'The discontinuance of disciplinary action against a prison officer is disturbing on a number of levels'

'The discontinuance of disciplinary action against a prison officer is disturbing on a number of levels'
Prison Service whistleblower David McDonald, in Abbeyleix, Co Laois. The assistant chief officer had been facing five charges of indiscipline before it was announced that the charges were being discontinued. His allegations of malpractice in the prison service, including illegal surveillance of prison officers, were validated in a a report ordered by the minister of justice. Picture Dylan Vaughan

A Prison Service whistleblower was the subject of disciplinary proceedings, but when this was made public the charges were dropped, writes Michael Clifford.

The report in today’s paper about the discontinuance of disciplinary action against a prison officer is disturbing on a number of levels. Assistant chief officer David McDonald was facing five charges of indiscipline.

His alleged “crime” was to allow a junior officer to leave work in the Midlands Prison half an hour before her shift ended. The junior officer had a family emergency.

Disciplinary action taken against Mr McDonald about anything should have red lights flashing. He alleged malpractice in the Prison Service last November, resulting in a report ordered by the minister for justice.

The report found that most of Mr McDonald’s allegations, including illegal surveillance of prison officers, stood up. As such, Mr McDonald could be classified a whistleblower. And any action against a whistleblower — in any field — should prompt scrutiny.

Whistleblowers are obliged to observe the same rules as everybody else, but there is a long record of “whistleblower reprisal” against those who speak out, right across all sectors of the workplace.

So when one is subjected to disciplinary action, an immediate question arises as to whether there is a genuine case to be answered, or whether it looks suspiciously like whistleblower reprisal.

On the face of it, the case against Mr McDonald — and the junior officer — appears extremely weak. Apart from the specific emergency when she was allowed home early, she was, on two other occasions that week, minutes late for work.

Provision is routinely made in most workplaces for personal matters — even basic ones such as attending a big football match or a family event.And what was at issue here was not a trivial or leisure pursuit but a serious personal issue. So was Mr McDonald targeted because he had reported malpractice?

Any suspicion in that respect was heightened last Monday when he received notice that the disciplinary action would not now proceed. The notification came hours after the Irish Examiner published a story about his plight.

Could it be a coincidence that a decision not to proceed against Mr McDonald was delivered on the day that his case was aired in the public domain?

Perhaps it could. If not, serious questions arise. Subjecting any employee to a disciplinary procedure is a serious matter that can impact adversely on a career. It is not embarked on without detailed consideration. Yet the possibility opens up in this case that the action against Mr McDonald was simply dropped when it became public news. If that were to be the case it would raise the most serious concerns about how the service is run.

Coincidences do happen. Sometimes they happen more than once. Another coincidence involving the Prison Service and media exposure occurred with another serious issue.

In September 2017, the Department of Justice received an anonymous protected disclosure about sexual harassment and the use of public funds.

Nothing was done. In late November, details of the protected disclosure appeared in the Irish Examiner. Within a week, an investigation was opened. (That investigation took nearly 12 months to complete and is understood to have confirmed the contents of the protected disclosure). Again it could be a coincidence that action was prompted only when the matter became public.

There is other evidence that within the prison service action is often taken simply in response to media exposure.

Last November, when the Irish Examiner published details of David McDonald’s allegations, Charlie Flanagan told the Dáil that he was ordering an inquiry into the matter. He also told the Dáil that he had been aware of the allegations before publication of that day’s Irish Examiner. Yet he only decided to act once the matter was in the public domain. Was it not serious enough to demand inquiry of itself?

The publication of that inquiry was a masterclass in spin. Despite receiving it in early March — after deeming the report “urgent”— the minister didn’t publish it until the day of the final pre-summer cabinet meeting in late July when everybody was in holiday mode.

Another area within the service that was exposed to media reports was that of the handling of deaths in custody. A coroner’s court in Cork last March heard that records had been falsified to cover up a failure to check on a vulnerable prisoner the night before his death.

Following that, the director general of the IPS, Caron McCaffrey, sent an email to all staff. She reminded them that they were obliged to follow procedures in relation to deaths in custody.

“This issue has been raised by the inspector of prisons, the secretary general of the Department of Justice and Equality and most recently by the minister for justice and equality who has expressed to me his grave concern at this issue,” Ms McCaffrey wrote.

To which one might respond what does it matter who is concerned about how deaths in custody are handled? Staff are obliged to follow procedure, based on a duty of care, and that obligation is paramount whether or not Charlie Flanagan or indeed the Pope has concerns.

The email did betray what appears to be a high priority concern in the IPS that above all else, controversy or embarrassment for the minister for justice, or Government, must be avoided. The examples laid out here would certainly concur. It couldn’t really be the case that reacting to public exposure is a guiding principle in how things are done in the service? Could it?

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