Plight of the Garda whistleblowers

Last Wednesday, two technical specialists in An Garda Síochána told an Oireachtas committee how they had uncovered dangerous practice in the force.

Plight of the Garda whistleblowers

Their concerns, they said, were ignored. Instead of action being taken on foot of their

discoveries, action was taken against them. They were “belittled and treated very poorly”.

Forty years ago, two technical specialists in An Garda Síochána told management how they had uncovered dangerous practice in the force. Their concerns, they said, were ignored.

Instead of action being taken on foot of their discoveries, action was taken against them.

How far has An Garda Síochána come in the last four decades?

The latter affair concerned the fallout from the murder, on July 21, 1976, of the British ambassador to this State. Christopher Ewart-Biggs and his assistant, Judith Cooke, died when a bomb exploded under the car in which they were travelling near the British embassy in Dublin.

The murders precipitated major political and policing fallout. There was huge pressure to find the killers. A hard hat found at the scene was checked for fingerprints by a sergeant in the fingerprints unit, Michael Diggin. He found no prints.

Later, it emerged that prints were found which allegedly matched those of the main suspect of the bombing.

Diggin checked with a colleague, Sergeant Patrick Corless, and both re-examined the hard hat. They found that the print was actually Diggin’s, left during his initial examination.

They informed their superior but were ignored. As far as somebody up the chain was concerned, the print fitted the suspect.

Eventually, the story emerged in the media. In the end, Diggin and Corless were moved out of the unit. The superior officer who dismissed their concerns continued his career on an upward trajectory.

British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs.
British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs.

A specialist unit lost two experienced staff who had shown adherence to the highest professional and ethical standards.

The fingerprint scandal received attention far beyond these shores.

The Washington Post reported that “the affair has been a terrible embarrassment to the 9,000-man force, widely regarded as cleaner than most, and to this small country’s self-esteem”.

Ireland’s police were indeed regarded as cleaner than most, and, in the popular version of the term “corruption”, it remains so. There has never been a scandal about organised misappropriation or theft of money.

The corruption that exists is more insidious. The fingerprint scandal illuminated how Garda corruption involves assembling or recording false evidence or data, covering up shortcomings, and conveying to anybody who strays from this narrative that their careers, and their lives, will suffer greatly.

These themes would course through scandal after scandal in the 40 years since.

Last Wednesday, two civilian members of the force relayed what they were subjected to when they raised concerns about the accuracy of homicide figures.

Lois West and Laura Galligan told the Oireachtas justice committee they were repeatedly “shouted down” when they disputed a review of the figures conducted internally in the force.

“The stance [from Garda management] was still to insist there was nothing wrong,” Ms West, deputy head of the Garda Analysis Service, told the committee.

It is my view that we were subjected to severe pressure to withdraw our concerns, to ignore our professional standards, and to agree with the views of the sworn members of the review team.

“Our integrity, both personal and professional, was undermined and attacked.”

This is the fate of whistleblowers. Since 2014, those who make protected disclosures are nominally protected from reprisal of any sort.

But just as one can find a variety of ways to skin a cat, so it is possible to undermine or belittle an employee in a manner that carefully remains on the right side of the law.

Up at Dublin Castle last week, Sergeant Maurice McCabe, whose plight as a Garda whistleblower has touched the nation, was heard in public for the first time.

He had been belittled, undermined, and attacked in a number of different ways. The most serious, currently being examined by the Disclosures Tribunal, involves allegations that there was an orchestrated campaign to brand him a child abuser.

He was also subjected to the generation of a false claim of child rape.

He believes there were efforts by Garda management to discredit him at a closed-door inquiry in 2015.

When asked how he investigated and complained about abuse of the penalty points system, he had this to say: “If I was to do it again I would never have highlighted the penalty points because it was at that stage I started to get all the hassle.”

One might conclude that nothing has changed. Ironically, despite the cost he has paid, one strand of Sgt McCabe’s legacy is that he has beaten a path others may be more, not less, inclined to follow.

The safeguards of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 have certainly made a difference to encouraging people to come forward. But Sgt McCabe’s experience has provided a particular roadmap.

It is notable that Ms West and Ms Galligan went to an Oireachtas committee rather than the Department of Justice.

Sgt McCabe’s travails led him to seek recognition with the public accounts committee after repeated failures in getting the Department of Justice to adequately deal with the issues.

Through the committee and wider purchase by members of the Dáil, rather than the Government, he managed to get his complaints addressed.

Another feature of their complaint is that it found its way into the media. Ms West said on Wednesday that the pressure they were placed under eased somewhat after their story appeared in the media.

Sgt McCabe’s case also emerged in the media, at a time when he was desperate. And the emergence of his plight outside the blue wall contributed to having his concerns addressed.

Those inclined to blow the whistle from within the force will no doubt have noted how Sgt McCabe succeeded by taking these routes.

A signal that change may be happening slowly within the force is in the volume of protected disclosures being made.

Last year, GSOC dealt with 22 disclosures from members, up from nine in 2016. The Ombudsman continues to be under-resourced in addressing disclosures, but the volume of those coming forward does reflect a quiet stirring within the ranks.

Major cultural change is required in An Garda Síochána.

The Department of Justice, which has acted as a protector rather than an overseer of Garda culture, also needs a significant overhaul. The whistleblower is still a reviled figure for large tracts of those in the force with a vested interest.

But on the ground, turning a blind eye may no longer be the default position.

For some the spectre of propping up the discredited culture is too much to bear. Despite the continued efforts of elements within the force, and in sections of the media to belittle Sgt McCabe’s contribution, he has done some service in this regard.

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