Martin Callinan: Good cop turned bad?

There is tension in the Coalition about what Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan needs to do after his 'disgusting' comments.

Caroline O’Doherty looks at Martin Callinan’s record prior to this very damaging, badly handled scandal

IN a bizarre turn of events, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan found himself this past week at the centre of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine in which he played neither role.

Instead he was caught in the middle of a tense scene, with Enda Kenny, Phil Hogan and James Reilly placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder and empathising with his position while Leo Varadkar, Eamon Gilmore, Joan Burton and Pat Rabbitte scowled in his face, barking demands for confession and repentance.

He would have been forgiven for thinking wistfully back to last August, the month he turned 60 and was officially due to retire, and wondering if it might have been wiser to have resisted Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s decision to extend his service to August 2015.

The period since then has been probably the most difficult of his career and that’s saying something, given that his 41 years of service have seen him take on some of the highest-ranking lowlifes in the criminal and subversive fraternities.

Callinan, who was born in Dublin, the son of a Galway man who had a shop in Drumcondra, joined the force in 1973 and began his ascent to the top of the pile 13 years later when he was made sergeant.

He served mainly in Dublin, punctuated by spells in Waterford and Mayo, but it was back in the capital as a member of the former Central Detective Unit that he began to get attached to some high-profile investigations.

He was in charge of the so-called Tango Squad which carried out unprecedented round-the-clock surveillance on Martin Cahill, the Dublin crime boss dubbed “The General”, to frustrate his attempts to carry on business.

The strategy was successful, both in thwarting Cahill’s career and boosting Callinan’s, and when Cahill was assassinated in 1994,Callinan was a detective inspector.

His progression through the ranks continued at pace so that by the time he was made chief superintendent in 2001, a path to the Phoenix Park was already being marked out.

It was paved substantially thereafter by a colleague from the Cahill days, Noel Conroy, Callinan’s senior by 10 years and several titles, with whom he had worked closely and had impressed.

Conroy became commissioner in 2003 and before he retired in 2007, Callinan had joined him in the park, becoming responsible for a vast array of policing units and resources. As assistant commissioner in 2005, he was assigned to National Support Services with responsibility for the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Garda National Drugs Unit, the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Operational Support Unit.

In early 2007, he became deputy commissioner and was given responsibility with a more nebulous title, “strategy and change management”, but later that year he was reassigned to operations, in charge of all day-to-day policing and national security issues.

His experience was nothing if not broad. He had headed the investigation against Michael McKevitt, convicted of leadership of the Real IRA which was responsible for the Omagh bombing.

He was one of the senior officers assigned to assist the Cory Collusion Inquiry investigate claims of security force involvement in murders during the Troubles.

He carried out a review of Garda work practices in the area of sexual crimes and child abuse after the Murphy and Ryan reports.

There appeared to be no area of policing to which he couldn’t turn his hand, so when the position of commissioner became vacant in 2010, he seemed a sensible choice.

But as any of his predecessors could have told him, policing is only half the job. Politics is the other.

Since he took over as commissioner, he has overseen the closure of 100 Garda stations and faced down the considerable backlash that ensued. He has had to deal with the fallout from the critical Garda Ombudsman report into the handling of informant Kieran Boylan; with the Smithwick Tribunal which concluded gardaí colluded in the 1989 murders of two RUC officers; and with further damaging revelations about the botched investigation into the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, now the subject of an Ombudsman inquiry.

Callinan has also come under a harsh spotlight for sanctioning a former drugs squad garda who took a role in crime drama Love/Hate despite line managers approving the part. And while he has said he is completely satisfied no officers were involved in the controversial bugging of the Garda Ombudsman’s office, he’s having to deal with an inquiry by retired Judge John Cooke into the affair.

There’s another inquiry under way, by the Children’s Ombudsman, into Garda actions in taking two Roma children into care on what appear to be spurious concerns that they were in the company of people who were not their family.

And on top of all that, there is the heavy burden of knowing that the killers of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe, murdered on duty in January last year, are still at large.

So when the whistleblowers controversy first blew up 15 months ago, Callinan must have hoped it would quickly blow over. Instead, it’s been a prevailing wind whistling around his head, not helped by his own “infelicitous use of language”, as Pat Rabbitte termed it yesterday, in calling the actions of the whistleblower gardaí “disgusting”.

The question for him has been how to deal with it. Withdrawing it might make him good cop in the eyes of the public but if, in doing so, he upsets a force whose reputation he so clumsily tried to protect, will his colleagues see his role as that of bad cop?

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