Michael Clifford: Garda’s badge of honour tarnished

Charleton has vindicated and commended Maurice McCabe. The reputation of the force itself, however, is less assured, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.

THE Charleton report is just the latest official tome to vindicate Sgt Maurice McCabe.

The Cavan-based sergeant made a number of complaints of malpractice in the force and paid a high price for his decision to highlight such.

The judge is forthright in his analysis of the sergeant’s motives and character.

“Maurice McCabe is a genuine person who at all times has had the interests of the people of Ireland uppermost in his mind,” wrote Mr Justice Peter Charleton.

Mr Justice Peter Charleton

“Those interests he regarded as superior to any loyalty which he had to the police force of the State. Neither interest should ever be in conflict.”

Unfortunately, the travails of McCabe and his family highlight the fact that those interests were in conflict. Once he decided that malpractice should be highlighted, he was a persona non grata in sections of An Garda Síochána. For that, he and his family paid a high price.

This culminated in a campaign of “calumny”, as the judge describes it, against him by then commissioner Martin Callinan and former Garda press officer Superintendent David Taylor.

A question left hanging in the report is to whom did these two officers spread their calumny?

The tribunal heard evidence from four individuals who stated that Callinan had badmouthed McCabe to them. In some instances the form of badmouthing involved scurrilously casting McCabe as a child abuser.

John McGuinness and John Deasy, members of Dáil Eireann, both testified to that effect. So did Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy and journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes. The tribunal accepted the evidence of each of them and noted that they had come forward in a spirit of public duty.

None of these individuals were close to Callinan, none moved in his circles. Is it believable that they were the only ones whom the then commissioner decided to brief negatively about his troublesome sergeant?

Similarly, nobody apart from former journalist Cathal McMahon admitted to being briefed by Taylor. A number of journalists were named by Taylor as those he briefed (McMahon wasn’t on that list). All denied it — or, in the case of Irish Examiner reporters, claimed privilege — and their individual evidence was accepted by Mr Justice Charleton.

So who exactly did Taylor brief? The judge speculated that there may have been other journalists or others outside the media who were negatively briefed. It is highly unlikely, at this late stage, that anybody will come forward in that regard.

The reputations of Callinan and Taylor have suffered severe blows in the tribunal report. This is particularly the case for Taylor, repeatedly described as “deceitful” and somebody who tells lies for his own ends.

He targeted former commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan because of “bitterness” towards her after she moved him from the press office. O’Sullivan had “no hand, act or part” in any campaign against McCabe, the tribunal found.

Another who was caught up in the inquiry was former justice minister Frances Fitzgerald. She resigned last December on foot of a controversy about what she knew and when. Mr Justice Charleton found she acted entirely appropriately.

But beyond reputations, the tribunal has highlighted, once more, the deep cultural problems within the gardaí. Speaking out about malpractice and shoddy work is regarded not as a public service but an attack on the status quo.

Mr Justice Charleton made a point of referring to McCabe’s bona fides, which have been questioned in various centres of power over the last few years.

“At the end of the day, the question may be asked as to what Maurice McCabe was concerned about? Some people who come to public notice are anxious to push their career, some are intent on mischief, and some are genuine. As an officer of the law, sworn to uphold the structure of justice within the country, Maurice McCabe was concerned to maintain standards.

“His focus was on the need of a police force to respond efficiently to victims and on the duty of everyone working in the public service to question themselves as to what, in any day’s work, they had done for the taxpayer on that day. This is laudable. It is also no more than is expected of any public servant.”

A failure to properly deal with such criticism was at the heart of much of the tribunal’s work.

Mr Justice Charleton dealt with this under the heading ‘Reaction to Justified Criticism’. “The worth of any organisation is to be judged by the work it does. The soundness of any organisation may usefully be judged by the reaction it has to the mistakes it makes.

“Both the reaction of Tusla and the reaction of An Garda Síochána to mistakes both made are disheartening. Central to dealing with inefficiencies and with mistakes, as an inevitable part of human life, is the need to face up to them, to report honestly on them, and to address them by improvement.”

The excavation conducted by the tribunal did also uncover some positive tidings. The report notes that in the course of the investigations, there were people who maintained proper standards while others around them succumbed to the lowest common denominator.

“In investigating the calumny against him (McCabe), other aspects of our national life have been laid bare. Within the pages of this report are detailed those women and men who have done their work well and who try every day, as police officers, social workers, and administrators, to do their best.

“But not all. Not every person seeks either to uphold the highest standards or to strive for them through daily work.”

Sgt Maurice McCabe

At the heart of the whole affair, however, was one man and his family who did what he believed to be the right thing. His motives were not just accepted by Mr Justice Charleton — and others who inquired into the affair — but commended.

He didn’t set out to disrupt the centres of power that were at various points thrown into chaos. He wasn’t looking for heads. He certainly wasn’t looking for public acclamation. But events took on a life of their own when his complaints were not properly dealt with.

As McCabe told the Irish Examiner, his family is very happy with the outcome and now want to move on.

“The tribunal and the other inquires that I had to go through were entirely stressful for us and we want to just put it all behind us and just return to a quiet life,” he said.

This is hopefully the final chapter in a saga that has highlighted both the best and the worst that the country has to offer in terms of service and accountability.

More on this topic

Superintendent David Taylor retires on full pension after tribunal criticism

Apology to McCabe was ‘brazen hypocrisy’

Public servants ‘defamed’ using Dail privilege, claims Frances Fitzgerald

Charlie Flanagan apologises to Maurice McCabe on behalf of State

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