MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Maurice McCabe’s noble attempt to police gardaí

GARDA Maurice McCabe worked through Christmas 2012, from Dec 20 to St Stephen’s Day. Ten-hour shifts. Young family at home, huddled in the warmth of the season. That’s the lot of frontline workers. They put in the hours, while the rest of us kick back. The upside for gardaí is a holiday at the end of it, time to make up time.

Or so McCabe thought. He had a few days coming to him to chill out with the family, cocooned from the world outside, which was loaded with stress.

McCabe was a whistleblower. He had first made complaints, some years previously, about what he deemed malpractice and deception. He had a good record when he was asked to be station sergeant in Bailieboro, Co Cavan. While there, McCabe encountered a number of concerns. Eventually, following what he saw as shocking incompetence in the investigation of a serious assault, he made a complaint. Others followed. A number were upheld, but McCabe wasn’t informed whether any action was taken against the officers involved.

Pretty soon, it became apparent that he was regarded as troublesome. Making complaints wasn’t the done thing. Get on with the job; look the other way; bite your tongue; and move on.

McCabe availed of the ‘confidential recipient’ appointment. This office is designed to receive whistleblowing information from within the gardaí. The recipient passes it onto the Minister for Justice, who then informs the Garda Commissioner, who is detailed to investigate. In theory, it offers an anonymous route for a whistleblower. The system assumes that the commissioner will thoroughly investigate complaints, even if they reflect badly on senior colleagues.

On Dec 14, 2012, McCabe was called in by his district superior and told he was being ordered to desist from disseminating information gleaned from the Pulse system. McCabe had examined files on the system that illustrated widespread abuse of the penalty-points system. Now, he had an order issued against him. The message was being conveyed to him that the upper echelons of the force had identified him as a whistleblower.

So much for Christmas cheer. When he did sign off, on St Stephen’s Day, McCabe went home hoping for some respite.

Not a chance. Over the following three days, he received numerous calls from senior officers. He didn’t respond. On Dec 30, two senior officers showed up unannounced at his house. It is unheard of for a garda to be officially visited at home, unless it’s for arrest for a criminal matter. Yet these men had travelled from Westmeath to Cavan to deliver something that couldn’t wait until McCabe returned to work a few days later.

He was informed that his access to Pulse was being restricted. This rendered a serious blow to his capacity to do his job. But that was secondary to him compared to the manner in which the senior officers had shoved his troubles into the bosom of the family home.

McCabe shouldn’t have been too surprised. For nearly 12 months, at this stage, he had been the focus of a disciplinary action involving the loss in garda custody of a computer suspected of containing child-pornography images. McCabe had nothing to do with the loss. He wasn’t even involved in the investigation in which it was seized.

As reported in this newspaper last Monday, a legal opinion sought at the time described the disciplinary action as “shambolic”. Eventually, McCabe was cleared of it, but the process dragged out for 18 months, loading further stress on him and his family.

Does all of that amount to a form of harassment?

Ask Alan Shatter.

On Jun 14, 2011, Shatter appointed Oliver Connolly to the office of Confidential Recipient. Connolly had contributed €1,000 to one of Shatter’s election campaigns. Appropriately, Shatter graced the appointment with a high-minded statement.

“Any member or civilian employee of An Garda Síochána who wishes to report, in confidence, about corruption and malpractice can be assured that any such report will be taken seriously and extensive protection will be given to him or her.”

Despite his flowery words, the minister’s record in protecting McCabe and his former colleague, retired garda John Wilson, has been little short of a joke.

After both men had lost faith in the confidential-reporting system, they went to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Transport, who passed the matter onto Shatter. He ordered an internal garda inquiry into the penalty points complaints.

The report compiled under Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney found little wrong with the system, apart from a few glitches. The whistleblowers weren’t interviewed in the investigation.

Last Thursday, O’Mahoney told the Public Accounts Committee that one reason for this was he wasn’t supposed to know their identity, and therefore couldn’t ask them to contribute. Yet both men had been issued with the order restricting their access to Pulse. Why didn’t O’Mahoney pick up the phone and say, “Maurice, come in and tell us what you know so we can get to the bottom of this”?

Maybe what McCabe had to say would have discommoded the official response. Maybe it was best to turn a blind eye to what the turbulent cop had to offer.

As for Shatter, he has a few questions to answer. On Oct 1 last, he told the Dáil that the whistleblowers “did not co-operate with the garda investigation that took place”.

This statement was wholly inaccurate, and may well have amounted to misleading the Dáil.

As the nominal employer of the Gardaí, Shatter also has obligations under whistleblower legislation. Section 20 of the Criminal Justice Act 2011 obliges employers not to penalise, or allow others penalise, whistleblowers. There is also provision in the act that an employer who contravenes Section 20 shall be guilty of an offence.

Has Shatter penalised the whistleblowers by blackening their characters in parliament? Has he allowed McCabe to be penalised in the force, through various actions taken against the sergeant?

If Shatter has a case to answer under the law, who could investigate it?

The gardaí?

This whole affair is much bigger than penalty points, or a tug-of-war between the garda commissioner and the Public Accounts Committee. After the corruption exposed in Donegal, we were assured that a brave new world had opened up, with extensive protection for officers to expose corruption from within.

In Donegal, the failure of junior officers to report the rampant corruption of a few senior colleagues was identified as crucial. The price of doing so would have been their careers, and more besides.

That was all supposed to be in the past.

On Thursday, PAC chairman, John McGuinness, read out a letter he had received from McCabe.

“Having been treated the way I was for reporting the above, I don’t think that I would do it again. It destroyed me, my career and my family.”

So much for the protective reach of Shatter’s rhetoric.

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