Whistleblowers deserve our gratitude

Michael Clifford says that the big winner in the penalty points furore is the administration of the law in observing road safety and, for that, two whistleblowers deserve a debt of gratitude

Whistleblowers deserve our gratitude

SO there was something to see after all. For a long time now, we had been told there was nothing to see here in all this palaver about penalty points and favourable treatment for some. Then yesterday, it turns out that the matter was officially a kaleidoscope of abuse and bad practice. Plenty on view here now.

The publication of the Garda Inspectorate’s report into the operation of the penalty points system is a small step along the road towards reform. This spurt of change has been driven by two members of the force, one since retired, who stepped out of a culture of secrecy to report dark truths. Sergeant Maurice McCabe and retired garda John Wilson are directly responsible for changes in the administration of fixed charge notices that were recommended yesterday.

The executive summary of the report concludes: “The Inspectorate was told by senior Garda staff that but for the public scrutiny, they extent of the deficiencies within the fixed charge processing system would not have been detected.” It was the revelations by the two whistleblowers which generated public interest.

Their allegations centred on the existence of a two-track system, in which those who are clued in or connected have their penalty points wiped, and everybody else has to suck it up. Now, after two years of banging on doors, going through the appropriate channels, withstanding savage pressure from within and without the force, the substance of their claims has been verified.

No longer can Commissioner Martin Callinan describe the actions of these men as “disgusting”. No more can the minister for justice blacken the men’s character under privilege of parliament. The truth is now recorded officially. And there’s more to come, when senior counsel Sean Guiren decides whether Sergeant McCabe’s most serious allegations of malpractice in criminal cases merits a full commission of inquiry. But that’s for another day.

What distinguished McCabe and Wilson in pursuing the penalty points matter was their persistence. What distinguished Shatter and Callinan was their persistent attempts to urge everybody to just move on, because there’s nothing to see here.

What was there to see? The report details the type of cases that have been printed on these pages over the last 10 months. Repeat offenders. Members of the force obtaining questionable cancellations. Space cadet excuses.

The most striking recommendation is that all the power to cancel all penalty points be removed from divisional officers and transferred solely to the Fixed Charge Processing Office in Thurles.

It’s unfortunate that it has come to this. Discretion in policing is a valued ally in fostering good community relations. There should always be room for discretion.

But the whole scandal of the penalty points was the inability in senior ranks to exercise discretion in the spirit, or sometimes even in the letter, of the law.

Getting points squared was a way of life for members, friends, the connected, those on the inside. Everybody else had to play by the rules. The report found that nearly half of all senior officers vested with the power to cancel had acted outside of their remit. In the normal run of things, some senior officers did their duty correctly. Others considered cancelling points a perk of the job. And there were some who saw it as harmless.

Collectively, none of it was harmless. It undermined a vital tool in tackling road safety. That was what McCabe and Wilson recognised and set about trying to rectify.

The first report into this matter could have been the last. The internal Garda inquiry, headed up by Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney failed to uncover most of the abuse. It could have, if only somebody had picked up the phone and dialled McCabe and Wilson. The failure to do so remains inexplicable.

Questions now arise for the commissioner. Why were none of the reports made through the confidential recipient by McCabe principally, but also Wilson, sent to the Garda Inspectorate? The body charged with overseeing standards in the gardaí was kept in the dark. Apparently, there was nothing for the inspectorate to see either.

Why were the whistleblowers treated with such hostility? Why did the commissioner describe their actions as “disgusting”? Why is Sergeant McCabe still unable to properly do his job because he is restricted in accessing the central computer system, Pulse? The issues for the minister for justice are even more serious. Throughout the whole matter, he has demonstrated an appalling sense of judgment. From the outset, he appears to have taken his lead from the commissioner. He could have, for instance, made independent inquiries about the whistleblowers.

Shatter could have asked at Cabinet whether anybody there knew these fellas causing ructions in the Garda. Pat Rabbitte could have told him, as he told RTÉ News last month: “I happen to know Maurice McCabe for some considerable time, and he is an honest, upstanding and very diligent member of the force. I would vouch for Mr McCabe’s character.”

Shatter could have stood up at a parliamentary party meeting and asked who among the troops knew these turbulent cops. Party chairman Charlie Flanagan could have told him that he met McCabe a few years ago. “I found him to be an honourable and decent man, and I’m sure he still is,” Flanagan told Marian Finucane recently.

There was plenty of testimony that Shatter could have accessed about the whistleblowers. He opted to stick with a commissioner who bemoaned that just two out of a force of 13,000 saw the problems. It was all in the imagination of these “so-called” whistleblowers.

The minister attempted to smear Mick Wallace with trivial information gleaned from the commissioner about how Wallace had benefited for casual discretion. Where, this side of a banana republic, would you get the head of police and minister for justice using confidential information to smear an opposition politician?

Then there’s the matter of Clare Daly. Like Wallace, she publicised the penalty points scandal. She was arrested on suspicion of drink driving in January of last year, handcuffed and left in a cell for two hours. The story was leaked to the media within hours, smearing her reputation long before it was established that she was well under the drink driving limit. Shatter has not once expressed concern that a suspicion now hangs over the force that elements within it acted with extreme prejudice against an elected politician on the basis of her political work.

Topping off his role as a sterling democrat in this affair, the minister then went into the Dáil and attacked the character of both whistleblowers by claiming that they did not co-operate with O’Mahoney. He has refused to apologise or correct the record of a patent abuse of Dáil privilege. The Inspectorate, by the way, merely asked, and McCabe flew in for an interview.

Shatter’s legacy in this whole affair is that he has probably dealt a fatal blow to the chances of any other Garda members breaking ranks again to shine a light on malpractice.

Will he survive? Most likely. His stock with Enda Kenny has been damaged by the whole affair, but Fine Gael will be loath to hand the opposition a political scalp. If a commission of inquiry into McCabe’s most serious allegations is set up, the result will again focus on Shatter’s actions, but that’s all an eternity away in political terms.

The big winner is the administration of the law in observing road safety. Everybody is now, more or less, on the one road. Change has been effected. Confidence can now be restored on a system designed to save lives. For that, two men who stood up for what was right deserve our gratitude.

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