Gardaí and media set for rough ride as tribunals back in town

We thought we had seen the last of costly inquiries. But a public tribunal into the McCabe scandal is the only way to go, writes Michael Clifford

TRIBUNALS are cathartic. Tribunals are torturous. Tribunals burrow to the truth like no other investigation. Tribunals can be used as a deflection. Tribunals fatten the wallets of the few at a cost to the many. Tribunals can spend years kicking around in blind alleys.

Tribunals are in the public interest. Tribunals can have a job keeping the public interested.

Tribunals were dead and buried. Now tribunals have been resurrected. Welcome back, nothing much has changed since you left town.

The era of tribunals ended more than a decade ago. By then the country had been subjected to nearly 10 years of big beasts of inquiries in Dublin Castle. It was costing a fortune, and appeared for a long time to be going nowhere.

In response, the justice minister of the day, Michael McDowell, brought in legislation for a model that was kinder and gentler on both the exchequer and the public at large.

The commission of investigation was born in 2004. This allowed for a statutory inquiry to be conducted behind closed doors with most of the powers of a tribunal. It was cheaper and not in thrall to the daily headlines as the tribunals had been. And it worked pretty well most of the time.

Everybody was agreed that tribunals had now gone the way of dinosaurs and were missed about as much as the ancient creatures. Of course there was a little winding up to do with various tribunals, which went on until 2013 finally, but there was no question of ever going near another fresh one again.

Until now. The inquiry that dare not speak its name was broached in the statement issued on behalf of Maurice and Lorraine McCabe on Monday: “Now that the truth has emerged of the false and shocking campaign to vilify us and discredit us there is no reason to have a secret and private inquiry under the 2004 Act.”

Calls for public inquiries from victims of a state body or agency are not novel. In fact, anytime a controversy arises, the call goes up; the only solution to the dilemma is a public inquiry.

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This is different. In the first instance, the call is coming from somebody who says he has been subjected to appalling treatment at the hands of two vital state agencies, Tusla and An Garda Síochána. Just as worrying is the suspicion that what was involved wasn’t necessarily a mistake.

Since the story broke in the Irish Examiner about the false allegations levelled against Sgt McCabe, he and his family have been the subject of widespread sympathy among the public. The quiet dignity of the McCabes, allied to Maurice’s standing as a garda who blew the whistle on malpractice within the force, has added to their standing.

So when the couple asked for a public inquiry, there was never any doubt that it would receive serious consideration from the Government and Fianna Fáil, which between them hold the reins of power.

Apart from the status of the McCabes, the substance that informed their request for a public inquiry was compelling. Sgt McCabe’s experience of a behind closed doors commission of inquiry left him with a deep scepticism of the model. As outlined on these pages yesterday, there was an attempt to undermine his credibility at the O’Higgins commission, by a suggestion that he was motivated by malice to highlight the malpractice.

He defended himself robustly, but to his dismay, the whole affair did not feature anywhere in the final report of the commission. If it had done, there may have been serious repercussions for the Garda commissioner, among others, although Nóirín O’Sullivan denies any attempt to smear McCabe at the commission.

McCabe has further reason to want everything done out in the open. Before his identity was first made known publicly in 2014, and particularly since, successive Garda commissioners have been vocal in proclaiming that they welcome the contribution whistleblowers make to the force.

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Repeatedly, incidents and evidence have tumbled out which suggest that, at the very least, certain elements within the force take the polar opposite approach to whistleblowers.

The McCabes’ statement suggests they have difficulty accepting the bona fides of the commissioner in relation to her position on whistleblowers. “We have witnessed with growing disbelief her denials of involvement in discrediting Maurice,” they state.

The commissioner insists she is always supportive of what she terms “our critical friends”, and that she is innocent of any wrongdoing in that regard.

As a result, McCabe wants it all out in public, where it can be parsed and people can make up their own minds.

A tribunal will be more costly. It may well take more time than a commission of investigation. But the interpretation of evidence, the demeanour of witnesses, the raw facts, will all be out there for people to make up their own minds.

The other dynamic involved in a public inquiry is that the evidence itself rather than any ruling can have a major impact on the public consciousness. Bertie Ahern resigned as a result of evidence at the planning tribunal in 2008, although the report, which included explicit criticism of him, didn’t emerge until 2013.

So here we go again. The tribunal is back in town. Hold onto your hat, especially if it is peaked and bears the insignia of An Garda Síochána. It could well be a rough ride for both police and media, and perhaps a few serving or former politicians.

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