Gerard Howlin: Election won’t help resolve dirty war in An Garda Síochána

Opinion polls in the welter of accusations over whistleblowers are not a reliable guide to the outcome of an ensuing election, warns Gerard Howlin.

If Micheál Martin should fail to become Taoiseach it would be the beginning of the end for the Fianna Fáil leader, says Gerard Howlin.

We are not yet at peak Gubu, but we are ascending towards it. The unfolding row yesterday between the Government and Fianna Fáil follows a self-inflicted debacle within Government last week.

There are two days to go before Sinn Féin moves its motion of no-confidence in the Government on Wednesday — a long time in Irish politics. For now, Fianna Fáil has no intention of facilitating them pulling the stunt of double elections north and south of the border.

The caveat is that Government mismanagement doesn’t gather further momentum and turn soft ground into a mudslide towards an election.

In terms of political management by Government, the past weeks are reminiscent of the first half of 2014. Then, a toxic combination of justice issues and medical cards ended in a drubbing at the polls and the Labour Party losing a leader.

This weekend, though absolutely dependent on Fianna Fáil, remarkably the broadcast media was the channel of communication with them.

In analysing Fianna Fáil’s thinking, it is worth remembering a truth, namely that the lessons of youth are usually seminal. For Micheál Martin the lesson of the 1989 election is formative.

Then, he swam in against an outgoing tide, and was elected for the first time. Charles Haughey, buoyed by opinion polls and goaded by Dick Spring, foolishly called an election. Fianna Fáil never governed alone again. Ensuing coalition with the PDs undermined Haughey within his party. It was the beginning of the end for him.

If an election comes now, it’s because Martin calls it. In the welter of accusation and counter-accusation about An Garda Síochána, Tusla, and who knew what and when, which will be the basis of the campaign to follow, opinion polls now are not a reliable guide to an eventual outcome.

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In those circumstances, should he fail to become taoiseach, it would not be the beginning of the end, but the end itself for Martin. Standing centre-stage in this instance, is standing over a trap door.

Fianna Fáil, sensing they are on the front foot now, and the more sensible of them wanting sustainable momentum, will seek to forestall Sinn Féin and discomfort the Government. In the circumstances, they will want to amend the Sinn Féin motion, and up the ante on Government in dealing with what are now multiple, interlocking crises.

The underlying issue is Garda whistleblowers. The original sin in dealing with the systemic issues within the force was Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s. After the departure of former commissioner Callinan and her predecessor Alan Shatter, it was a fundamental error not to appoint an outsider as commissioner.

There are interlocking and threatening games in play now. Firstly, the resistance to, then the smearing of whistleblowers, which ultimately claimed the career of a former commissioner. At the very least, Callinan gravely underestimated the importance and the malevolence of the issues.

Without knowing what he allegedly said to then Public Accounts Committee chair John McGuiness TD, and what his response is now, it is impossible to understand the degree, if any, to which he was suborned to that agenda. The irony is that regardless, it swallowed him whole.

Callinan’s departure was a remarkable setback for some in An Garda Síochána who believed they were above being policed themselves. It effectively ended the self-governance of the force.

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The irony of Noirin O’Sullivan’s position now is that she is accused without, as being the continuum of what went on before within the force. But among elements within, she is attacked and undermined as an agent of unwanted change.

In addition, she faces serious, but unproven accusations about her own involvement in untoward events. These interlocking plays, effectively a dirty war within An Garda Síochána, mean the State cannot be sure of its discipline or integrity.

The willingness of the rank and file to disobey orders and strike last November, averted only by a pay deal of over €40m, is reminiscent of an unreliable, Praetorian guard which will not render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. In these circumstances, an election to form a new Dáil with as little capacity or authority to control effectively its own police force, would be deeply retrograde.

Dealing with the abuses arising from an ongoing dirty war is the Government’s responsibility.

There is a growing sense that Frances Fitzgerald’s priority as justice minister has been in politically protecting herself. The safe pair of hands have until now been curiously unmarked by events.

This weekend she reached the end of that stratagem. She must enable her commissioner, or stand her aside. It’s a fundamental determination, and perhaps the last big political call she will have the chance to make as minister.

It is government which is needed now. There are political reasons why Fianna Fáil will seek to avoid an election.

There is also an underlying requirement, which would rapidly become evident in a campaign, to deal with a welter of accusations, and simultaneously press on with the job of re-instilling discipline in An Garda Síochána. The melee of an election will not provide it.

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