What do you do after a meeting with one of the most powerful individuals in the State, which culminated in a warning that you’re making a “grave” mistake?
In the words of John McGuinness, you “get the hell out of there”.
That’s how the Fianna Fáil TD described his actions in the immediate aftermath of a highly unusual meeting in a hotel carpark with the Garda commissioner in 2014.
The meeting occurred in Mr McGuinness’s car as the rain pelted down. According to the TD, then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan approached his car and got into the passenger seat as Mr McGuinness was about to get out of the car. He had been under the impression that the pair would meet in the hotel.
Over the next 20 minutes, Mr McGuinness says, he was told by the head of the police force that whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe should not be heard by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), of which Mr McGuinness was then chairman. The commissioner allegedly said Mr McCabe had abused his own family members. Mr Callinan denies saying any such thing.
Yesterday, Mr Callinan’s counsel, Micheal O’Higgins, asked Mr McGuinness why, after such a significant meeting, he hadn’t immediately taken note of what had transpired.
“When you’re asked to meet the commissioner, and it turns out you have that meeting in the front seat in a carpark and you’re told the things I was told, your first instinct is to get the hell out of there,” Mr McGuinness told the Disclosures Tribunal.
For more than four hours yesterday, Mr Callinan’s lawyer cross-examined Mr McGuinness about the allegations concerning the carpark meeting and an encounter the previous day — after Mr Callinan’s appearance at the PAC — at which Mr McGuinness says Mr Callinan made similar remarks, also denied by the former commissioner.
The going was soft for much of the cross-examination. Mr O’Higgins went through every action and utterance by Mr McGuinness in relation to the meeting over the last four years. This included radio interviews and a Dáil speech on the matter.
At times, Mr McGuinness appeared to get frustrated as the questions went round and round the same old ground. At times, the rest of us present began to lose the will to live.
However, the lawyer was not just entitled but duty- bound to explore every nook and crevice of the matter on behalf of his client.
What is at issue for his client could hardly be more serious.
Much of the cross-examination concentrated on the note Mr McGuinness did make of the meeting. He has told the tribunal that on the way back to Kilkenny afterwards, he pulled into a “truck stop” and made a few notes.
Among these was that the commissioner had said there was an “investigation ongoing” into Sgt McCabe. This was a reference to an alleged investigation into child sexual abuse. If such a scurrilous and false statement were made, it represents the worst kind of character attack imaginable.
If a tribunal were to rule that the former garda commissioner was in fact engaged in such black propaganda, it would deal a fatal blow to his legacy after 40 years in the force.
Towards the end of Mr McGuinness’s time in the box yesterday, another interesting facet of how the guards are, or certainly were, run emerged.
The tribunal produced texts from the time of the PAC meeting in 2014 between then secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell and Mr Callinan.
One was sent about 15 minutes after Mr Callinan had completed his evidence to the PAC. Mr Purcell texts: “Well done. Exceptional performance under fire.”
At the time, the commissioner and his senior colleagues were disputing the claims of Sgt McCabe and former garda John Wilson that the penalty points system was riven with corruption. As it turned out, both were largely vindicated.
Another text dated hours after the carpark meeting between Mr Callinan and Mr McGuinness saw Mr Purcell write: “Martin I know you are en route to Dundalk can u call me if possible, just wondering how u got on with JmcG. Brian”
The texts produced inferred that the head of the Department of Justice had chosen sides in a dispute in An Garda Síochána. As it was to turn out, it was the losing side in this particular battle, the side that was shown to be deflecting and ignoring the problem that existed in their organisation.
Furthermore, the text on the day of the carpark meeting infers that Mr Purcell was aware that the meeting had taken place. That in turn suggests an extremely close relationship, and, at the very least, implied sanction from the department for the meeting to go ahead.
Mr Purcell is scheduled to give evidence next week as to his knowledge of these events and the department’s attitude towards Sgt McCabe at the time.
When Mr McGuinness was asked about the texts between secretary general and the commissioner, he noted: “It’s an interesting relationship.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved