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.
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.
Politicians flocked to Harrison and Keogh.
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 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.
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.
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.