The drip-feed of information over the O’Higgins Tribunal and the Disclosures Tribunal had only one possible outcome, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford
It’s the little things that trip you up. So said Albert Reynolds on the day in 1994 that he was forced to resign as Taoiseach. Frances Fitzgerald could surely relate to that on one level.
The issue that forced her from office is not small or insignificant, but it was a few little twists of fate that ensured it found its way into the public domain. The small group who were aware of the details of what had transpired behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins and Department respectively must have been confident that these matters would never get aired. The minister, to the greater or lesser extent that she was aware of it all, must have been equally confident.
We now know that Fitzgerald was briefed not once, but twice, on what was going on at the O’Higgins Tribunal. She was told in an email in May 2015, on the second day of the hearings, that a “serious criminal allegation” against Sergeant Maurice McCabe had been brought up. In an internal mail a few days later, her private secretary wrote that “the minister has noted the below”.
In July of that year, she was informed in a briefing that the garda commissioner’s counsel had adopted and the Charleton inquiry an “aggressive stance” against Sgt McCabe at the hearings. Again, Ms Fitzgerald did nothing in response to this information.
There is no record of her asking the most cursory question about the treatment of Sgt McCabe behind the closed doors of the commission.
And, under normal circumstances, that would have been the end of the matter. The commission’s hearings were in private. In none of the other commissions in recent years had evidence ever ended up in the public domain.
That changed on May 15, 2016, when the Irish Examiner published transcripts that illustrated the attack on Sgt McCabe at O’Higgins a year earlier. If the Examiner hadn’t published these, another media outlet would have done so eventually.
It was in the ether that something unusual, to put it at its most benign, had gone on.
That was the time for Ms Fitzgerald to come clean. If she had revealed that she had knowledge that something had gone on, but that she had not been furnished with the details, she could have insulated herself from the fallout.
Had she done so, however, she would have dragged her department into it.
Instead, she passed the matter over to the Policing Authority, and the garda commissioner handed it to Gsoc. This inferred that the issue was one involving only the gardaí and not the department.
Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the matter as far as the department and minister were concerned. Nothing to see here, folks, it’s all to do with the gardaí.
Then a major upheaval occurred. In February of this year, it emerged that Sgt McCabe had been subjected to the most grievous of false allegations. A mix-up in Tusla, the child and family agency, saw Sgt McCabe labelled a child rapist.
Naturally, there was a public outcry. The McCabes issued a statement pointing out the different ways in which they believed they had been smeared and that they couldn’t trust another inquiry behind closed doors following their experience at O’Higgins.
As a result, the Disclosures Tribunal was set up to examine all the alleged avenues of smear. Nobody could have predicted that we would ever see a tribunal again, not least on this issue.
Even then, the minister and department could have rested easy that the past was indeed past. Judge Peter Charleton requested anybody with information to come forward.
For whatever reason, nobody in the department thought this request might actually apply to them. There was no discovery. We now know that at least three emails illustrating knowledge of what was afoot at O’Higgins were to be found in the department.
We don’t know what other documentation might exist.
We don’t know if anybody in the department made a statement to the Disclosures Tribunal. A query to the department yesterday about whether anybody made a statement went unanswered, despite reminders throughout the day.
We know that the minister at the time, Ms Fitzgerald, hasn’t, as of yet, made a statement to the Disclosures Tribunal. Quite obviously, nobody in the department thought that they had a duty to assist the tribunal with its inquiries. This of itself requires investigation, and if necessary, action to follow, if somebody is found to have deliberately adopted this strategy.
If it wasn’t for Labour TD Alan Kelly asking questions on solid information, that would have been the end of the affair as far as Ms Fitzgerald and the department were concerned.
Somebody, somewhere, with access to the information about what transpired in 2015 between the gardaí and the department in relation to Sgt McCabe decided that the issue should be dragged out into the public domain.
The Disclosures Tribunal will now investigate the respective roles of the minister of the day and the department. If it wasn’t for a few little twists of fate, we never would have got this far.
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