Shatter struggles to find a fall guy

Justice Minister Alan Shatter with Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, whom he has backed at every turn in the face of claims of Garda malpractice by whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Oliver J Connolly was sacked by his erstwhile buddy, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, but there is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part, writes Michael Clifford

THROUGH the fog of confusion, a ‘fall guy’ has emerged to take the rap. The sacking yesterday of the man who held the office of garda confidential recipient is another example of an attempt to bury a scandal as far as possible from the door of Justice Minister Alan Shatter. And he’s not alone, for Enda Kenny was also veering dangerously close to being drawn in himself.

The man in question, Oliver J Connolly, has been treated harshly by his erstwhile buddy, Shatter. He wasn’t even given the opportunity to resign with some grace from an office that is reaching the end of its days. More to the point, the sacking infers that Connolly did something wrong. There is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part. If anything, all we know about how he functioned in his office suggests that he carried out his duties largely in a correct manner.

The role of the confidential recipient is to receive allegations of malpractice from serving gardaí and pass it on to the Department of Justice, which refers the matter to the Garda Commissioner. The office was set up in the wake of the Morris tribunal, and was designed to root out corruption. Or so we were told.

Connolly was the second holder of the office, appointed in June 2011. He is, or certainly was, a political supporter of Shatter’s, having contributed €1,000 to a previous election campaign. His predecessor in the office was a senior civil servant, Brian McCarthy.

Connolly’s appointment signalled a downgrading of the independence of the office.

How could a supporter of the justice minister be wholly independent in a process that involved the minister’s department and the gardaí, for whom the minister bears ultimate responsibility?

On February 9, 2012, Connolly met Sergeant Maurice McCabe, the garda who has made a number of complaints about serious malpractice in the force. McCabe had lodged a complaint about Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan’s intention to promote a senior officer, whose handling of a number of criminal cases was unresolved.

Sources close to McCabe said yesterday that he found Connolly to be “a gentleman, an honest man, 100%”. Notwithstanding that evaluation, McCabe taped his conversation with Connolly. By January 2012, McCabe had run into a series of brick walls in his attempts to highlight the malpractice. His experience led him to withdraw trust from the whole process, and he felt obliged to tape the conversation for his own protection.

The transcript has emerged in recent months, and in the last two weeks, sections have been read into the record of the Dáil. The tenor of the sections is best summed up by a line delivered by Micheál Martin last week, alleged to have been spoken by Connolly.

“I’ll tell you something, Maurice — and this is just personal advice to you — if Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished.” It is the emergence of a transcript that has ultimately led to Shatter firing Connolly.

However, a number of serious issues arise, all of which Shatter and Enda Kenny seem eager to bury. When the transcript was read into the Dáil last week, Kenny said he would launch an investigation. Yet Kenny had been well aware of the tenor of these comments for the last eight months.

On May 27 last year, McCabe emailed the Taoiseach about the penalty points issue, and complained of how he was being portrayed by the justice minister.

“Mr Shatter is in the public spotlight at the moment, and unlike him, I do not intend to play the man and not the ball,” McCabe wrote.

“It is suffice to say that my figures are correct, my allegations are correct, and despite receiving information that Mr Shatter would ‘go after me’ if I brought the matter further, I am standing firm.”

He received an anodyne response with no interest in the suggestions that Shatter would go after him. Like much else in this matter, the Taoiseach opted to turn a blind eye to anything that might lead towards further hassle.

A reading of the full transcript of the conversation between McCabe and Connolly doesn’t reflect badly on Connolly. He was acting, as his office was designed, as a confidant of a whistleblower. He advised McCabe not to go to the media, to avoid scandal at all costs. Events of recent days in relation to handling of the GSOC bugging controversy suggest this was astute advice. The imperative in avoiding scandal has been a hallmark of all the recent controversies involving An Garda Síochána.

In the conversation, Connolly was outlining to McCabe the political realities of the situation. Is it reasonable to assume that in appointing a supporter, this is precisely what Shatter would have wanted him to do?

In any event, any suggestion that Shatter would go after McCabe proved to be prophetic. At every turn over the last 18 months, the justice minister acted to stymie the garda whistleblower.

At first, Shatter rubbished allegations McCabe and his former colleague John Wilson made about malpractice in deleting penalty points. When the internal Garda report into the matter — now largely discredited — was published, Shatter called into question the bone fides of the whistleblowers.

Last October, the minister told the Dáil that the whistleblowers “didn’t co-operate with the internal Garda inquiry”. This was completely erroneous. Neither man was even approached to be interviewed in the inquiry.

When McCabe brought his complaints to the Public Accounts Committee, Shatter attempted to ensure he didn’t give evidence by very belatedly referring the whole affair to the Garda Ombudsman. Not once did he as much as lift a finger to protect the whistleblowers, preferring instead to back the Garda Commissioner at every turn.

Last month, Commissioner Callinan said he found the whistleblowers’ complaints to be “disgusting”.

Back in June 2011, on Connolly’s appointment, Shatter issued the following high-minded statement: “Any member or civilian employee of An Garda Síochána who wishes to report in confidence about corruption and malpractice can be assured that any such report will be taken seriously and extensive protections will be given to him or her.”

How hollow those words ring now that we know what we know.

The other thing that did it for Connolly is the shift in perception of the whistleblower, McCabe. As with other whistleblowers, he has been subjected to a whispering campaign designed to assassinate his character. (I, for one, have been privy to rumours that are little short of disgusting.)

Yet, a series of public figures have lately come out to vouch for McCabe’s character. Leo Varadkar last year described him as “credible”; Micheál Michael, who met McCabe last week, described him as “credible” in the Dáil yesterday. Pat Rabbitte told RTÉ News at One yesterday that he knew McCabe, and spoke of his character in glowing terms. Former Garda Ombudsman Conor Brady did likewise last month.

Members of the Public Account Committee also expressed themselves impressed with his evidence.

McCabe can no longer be painted as a malcontent with an agenda designed to damage the gardaí.

Who therefore is to blame for the manner in which he has been treated since he first came forward? Surely not the justice minister, that great protectorate of whistleblowers? Surely not the Garda Commissioner, charged with upholding the highest standards in the force?

No, it’s all down to the confidential recipient, Connolly. A fall guy has emerged. All other parties will simply brush themselves down and move on. That, at least, must be their most fervent wish.

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