up the phone to McCabe, point out that there had been a terrible misunderstanding, and relieve him of his thoughts that senior management were out to get him.
If she had done, the official world would have collided with the real world. McCabe could have appraised her of his knowledge of the whole thing and that would not sit easily in the official world.
So it was, in the two worlds throughout the narrative of the Maurice McCabe story.
The political upheavals through the last few weeks, culminating in the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald, is directly as a result of these two worlds actually colliding.
As details of what McCabe was subjected to down through the years has leaked out, so the worlds have begun to merge.
No longer is there a credible official line about Maurice McCabe being a valued member who will be listened to and blah blah blah. As the truth has tumbled out, so the public has largely come to see that the official line is simply not to be
And those who were fed that line or pushed it have seen a few chickens scurrying home to roost.
Irish Examiner Special Correspondent Michael Clifford is the author of A Force for Justice: The Maurice McCabe Story.
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