Even in a post-truth, post-shame world, even in a world where alternative facts are trotted out as regularly as “unprecedented” October storms threaten homes and property, the conclusion reached by Mr Justice Peter Charleton that, despite his repeated denials, former garda commissioner Martin Callinan told a Dáil deputy in early 2014 that whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe had sexually abused his family is deeply shocking. The allegation, and that is a very generous use of vocabulary, was of course false.
There is no perspective, there are no qualifying circumstances, there are no pastel colours to soften that integrity-destroying reality. Put simply, the person in charge of our police force invented an appalling story to serve his and his — as he so often described it — force’s pressing need to silence an individual who made accusations of institutionalised malfeasance. That Sgt Maurice McCabe’s accusations — described at an earlier Oireachtas hearing as “disgusting” by Mr Callinan — were in the main vindicated must be unnerving for anyone trying to sustain a wavering trust in an institution and a system that has stumbled a few times too many, far too often really, in recent years. How do you teach a child to trust and believe in this crumbling edifice?
Indeed, Mr Justice Charleton admits to having been unnerved by the scale of the conspiracy: “What has been unnerving about more than 100 days of hearings in this tribunal is that a person who stood up for better standards in our national police force, Sergeant Maurice McCabe, and who exemplified hard work in his own calling, was repulsively denigrated for being no more than a good citizen and police officer,” he declared. It is hard to imagine that a supreme court judge could be easily unnerved so that comment, especially the phrase “repulsively denigrated” carries weight far beyond that which is immediately obvious.
Not only is Mr Callinan’s reputation shredded but because of his once-elevated position as one of official Ireland’s figureheads the reputation of the force he led inevitably suffers as a consequence. That his clear, unambiguous evidence — that he did not at any point “speak in derogatory terms of Sgt McCabe nor would I” — has been rejected leaves absolutely no wriggle room. The escape hatches have been sealed. These conclusions will hardly deepen the trust offered to Department of Justice mandarins either.
Whatever remote prospect of recovery clings to those reputations there seems no possibility of redemption for former head of the Garda Press Office, Supt Dave Taylor who, Charleton found, lied to the tribunal and swore an affidavit to the High Court that was “entirely made up of nothing but lies”. Suggestions by Supt Taylor that former commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan was aware of a smear campaign against Sgt McCabe were dismissed. Supt Taylor was “suffused in bitterness against her,” and acted with “viciousness”, charged Charleton. It does further, unaffordable damage to the force and that Supt Taylor remains in uniform, a point alluded to by Charleton when he referred to what he described the complex procedures required to sack a member of An Garda Síochána as “a disaster for the country”.
One reputation that is not in need of rescue is that of former justice minister and tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. The tribunal fully accepted her evidence about her knowledge of, and responses to any strategy against Sgt McCabe. Ms Fitzgerald was forced to resign from Government last year over a political controversy surrounding her role.
Unfortunately, that cannot be said of the child protection agency Tulsa which, in an utterly implausible series of events seemed, to put it mildly again, a dupe in a rancid process.
It is right to admire Mr Charleton’s commitment to the highest ideals and his seismic report but reservations are permissible. He dismisses one of the cornerstones of a free and worthwhile press. He, when he refers to three Irish Examiner reporters, finds that their refusal to give evidence about the content of their dealings with Supt Taylor “obviously, and without justification, frustrated the work of the tribunal.” Mr Charleton must know that just as the judiciary asserts its absolute independence, even if doing so it occasionally suggests a simmering frustration with democratic oversight, journalists live or die by the principle of protecting their sources. It is disappointing that Mr Charleton, in a world becoming more dangerous by the day for those who would speak truth to power, does not recognise this. It is equally disappointing that he does not seem to accept the non-negotiable imperative behind this core value — one designed to serve the public rather than protect journalists.
There can be very few parliamentary libraries with such a splendid collection of ignored tribunal reports as ours. It may be naive to hope that Mr Charleton’s report might break that cycle of distraction and failure but it must. It must be the catalyst for profound, managerial, cultural and — possibly — personnel change within the force. If it is not we will again betray the ideals and hopes of this Republic. There can be no excuses, no opposition can be tolerated.