ALISON O'CONNOR: Protection of institution trumps a properly run An Garda Síochána

People like whistleblower Maurice McCabe are feted in public and thrown to the wolves behind closed doors, writes Alison O’Connor

Whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe had been subject to a character assassination in public. Picture: Laura Hutton/

IT IS one of the most infamous judgements in British history and a Hollywood movie that keep coming to mind when thinking about this latest controversy involving our Garda Síochána.

The movie is Groundhog Day and the judgement is that of the now deceased Lord Denning who threw out a civil action by the Birmingham Six against West Midlands Police in 1980 and remarked that to accept their case would have opened up “an appalling vista”. In our case it would appear to be the appalling vista of us losing a second Garda commissioner in such a short space of time, and the repercussions of that occurring, which seem to be the guiding principle, not just of Fine Gael but also Fianna Fáil.

It is a response so classic of Irish public life where words are spoken out of both sides of politicians’ mouths. People like whistleblower Maurice McCabe are feted in public and thrown to the wolves behind closed doors, all the time with the pretence that he and his actions have been in fact embraced by the establishment.

The manner in which language and meaning has been utilised by various parties attempting to spin this Commission of Inquiry report to their own advantage, or the advantage of others, has had an Alice in Wonderland quality.

How much of a comfort has it been to Maurice McCabe to have it played out in public all week that Commisioner Nóirín O’Sullivan’s instructions to her legal team were to question his motivation and his credibility in mounting these allegations of corruption and malpratice, but that his integrity was not to be questioned.

Surely in having your motivation and credibility questioned there is an automatic follow-on in terms of your integrity? It almost made me laugh to read in Judge Kevin O’Higgins’ report that Sgt McCabe was prone to exaggeration. I reckon I’d be prone to far more than exaggeration if I found myself in similar circumstances. How else might you be after so long hitting your head off a brick wall and having your reputation traduced?

Honestly if you had a friend, or indeed even a passing acquaintance, who told you that as a Garda they had witnessed unacceptable things occurring within the force, the last bit of advice you would offer is that they should blow the whistle. In fact if you had a Christian or compassionate bone in your body you’d advise them to keep their mouth closed, or if it was too unbearable to tolerate to move to Australia.

There is Sergeant McCabe hiding in plain sight as he features in all our main news bulletins over the past 10 days. Some of the coverage has been so contradictory as to be downright embarrassing.

There was a mind boggling element to watching RTÉ’s crime correspondent Paul Reynolds discussing the implications of the leaked transcripts on Tuesday night’s television news bulletins, and then to hear the same subject presented a few hours later by Prime Time’s political correspondent Katie Hannon who has done some really fine work on this story. Presenter Miriam O’Callaghan went on to conduct a superb interview with Frances Fitzgerald in what will surely rank as one of the Justice Minister’s most uncomfortable media performances.

Ever since these controversies concerning the gardaí began surfacing during the last Government the spotlight has fallen on crime correspondents and how beholden they are to their main sources — the gardaí. But there have been farcical elements to the coverage from our State broadcaster in this latest instalment, and that needs to be addressed by the station.

While I’m handing out the plaudits this newspaper’s special correspondent Michael Clifford has remained steadfast in his pursuit of this story, and moved it on at key times over the past few years when the Establishment would have far preferred it to be forgotten.

But the bulk of the praise must go to independent TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace for their continual role in highlighting the defects and dysfunctionality that exist in our police force. Dissent in an organisation, as she so rightly pointed out on that same Prime Time, is not disloyalty. But this is not how they view such things within An Garda Síochána. Deputy Daly was on that programme on a panel with Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins. Minister Fitzgerald must have found it some consolation that rather than being attacked by Deputy Collins she actually had his assistance in trying to push the lid back down on this Pandora’s box full of troublesome transcripts.

Collins, who often gives the distinct impression that he might opt for a career in the Gardaí if things in politics don’t work out for him, said we needed to draw a line under this, and try to rebuild An Garda Síochána after a series of controversies. This was what the public wanted, he insisted. Listening to this from the Limerick TD you wondered if he’d used the same focus group Fine Gael relied on for their general election campaign.

His party leader Micheál Martin, who has shown good form in the past on these series of controversies, laid out the bottom line for the party on Wednesday — even as a series of important questions remained unanswered. He had confidence in Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and was not “looking for her head”.

So it’s been made more than clear to us that protection of the institution is far more important than a properly run force where those who wish to highlight wrongdoing would not live in fear of their reputation and their mental health.

We are left now with a report that uncovered some amazing and disturbing episodes yet quite remarkably recommended no disciplinary action be taken. We have a Government and a Taoiseach still suffering from the trauma of the “resignation” of former Commissioner Martin Callinan. We have a Commissioner who was the ultimate insider appointed to do a job — transforming the culture in An Garda Síochána — which cried out for someone from outside the force.

We await an explanation from her on her instructions to her legal counsel regarding Maurice McCabe. But even without hearing that the political establishment has made it clear that the price of the head of another Garda Commissioner is too high too pay.

There is so much that is wrong here; we will keep ending up back in the same place unless real change is brought about.

More on this topic


Brooches, berets and all the best accessories at London Fashion Week

Spaghetti on his face and barbecue woes: The Body Coach on his food memories

How to choose the right compost for the right spot

A fear of regret can lock us into bad relationships, jobs and habits – here's how to break free

More From The Irish Examiner