At times, we have a strange way of dealing with accountability in Irish public life. First there is the resignation. Then, a few years later, somebody sits back and takes a long view and declares, “ah now, that was out of order”. Bring on the rehabilitation.
One example of this was on view in last Saturday’s Irish Times. A full page was given over to a long treatise of how two women who had to prematurely depart high office have ultimately been “vindicated”.
Nóirín O’Sullivan resigned as Garda commissioner in September 2017 under the weight of a welter of scandals. Three months later, Frances Fitzgerald was gone as minister for justice, a casualty of the fall-out from the most politicised of Garda scandals, the Maurice McCabe affair.
Now, four years on, the narrative in Saturday’s piece suggests, the pair were grievously wronged by a vindictive media and wild politicians. That both were women added to the lustre of this revision.
Global events in recent years have finally highlighted the gender-based treatment women have long suffered, from casual discrimination to the suppression of harassment and violence. In such a new day, an account of two exceptional women being laid low in the darkest hour before the dawn can be presented as a salutary tale of our times.
The piece was written by the Irish Times’ legal correspondent, Colm Keena, who covered the Disclosures Tribunal, which examined the McCabe affair, among others. As is typical of Colm’s work, his reporting was professional.
In the piece he set out a protracted analysis of how the tribunal has dismissed a number of allegations that had been made against the two women. This, the reader was invited to conclude, demonstrated how they had been wrongly hounded from office. However, parsing the tribunal’s work within narrow terms of reference gives a very partial picture of what prompted both resignations.
O’Sullivan had been accused by Superintendent David Taylor of being party to a smear campaign against McCabe when she was deputy commissioner. The allegation was contained in a protected disclosure, but her identity was revealed under Dáil privilege, which shouldn’t have happened.
The Irish Examiner published the fact of the disclosure, but not her identity. As it turned out, Taylor was vindictively targeting O’Sullivan, but it also emerged that there was a smear campaign conducted against McCabe, orchestrated by O’Sullivan’s then boss, Martin Callinan, in cahoots with Taylor.
As the reporter who wrote the story about the disclosure I would do the same thing in the morning if the same circumstances arose.
Tribunal chairman Judge Peter Charleton cleared O’Sullivan of any role in the McCabe smear campaign. But that was far from the only problem dogging O’Sullivan’s tenure as commissioner.
At the tribunal there were issues around the retrieval of phones from Garda HQ at a time when the force was being regarded with some suspicion because of what had befallen McCabe. There was a controversy about the misappropriation of money at the Templemore training college.
At a Dáil committee meeting, it emerged that O’Sullivan had not revealed details about the matter to the Comptroller and Auditor General. She had absolutely no personal role in what had gone on, but it certainly looked as if she was resorting to the standard operating procedure of the times. There was an alarming conflict of evidence on the matter between O’Sullivan and the civilian head of corporate affairs in the force, John Barrett, who had kept notes.
Later, a scandal emerged over the manipulation of breath tests. Then there was another concerning motorists who had been wrongly convicted of offences. What was worrying was that O’Sullivan, who presented herself as an agent of change, appeared to be handling these matters as her predecessors had, not with the transparency to which she had pledged.
She was enduring awkward appearances at Dáil committees. Exchanges with the Policing Authority were testy and marked by obfuscation and delay in addressing the various scandals. In her resignation letter she wrote she was being subjected to an unending cycle of “questions, instructions and public hearings” that were, she said, “all part of a new — and necessary — system of public accountability”, but which were taking up her time.
In reality, she was having difficulty in effecting the cultural changes she promised. It was no coincidence that her successor, Drew Harris, was drawn from outside An Garda Síochána. If the tribunal allegations were her main problem, she should have, and most likely would have, sat it out.
Fitzgerald’s resignation was on foot of a scandal that blew up in the Dáil in late 2017 over what she knew about various issues at the O’Higgins commission two years previously. O’Higgins had examined how McCabe had been treated once he blew the whistle on malpractice in the force.
In 2017, Fitzgerald was accused of standing back and allowing McCabe’s motivation be attacked at the commission two years earlier. Ultimately, Charleton found she had carried out her duties without fault during O’Higgins, but that wasn’t the reason she had to resign.
When the matter became a political controversy in late 2017, the minister failed to deal with it promptly and properly.
It became apparent that she had not mentioned her knowledge of the legal strategy a year previously when a controversy blew up over the matter.
Her department uncovered a long lost email from the time. The department provided inaccurate information to then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with which he inadvertently misled the Dáil. All of the toxicity around the treatment of McCabe was marshalled by the Opposition to attack her, as is normal political fare. Fianna Fáil, which was co-operating with a confidence and supply arrangement, was not going to stand by her, so she had to go.
Had she handled things better at the time — or a year previously when it initially blew up — she would have weathered the storm.
So any evaluation of the premature departure from office of both of these highly capable women cannot be done solely based on the findings of the Disclosures Tribunal. It may fit neatly into a particular narrative but it does not reflect events as they unfolded at that time.
Both were affected by fall-out from the McCabe affair. There had been a succession of Garda scandals over the preceding decades, but this was the first one to impact on the body politic.
Previously, scandals came and went and nobody of consequence got burned and things went on as they had before. Not this time. If anybody hounded these two women from office it was the ghosts of their predecessors going back to the seventies, who had allowed a toxic policing culture to fester over decades until one day it all came tumbling down.