Like weary boxers, the Taoiseach and Garda commissioner are struggling to continue. There are similarities to a Garda controversy two years ago, writes Cormac O’Keeffe
THE only thing that is certain from recent justice controversies in Ireland is their uncertainty. Whether two years ago or two years on, that much is clear.
Controversies buffet one way, batter the other way, then twist and rotate into a whirlwind and rip up another part of the landscape of the State. Casualties are left strewn in their wake. But predicting who they might be is a high art.
Almost two years ago, the Fine Gael-Labour government was tripping over Garda controversies and scandals. Not dissimilar to now.
Events were spinning outside their control and they stumbled as they tried to keep up. Just like now.
In March 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny publicly backed the then commissioner Martin Callinan; similar now in relation to his successor, Nóirín O’Sullivan.
Within a 30-hour period that March, Kenny made a decision to dispatch the commissioner’s direct boss — the secretary general of the Department of Justice — to his home of the garda chief in a late-night visit to tell of the Taoiseach’s “grave concerns” about the latest scandal (Garda taping of calls).
Callinan retired, subsequently telling the Fennelly commission he was left in “absolutely no doubt” that that was what he was expected to do.
Two years on, we are not in that situation. Yet. But over the last six days, the pressure has ratcheted up.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is not under quite the same pressure as Alan Shatter was two years ago.
Within six weeks of Callinan being shown the door, Shatter resigned — subsequently saying he was “encouraged” by the Taoiseach to do so.
Up until now, Fitzgerald has avoided being dragged personally into justice controversies.
That has now changed, with public contradiction from Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan about what she knew in relation to the Tusla files.
Kenny has arguably been under greater pressure after a bizarre and confusing last few days.
Last Sunday he said the only time he spoke to Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone was before her January 25 meeting with Maurice and Lorraine McCabe and didn’t speak to her since about it.
On Monday, Zappone said she never spoke to the Taoiseach before the meeting but that she did speak to him about it before the Cabinet meeting last Tuesday. Yesterday, Kenny said he got it wrong and that Zappone was right in her account.
The pressure on the commissioner has eased with the attention turning to the political arena. But she can be sure it will flip back to her.
O’Sullivan is still reeling from the explosive intervention of Labour leader Brendan Howlin in the Dáil last Wednesday, when he repeated allegations from a journalist who had “direct knowledge” of phone calls from O’Sullivan to journalists spreading false claims of sexual crimes committed by McCabe.
Howlin later clarified that the journalist had not received such a call but knew other journalists had. He also said he did not check, examine, or edit what the journalist told him. But he said it — and it hit hard.
Howlin and others, including John McGuinness of Fianna Fáil, called on the commissioner to step aside/consider her position pending the outcome of the commission of inquiry.
On a rollercoaster of a day on Monday, O’Sullivan issued a statement that illustrated how far she was going to stand up for herself. She said: “A campaign of false accusations, repeated and multiplied, do not make me guilty of anything.”
She added: “I have made it clear that I was not part of any campaign to spread rumours about Sergeant McCabe and didn’t know it was happening at the time it was happening.”
The last bit of the sentence indicates that she did know subsequently. A key issue for her is when exactly she became aware of the efforts to blacken McCabe and what she did after she knew.
O’Sullivan said the easiest thing for her would be to step aside to allow the commission do its work. “I’m not taking that option because I am innocent,” she said.
It was quite a statement. She had entered the boxing ring, picked her corner, and was ready to rumble. However, she didn’t know the fight was going to be broadcast live.
After her statement, Maurice and Lorraine McCabe issued their own statement. Not surprisingly, given his experience at the O’Higgins inquiry, he rejected a private commission of investigation. He said the commissioner’s legal team at that inquiry had cast him “in the role of culprit” and as a person whose complaints were made “in bad faith and without cause”.
He said O’Sullivan had “claimed” in public to be supportive of him while seeking in private to “discredit” him at the O’Higgins inquiry.
He said he and his wife have witnessed “with growing disbelief” the commissioner’s denials of involvement in discrediting him.
If that were not enough, word came through on Monday that Superintendent David Taylor — a whistleblower claiming both the current and former commissioners knew about the campaign to blacken McCabe — was informed by the DPP that he was no longer under investigation for leaking details to the media on an unrelated issue.
The treatment of Taylor caused deep unease and anger among many gardaí and his vindication is a blow to the commissioner.
In addition, there are calls for other prominent whistleblowers to be included in the tribunal’s terms of reference — including a statement yesterday from Keith Harrison for inclusion.
From the commissioner’s perspective, she can’t buckle under the pressure and stand down. If she does, it will be seen as a silent acceptance that the claims that she spread the horrendous smears about McCabe are true.
But the pressure will increase.
Expect to hear rumblings among backbench TDs of the damage to the organisation from constant public exposure of the tribunal of inquiry if the commissioner stays on.
Her predecessor, Callinan, said that if the Taoiseach could not express full confidence in him he would have to go.
However, O’Sullivan has drawn a clear line in the sand — and if the Government want her to go they will have to do it properly this time, through the process laid down in law.
But if the Taoiseach is again backed into a corner — say, if responding to further revelations — and has to fight off a barrage of requests for expressions of confidence in the commissioner, and he waivers, the fight could be over.
As of yesterday, we are between rounds.
READ MORE: Q&A: Commission of inquiry or tribunal
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