The lone voice of the whistleblower

THE whistleblower’s lot can be lonely. Remember Sheena McMahon? She was a young mother, who, in the mid-1990s, told of madness in sections of the gardaí in Donegal.

Sheena’s husband, Noel, a detective sergeant, and a few others, including a superintendent, were running a little fiefdom, targeting citizens, inventing enemies of the state, making a mockery of the badge they served.

When Sheena’s allegations seeped out, the word was that she had ‘personal issues’ and was inventing this stuff to get at her estranged husband.

The rumours were false and slanderous, spread like manure to blacken her name.

Sheena was uttering dirty truths, and she had to be rendered ineffectual through character-assassination.

Sheena persisted and emerged as a courageous woman at the Morris Tribunal into garda malpractice. Her bravery shone a light on a culture that was lagging 20 years behind the times.

Tony Spollen was another whistleblower who felt the wrath of powerful elements. He was the internal auditor in AIB, in 1989, when he discovered the great fraud that was the off-shore non- resident accounts. He reported that there could be a tax liability of €100m, but nobody in the bank wanted to hear.

His truth led to the setting up of the Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the DIRT scandal a decade later. The pressure on Spollen spilled over in an emotional outburst at the hearings. The inquiry demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of banking, and should have led to greater reins on a sector incapable of heeding its wider responsibilities.

Tom Gilmartin was a whistleblower with a splash of colour, but he also got it in the neck. In the late 1980s, Gilmartin was thrown into the cauldron of greed and deceit that was the interface of politics and planning.

Then, when the Planning Tribunal was set up, he co-operated. The rumours were pumped from certain corners of politics and the PR industry. Gilmartin was, they whispered, a failed, bitter man. On the Late, Late Show, Padraig Flynn suggested that Gilmartin had lost a lot of money and “was not well”. The rest, as they say, is history, and took up a large chunk of the Mahon Tribunal.

Whistleblowers have played a serious role in the opening-up of Irish society over the last two decades.

The Oireachtas has recognised this role, and has protected those who have come forward. The latest piece of legislation, the Protection of Disclosures Bill 2013, was published last month.

Within the gardaí, the need to protect whistleblowers was recognised after the Morris Tribunal and was legislated for in 2007.

You might think, given all that experience and law, that the lot of the whistleblower has changed. You’d be wrong.

The experience of the two whistleblowers into the cancellation of penalty points is instructive. Far from being protected, they were thrown to the wolves. The two gardaí — one has since retired from the force — approached the confidential recipient, an office set up under the 2007 whistleblower legislation. The recipient took their claims to the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter.

Shatter could have asked an independent entity, such as the Garda Ombudsman Commission, to investigate.

After all, the commission was set up, in the wake of Morris, to investigate complaints against the force. The complaints at issue included allegations of corruption and serious malpractice.

Instead, in a throwback to a bygone age, Shatter referred the matter of garda malpractice to the garda commissioner, who arranged for an investigation.

Last May, the report compiled by Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney concluded that there was little to the allegations.

Beyond a few procedural glitches, and some mildly errant behaviour by three senior officers, the gardaí investigating the gardaí came up with precious little. Shatter declared the investigation to be “comprehensive”. That was a bit of a joke, considering the investigation didn’t even interview the whistleblowers.

Then, last week, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported on the same issue. He had acted on foot of a complaint from one of the whistleblowers, and his report painted a much different picture.

Included in the detail were numerous examples of senior gardaí cancelling points from outside their own districts, repeat offenders having points cancelled by senior gardaí, and a large volume of records that are unaccounted for.

This has serious implications for road safety. It also highlights how rank-and-file members of the traffic corps have had their work trampled on, and neutralised, by senior officers.

On Tuesday, Shatter told the Dail: “The O’Mahoney report broadly identified the same key issues of concern relating to the operation of the fixed-charge processing system as were identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General.” Anybody who has read both reports would find this statement incredible. O’Mahoney identified a system that had a few kinks and was exploited in a minor way by three senior gardaí. The C&AG pointed to a culture in which cancellations were widely made, often on the most ludicrous basis.

Shatter said that “disciplinary procedures” were initiated against “several members of the Garda Síochána” on foot of O’Mahoney. In reality, three out of 113 senior members were fingered for discipline.

Ultimately, the work of the whistleblowers has ensured that the system of cancelling points has been tightened up. But, as is so often the case, nobody has been held responsible for anything.

In the longer term, it is the treatment of the whistleblowers that may have the greater ramifications. They operated through the correct channels, until inaction prompted them to approach opposition politicians.

Once the relevant minister was forced to act, he referred the matter back to the gardaí. The report that emerged from that process, according to the whistleblowers, didn’t address the concerns at all.

The only reason the fuller picture is now emerging is because one of the whistleblowers acted on his own initiative and complained to the C&AG’s office. And still, even after all that, Minister Shatter doesn’t appear to want to know about it.

Blowing a whistle within any large organisation is a hazardous business at the best of times.

There will be implications, both personal and professional, whatever nominal protections are in place. It is a role that requires great fortitude, only to be embarked on after deep reflection.

Anybody observing the fate of the penalty-points whistleblowers may have further reason to desist from dragging out the truth out from under a big lie.

The idea that this society has opened up to the point where whistleblowers are protected, and their claims afforded proper examination, has been shown to be redundant. Alan Shatter likes to present himself as a reformer, but, in this case, he has acted like a relic from darker times, when protection of institutions took precedence over the truth.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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