Brendan Howlin’s allegations have done damage without being proven, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.
IF A journalist did what Labour leader Brendan Howlin has done he or she would be sued and their career quite possibly ended. Their newspaper or broadcaster would also be sued — and given the nature of the allegations — massive damages most likely imposed, crippling the outlet.
On the basis of the information so far available, it is difficult to understand the actions of someone with the experience and standing of Howlin.
His bombshell, thrown under Dáil privilege, was made before lunchtime on Wednesday after he received a phonecall from a journalist that morning informing him of explosive claims against Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.
That gave him, at best, a couple of hours to check out what he was told.
But he told Morning Ireland yesterday that he didn’t do that. He made a decision to repeat what the journalist told him, without any checking or editing. He said he made a judgement call that “as it was given to me, I should say it”.
It then unfolded that the journalist who rang him with the information did not, as initially indicated, have “direct knowledge” of the alleged smear campaign by O’Sullivan — that is, the person did not receive phone calls from the commissioner and hear the alleged smears.
Instead, Howlin said the journalist knew other journalists had received such calls in 2013 and 2014.
Defending his actions, Howlin said he “believed” the journalist and that the information was of significant public importance. He said the journalist was someone he knew and was of the “utmost integrity”.
Howlin also made the decision to include in his speech that the smear campaign involved allegations of “sexual crimes” being committed by McCabe. Until now, the nature of the allegations has not been made public, though Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness did previously tell the Dáil of “vile stories”.
In addition, Howlin told one newspaper that he didn’t contact McCabe before his statement.
The Labour leader said he spoke to McCabe yesterday and that the whistleblower “expressed gratitude” for his intervention and “in no way” regards it as being damaging to him.
Howlin’s action came on the day the Government was setting up a commission of investigation to inquire into the controversy.
If the Government had refused to set up an inquiry or was trying to bury the whole thing, one could understand the public interest in his intervention. But there is an inquiry, one headed by a highly respected and deeply experienced Supreme Court justice, Peter Charleton.
It is possible that Howlin’s allegations are correct. But the allegations are not the result of a lengthy examination on his part. This is unless, he has corroborating evidence which, for whatever reason, he is not yet sharing.
Whatever the justifications for his intervention, the damage has been done to the commissioner. She was clear and sharp in her rebuttable of his allegations and does not appear to be buckling under pressure.
How this issue plays out in Leinster House and the media will prove key — and further revelations or allegations could be the final straw.
One Fine Gael TD, Michael D’Arcy, yesterday called on the commissioner to step aside. Last October, D’Arcy and other party TDs heavily criticised the commissioner’s work trip to the US during the Garda dispute — even though she had no role in the negotiations. That led to suspicions that some elements were perhaps laying the groundwork for a heave if the commissioner became a political burden.
Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness, former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, yesterday said the commissioner should examine her position, while accepting she has rights.
The responses yesterday from the Taoiseach and particularly, in the Dáil, from Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald give no indication that their full support for Ms O’Sullivan is wavering.
The allegations are “untested”, said Ms Fitzgerald and there is no reason for the commissioner to step aside. She said she is entitled to fair procedures and due process.
Of course, those key principles of justice were sacrificed under the previous government, when then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan was pressurised to go.
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