Michael Clifford: How widespread is Garda corruption?

The disclosures tribunal has ruled that allegations against senior gardaí were groundless, fuelling questions about the process
Michael Clifford: How widespread is Garda corruption?

Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

So how widespread was garda corruption in Irish life? The Disclosures Tribunal reached a finish line of sorts on July 8 with the publication of the Nicky Keogh module. There are a few other bits and bobs to tidy up, but Keogh was the last of three gardaí around whose allegations the tribunal was initiated in 2017.

The tribunal was set up to examine to what extent, if any, that gardaí who spoke up about malpractice within the force were targeted for reprisal.

Maurice McCabe was the main focus. By early 2017, an allegation that he had been targeted for character assassination from the top was in the preliminary stage of investigation.

Then a bombshell fell into the public domain when it emerged that he had been falsely branded a suspected child rapist in the child and family agency Tusla. Naturally, he, and the vast majority of the public, had reason to believe that such an attack must have been associated with his whistleblowing, for which by then he had received widespread public approval.

McCabe said he would only trust an inquiry in public to deal with the issues and the atmosphere of revulsion was such that the government was not going to demur. This was a major departure. Tribunals were, by 2017, a thing of the past, buried with multi-million legal fees in the grave.

Inquiries were almost exclusively conducted behind closed doors in a commission of investigation which was cheaper and faster and had, certainly until then, proved to be a commendable successor to the unwieldy and horribly expensive public tribunal. But the lingering whiff of scandal off the McCabe case meant a public reckoning was required.

Then along to Leinster House trooped two other gardaí who claimed they were mini-McCabes. Keith Harrison had, in 2009, collared a fellow officer for drink driving. Subsequently, his career took various lurches which he attributed to whistleblower reprisal. He had his own problems, not least a complaint to the gardaí that he threatened to burn his partner out of her home and bury her. He denied the allegation.

The other garda to come forward at the time was Nicky Keogh. He had made a complaint about gardaí inducing some people to buy drugs in order to manipulate crime statistics in the Athlone area. The complaint was examined and a file sent to the DPP who had determined there wasn’t enough evidence for a prosecution. Keogh claimed he had suffered major hardship within the force as a result of his whistleblowing. He also had personal issues, including a dependence on alcohol.

Liaised with politicians

Both of these gardaí had liaised with politicians about their complaints prior to early 2017. In both cases, their concerns had been highlighted in the Dáil. But in the febrile atmosphere that prevailed following the McCabe revelations, their respective cases were given a fresh scrub. Harrison issued a statement.

“The treatment of Sergeant McCabe and myself bear similarities,” he said, going on to note “striking similarities” which showed that what he was subjected to “formed part of an orchestrated system and culture within senior management of An Garda Síochána”.

Politicians flocked to Harrison and Keogh. 

It was as if hugging a Garda whistleblower in a febrile atmosphere was the equivalent of kissing babies at election time.

There was huge political pressure applied to have their two cases included in the forthcoming tribunal. Who, in such an atmosphere, was going to deny them?

Hindsight mocks the decision. The tribunal ultimately ruled that the dozens of allegations that both had made against other officers, including the most senior in the force, were groundless.

Judge Peter Charleton: Picture: Mary Browne
Judge Peter Charleton: Picture: Mary Browne

Judge Peter Charleton was critical of Harrison’s evidence. Judge Sean Ryan — who took over from Charleton — did offer some sympathy to Keogh’s plight, but ruled that none of his myriad of allegations had any substance.

“Garda Keogh saw himself as a person engaged in a struggle with the establishment of a large and malign organisation that was determined to do him down because he had pointed out corruption,” Judge Ryan reported. 

The garda’s self-image was shown to be built on sand.

Assigning the cases of both these gardaí to a tribunal of inquiry meant that those against whom allegations were made had their actions parsed in public and reputations suspended until the final outcome.

On a more mundane level, it undoubtedly restrained the two individuals themselves from attempting to move on with their lives. 

And it was expensive, far more so than if their cases had, if it was deemed anyway necessary, been examined by a commission of investigation even.

As such, many will point to the febrile atmosphere, the politicians and media which fuelled it, and suggest that culpability lies there. 

Perhaps it might be more accurate to point out that the febrility was due to the incapacity of the system to properly examine the claims of Maurice McCabe and deal with them in an adult fashion. 

Gsoc, the Garda ombudsman, was desperately under resourced at the time.

Internally, An Garda Síochána lacked leadership — or even the will — to address the claims. And the structures were not in place to ensure proper oversight of what went on in the force.

In such a milieu, crazy things are likely to happen, and in the McCabe case they did. There was “a campaign of calumny”, as Judge Charleton described it, directed by the Garda Commissioner. 

His reputation was thrashed in Tusla, although the tribunal did not find evidence of a direct connection with that and his plight within An Garda Síochána.

Things had got to the point that only a public airing of all that had transpired had any hope of restoring confidence in the police. That is the background against which the dubious claims of Harrison and Keogh were given inflated value.

Lessons to be learned

There is one other lesson that can be taken from the whole farrago. 

Care needs to be taken by those who act, usually in good faith, to highlight whistleblower concerns. 

John Devitt, CEO of Transparency Ireland International, has long experience in advocating for whistleblowers but he sees dangers in how their claims are dealt with if brought into the public domain.

“TDs don’t just owe it to the person alleged to have committed wrongdoing to exercise caution when reading allegations into the public record (under privilege in the Dáil),” he says. 

“They also owe it the person blowing the whistle to be careful because they may not always get it right.

"What they are alleging still needs to be investigated by an appropriate authority in most cases. TDs, and even journalists, owe a duty of care to people who come to them and should ask whether they got legal advice before speaking out in public.” 

The point is well made. Let’s be careful out there.

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