Nóirín O’Sullivan strode down from the witness box at the lunch break in the Disclosures Tribunal yesterday, spotted Maurice McCabe and his wife Lorraine, and extended a warm greeting to the couple.
It was as if old friends had bumped into each other in Dublin Castle, amid the battery of lawyers, and took the opportunity to catch up.
This module of the tribunal into alleged attempts to smear Sgt McCabe might not have been necessary if Ms O’Sullivan had a similar inclination in the early days of the O’Higgins commission.
The tribunal is examining whether Ms O’Sullivan attempted to discredit Sgt McCabe behind the closed doors of O’Higgins in 2015. A row broke out at the commission on the second day over Sgt McCabe’s motives in bringing forward his complaints of malpractice, which were being examined.
Earlier this month, we were told that much of this was a misunderstanding, which left Sgt McCabe believing he was accused of blackmail. Why didn’tNóirín pick up the phone back then, tell her sergeant she was mortified at such an error, and ask for his understanding? That would certainly have reassured the sergeant, and might have cleared the matter up.
Instead, the former commissioner had to be hauled out of retirement to put in an appearance as a star witness at this tribunal into what happened back then.
Ms O’Sullivan began by peppering her evidence with passages that might have been lifted from a belated valedictory speech about her tenure as commissioner.
Once she took over in March 2014, she set about immediately attempting to restore public confidence in the force, which was at an all-time low.
“I was the commissioner performing the role of two deputy commissioners,with a depleted number of assistant commissioners and a depleted number of chief superintendents,” she told tribunal lawyer Kathleen Leader.
“We had a number of ongoing inquiries and commissions and other serious issues at the same time.”
She was spending a lot of time sorting the fall-out from Sgt McCabe’s whistleblowing. She told the tribunal yesterday she was dealing with Sgt McCabe on three issues: Bullying at his place of work; his position as a protected discloser; and then as a witness to O’Higgins.
She was also dealing with O’Higgins on the basis that the force would come under scrutiny from Sgt McCabe’s complaints of malpractice and shoddy and dangerous policing.
One aspect of O’Higgins with which she was concerned was Sgt McCabe’s claims that there was corruption — as defined by the Garda charter — in some of the cases.
“My understanding was that all of the individual incidents in some way combined to contribute to the allegations that there were allegations ofcorruption and malpractice,” she said.
The preparation was rushed. She appointed one liaison officer, then another, and then two weeks before the commission was to begin hearing, a final choice, Superintendent Fergus Healy, was thrown into the deep end.
On the day before O’Higgins was set to start, her liaison officer told her that the lawyers felt they would have to challenge Sgt McCabe’s motivation in bringing the complaints.
Ms O’Sullivan could have done without that. In public and at work, she was doing what she could to relieve the burden of the whistleblower. Now, behind closed doors, she was being asked to effectively adopt an aggressive stance towards him.
“I was very aware that Sgt McCabe’s perception of me might change,” said Ms O’Sullivan. “I was faced with an almost impossible dilemma.”
The lawyers launched into Sgt McCabe the following day, but as far as the commissioner was concerned, she was playing the ball and not the man.
The matter, in her mind, was about getting to the bottom of what poisoned the well in Cavan, precipitating Sgt McCabe to make his complaints.
This had to do with the fallout from an investigation into the sergeant following an allegation from the daughter of a colleague whom he had reported for ill-discipline.
In the witness box, Ms O’Sullivan repeatedly said her decision to question Sgt McCabe’s motivation was nothing personal. Throughout the afternoon, she praised him for his actions, even describing him as“courageous” for “rightly” bring forward complaints. She just did what she had to do in giving the instructions to her counsel to attack his motivation.
“I have never, ever considered Sgt McCabe to be malicious and I would never challenge or impugn his integrity,” she said. “This was never about the man but testing the validity and veracity of the allegations.”
Somebody should have told Sgt McCabe this at the time. The tribunal heard yesterday that on the evening the attack was launched, he met his district officer in Mullingar and said he no longer wanted to be the sergeant in charge of the traffic unit, as he felt “under threat” and it had to do with the commissioner. He couldn’t say any more because of the confidentiality around the O’Higgins commission.
Sgt McCabe’s fears were based around the fact that a document had been produced at O’Higgins effectively accusing him of blackmail of a senior officer.
Now we hear it was all a misunderstanding, albeit nobody told Sgt McCabe that was the position. He continued to believe his commissioner had authorised an attack on his character.
At the end of yesterday’s hearing, Ms O’Sullivan stopped to chat to Lorraine McCabe on her way down from the witness box. What a pity she never picked the phone up to Mrs McCabe or her husband two-and-a-half years ago to explain the awful misunderstanding.
Ms O’Sullivan continues to give evidence today, and at this rate she may be retained there until tomorrow.
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