Kicking the can down the road with penalty points scandal

SERGEANT Maurice McCabe was driving home to Cavan on Monday afternoon when he got the call. A superior officer informed him that a letter of support from senior Garda management was on its way to him.

McCabe has been through five years of hell since he first blew the whistle on what he regarded as malpractice within the force he serves. Now, the top bods were indicating that they were four square behind him.

The letter from assistant commissioner for human resources Fintan Fanning outlined how he would be supported in whatever action he took in whistleblowing.

It remains to be seen whether such support includes removing restrictions on his access to the Pulse computer system, which has impacted on his ability to do his job.

The letter of support was dispatched around the same time as Justice Minister Alan Shatter was announcing that he was sending in the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to investigate the penalty points matter. Why this wasn’t done a year ago is a question that Shatter has failed to answer.

In the meantime, the scandal dragged on all the way to the door of the Public Accounts Committee. The whole affair has also once again highlighted the force’s circle-the-wagons mentality when faced with possible scandal.

Now, everybody is happy, but most likely, very little will change. The intervention by Shatter into the tug-of-war between the PAC and the Garda Commissioner was timely, but it appears not to have worked.

Handing the investigation to ombudsman commission kicks the can down the road to some extent. If recent trends are followed, it could easily take two years before the investigation will be completed.

By then, Martin Callinan will be in retirement. He will have achieved one aim of all Garda Commissioners — the avoidance of scandal on their watch.

By then, the abuse of the penalty points system will be old history.

Already, as a result of the actions of the whistleblowers, the system has been reformed. No more will ludicrous excuses, or carte blanche for repeat offenders, be tolerated. Road safety and confidence in the enforcement of road traffic offences are the big winners. A service has already been rendered to the State.

The whistleblowers have also expressed satisfaction with the outcome, albeit qualified.

Understandably, they are suspicious that the prevarication they faced will continue during the ombudsman’s investigation.

John Wilson made the point on Monday that unless the ombudsman has complete access to the Pulse system, any investigation will be compromised. So far, GSOC has not had that level of access, despite appealing last year to Shatter for it.

Can a leopard change its spots? After the media caravan has moved on, the ombudsman will be left with the torturous business of coaxing co-operation from the force. Form suggests it will not be easy.

An example of the spin the ombudsman investigators will encounter has already been on view. At the PAC hearing last week, the commissioner rubbished one allegation about a driver who had points cancelled after been caught speeding five times in one day in Dec 2010. Callinan said the motorist’s house was flooded, and he was running around trying to access repairs. This, he said, was a case of discretion being used in the spirit it was intended.

Yet, on the Pulse entry for the speeding offences at the time, the reason given for all the terminations was merely “Garda discretion used”. There was no entry about a “flooded house”, as would be the norm in exercising discretion. There was no mention of supporting documents, such as a letter from the driver, or an insurance company. Could the flooded house be a case of historical revision? Without unfettered access to all records, the ombudsman investigators may be led up blind alleys.

The force’s attitude to whistleblowers is also unlikely to change. Shatter has indicated that he will draft legislation to allow the ombudsman investigate complaints from gardaí. It will be interesting to see its reach.

The system of using a confidential recipient for whistleblowers within the force is obviously redundant. Again, form would suggest nobody should hold their breath in hoping for change there.

The penalty points issue was just one of a number brought to the attention of force management by McCabe in particular. He was described on radio last weekend by former ombudsman commissioner Conor Brady as “a fine officer, a man of integrity,” whom Brady said he himself would be “influenced by what he had to say”.

McCabe and Wilson have been treated appallingly at every juncture. Despite the assurance McCabe received on Monday, the experience of both men is unlikely to prompt anybody else to speak up.

MORE than any of the players, Shatter still has major questions to answer. He did not as much as lift a finger to ensure protection for the whistleblowers.

We know that Shatter and Callinan have shot the breeze about political opponents of the minister, such as Mick Wallace. But did Shatter ever as much as say to Callinan: “What about those whistleblowers, are they properly protected?”

At every juncture, he has indicated that he backs the commissioner over the claims of the whistleblowers. He has yet to correct the record of the Dáil, dating from Oct 1, when he stated that the whistleblowers “did not co-operate with the Garda investigation that took place”.

This is erroneous. Nowhere in the report compiled by Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney does it state that there was no co-operation.

In fact, last Thursday, O’Mahoney admitted to the PAC that he did not interview the whistleblowers.

His first contact with them was when McCabe rang him to ask why he hadn’t been interviewed when media reports flagged the imminent publication of the report. None of this is apparently known to Shatter, or else, one assumes, he would be obliged to correct the record.

The minister is continuing to spin. On RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday, he claimed he could not have sent in the ombudsman a year ago, because the ombudsman is precluded from investigating Garda complaints.

The complaint at issue was not the standard one, of, for example, a garda who had a grievance at his treatment by a superior officer.

The penalty points issue was about a systemic failure within the force, which is a matter of public interest. If Shatter was so minded, he could easily have declared it a matter for the ombudsman, as he has now done, a year further into the mire.

The minister’s handling of the whole affair has been a throwback to a time when the actions of Garda management went unquestioned as long as they didn’t interfere in politics.

The great bugbear of Garda management and senior politicians has been avoided.

Scandal has been kicked down the road, where, history warns, it will rear its head again.

But with a bit of luck for Shatter and Callinan, that will be on somebody else’s watch.

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