Michael Clifford: Maurice McCabe fought the law — but what’s changed?

The justice minister claims he wants to sit down with McCabe and discuss his legacy. It’s all a far cry from the government line just a few years ago, writes Michael Clifford.

Michael Clifford: Maurice McCabe fought the law — but what’s changed?

The justice minister claims he wants to sit down with McCabe and discuss his legacy. It’s all a far cry from the government line just a few years ago, writes Michael Clifford.

On the day after Maurice McCabe retired from An Garda Síochána, one might well ask has anything changed. There has been much about the culture within the organisation, but what of the political overseers of the force.

Has the fallout from the McCabe story had an impact on a long-standing attitude in government to turn a deaf ear to any rumblings of discontent in An Garda Síochána?

Yesterday, on RTÉ, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan was effusive in his praise of McCabe. He told Miriam O’Callaghan he would soon meet up with the retiring sergeant, although he hadn’t managed to do so since the publication of the Disclosures Tribunal report.

“I will find time to sit down with him and see what he would wish his legacy to be,” said Flanagan.

“His persistence, courage, and a great sense of duty will be remembered by everyone.”

Some of us can remember a time not so long ago when government figures had a very different attitude to McCabe.

On a Sunday in February 2014, a guest on a panel on the Marian Finucane show on RTÉ radio was one Charlie Flanagan, then chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

At the time, the McCabe affair was raging. The then justice minister, Alan Shatter, had the previous November told the Dáil that McCabe and former garda John Wilson hadn’t co-operated with a Garda investigation into their complaints of ticket fixing.

There was growing pressure on Shatter to retract that statement. (He did eventually apologise for it). There was a feeling that the justice minister had cast the two individuals in an unfair light, and done so under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

This was put to Charlie by Marian Finucane. Charlie trotted out the party line: “Sergeant McCabe didn’t co-operate, that’s a fact,” he said.

The sergeant in question had been listening. He phoned RTÉ and demanded that Flanagan retract the statement. He also told them that he had spoken to Flanagan the previous week after the politician had said the same thing on Morning Ireland.

The two men had known each other since 2008, when Sgt McCabe brought his problems to Charlie, who was then Fine Gael spokesperson on justice in opposition.

Back on air, in the RTÉ studio, Marian had asked Charlie: “Did you speak to him (McCabe) this week?”

“No, I spoke to him some years ago,” replied Charlie.

He said that McCabe had brought allegations to him, none of which were as serious as the ones currently in the media.

“When you say some time ago?” Marian probed.

“2008,” Charlie replied.

“I found him to be an honourable and decent man, and I’m sure he still is.”

Then, they went to a break.

After it, Marian began: “I think I misunderstood you there, Charlie Flanagan, about meeting Maurice McCabe this week.”

Charlie replied: “No, I didn’t meet him this week. I had a brief telephone conversation with him this week.”

On the third attempt, Charlie had finally acknowledged contact with McCabe in recent days. It was as if it would be toxic for a member of a government party to admit to recent contact with a Garda whistleblower.

Charlie Flanagan isn’t a duplicitous individual.

In dealing with the matter on Marian Finucane’s show, he was just a politician playing the game.

When in opposition in 2008, he assisted a “decent and honourable” man who was up against the system.

Then, when his party was in government, his brief was to toe out the party line, to defend the minister and party colleague, to cast McCabe in whatever light required by the party and government.

Today, four-and-a-half years later, he’s a big fan of Maurice McCabe.

He wants to talk to him.

Perhaps, like other politicians, he would like to tell the Dáil that he had spoken with McCabe, implicitly demonstrating his commitment to people like McCabe, showing the world that he’s on the right side, whatever side that is.

That’s how things work in government.

Maurice McCabe is a great fellow as far as ministers are concerned now that the public is of that opinion.

When he was regarded as somebody who might be carrying a hand grenade for senior management in An Garda Síochána, he was to be avoided.

(To be fair, one minister at the time who was willing to acknowledge McCabe’s work was Leo Varadkar).

Has the political will to address problems changed, or is it just that attitudes to Maurice McCabe have changed?

As of yet, that’s difficult to tell. What is beyond dispute is that without a discernible stiffening of political will to address these issues, precious little will change.

With a proper political will, matters could have been tackled in the 1970s when the so-called heavy gang were allegedly beating the heads off suspects.

It could have made a difference after the Kerry Babies case when a family confessed to a murder they couldn’t have committed.

Some change was effected as a result of the Morris tribunal into corruption in Donegal in the 2000s, but the shortcomings of those changes were exposed by the experience of Maurice McCabe.

And now we have a new commissioner wielding a broom, a justice minister who wants to shower Maurice McCabe with love, and a tribunal report that shows what happens when the force is left as a law unto itself.

Does it all provide enough ballast to ensure that political will is stiffened enough to properly oversee the national police?

As Mao Tse Tung said of the French Revolution, it’s way too early to tell the outcome of that.

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