The former Oireachtas committee chairman had the courage to face down pressure from a most powerful individual and give a forum to whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
The outrage expressed at the so-called “failure” of John McGuinness, the ex-chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, to disclose his meeting with the then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan in a car park in 2014 has been somewhat puzzling.
Since he revealed it in the Dáil, and it was first reported this day one week ago in this newspaper, McGuinness has come in for much criticism for choosing to disclose the meeting after the O’Higgins inquiry into Garda failures had reported.
From Cabinet ministers to the media, condemnation of Mr McGuinness’ decision to stay silent until last week has been relentless.
His alleged crimes are that: Firstly, he didn’t disclose the meeting to his then PAC colleagues at the time but also, more importantly, that he didn’t bring it to the attention of O’Higgins.
But let’s get a grip here.
Yes he can be abrasive and bristly, and sometimes he does not play well with others, but McGuinness has proven himself time and again to be his own man — a trait which is all too rare in Irish politics.
We are told that Mr McGuinness was summoned to this meeting by the Garda Commissioner at a time of great crisis and unrest in the police force. Amid talk of the committee preparing to take evidence from a serving member of An Garda Síochána, the establishment was up in arms in disgust.
As chairman of the PAC, he acquiesced to Mr Callinan’s request without knowing what was on the agenda.
He gave the Commissioner a hearing over the course of 20 to 30 minutes in the car park of Bewley’s Hotel (now the Maldron) on the Naas Road on January 24, 2014.
This was just 24 hours after Mr Callinan made his “disgusting” remark at the PAC to describe the actions of Sgt McCabe and his fellow whistleblower, John Wilson.
“On a personal level, I think it’s quite disgusting,” Mr Callinan told Independent TD Shane Ross at the tense and charged marathon meeting of the committee.
In the Dáil last week, Mr McGuinness said: “The Garda Commissioner confided in me in a car park on the Naas Road that Garda Maurice McCabe was not to be trusted and there were serious issues about him.
The vile stories that circulated about Sgt McCabe, which were promoted by senior officers in the Garda, were absolutely appalling. Because they attempted to discredit him, he had to bring forward various pieces of strong evidence to protect his integrity. During the course of that time, we have to recognise that the political establishment was of absolutely no help to him. Every effort was made to ensure that he would not appear before the Committee of Public Accounts.”
Once Mr Callinan had finished imparting his view to Mr McGuinness, the two men parted ways.
Given that there was such a campaign to besmirch the character of Sgt McCabe, such an intervention by the Garda Commissioner was not to be dismissed lightly. The easiest thing in the world for Mr McGuinness to do would have been to deny Sgt McCabe his outing and the establishment would have been put at ease.
But he didn’t.
The true test of Mr McGuinness was that, despite this overt pressure from Mr Callinan not to bring Sgt McCabe before his committee, he did exactly just that. In the teeth of being leant on by the most senior police officer in the country, Mr McGuinness fired ahead and took a leap in the dark and gave the maligned whistleblower his own outing just six days later in the bowels of Leinster House.
In anyone’s language, that takes balls.
To the point that he didn’t inform his fellow members of PAC, Mr McGuinness has argued this week, with some validity, that, had he done so, he risked placing the chances of Sgt McCabe appearing in jeopardy.
A leading member of the PAC at the time, Mary Lou McDonald, has defended Mr McGuinness’ decision to withhold the information, given the unrest engulfing the committee at the time.
She said there was “merit in the concern” expressed by Mr McGuinness that to reveal details of the meeting before Sgt McCabe gave his evidence to the PAC may have derailed the process, as there was “no appetite within the system to have Sgt McCabe appear before the committee”.
As to the point that he should have revealed the matter to the O’Higgins Commission, there is more of a legitimate argument to be made for that. Even Mr McGuinness himself accepted that his information may have added to the mix and helped Judge O’Higgins in his findings.
But, in defending his decision not to disclose it, Mr McGuinness said that he allowed the report by the O’Higgins Commission to proceed because he believed that Sgt McCabe would be exonerated.
“What has transpired after that, in leaked documents and so on, is the fact that the Garda Commissioner, it is reported, set out to destroy the credibility of Maurice McCabe and his integrity,” said Mr McGuinness.
“And because that happened, I felt that it had to be put on record that this meeting happened and during all of this time, there was an effort made at senior level within the force to undermine not only Maurice McCabe, but many others who have brought forward vital information into how their work is being done.”
The outspoken Fianna Fáil TD said that “serious questions remain unanswered, including is there a continued culture to cover up within the Garda force, the whistleblowers that are under siege in that force”.
However, he said he had “made the call having heard the O’Higgins report, and having listened to the debate that it was time to put on record a piece of proof that the culture within the force continued in the vein that militated against Sergeant Maurice McCabe”.
He told me this week that the main reason he did not inform O’Higgins was that he considered it, rightly or wrongly, to be outside the remit of the inquiry. At worst, even if he made a mistake on that, the criticism of him has allowed the focus to shift from the man who really should be under the spotlight. It is, surely, for Mr Callinan to explain exactly why he sought the meeting.
It is, surely, for the ex-Commissioner to confirm or deny the very serious charges levelled at him by McGuinness in the Dáil and in his subsequent media commentary on the matter.
So far, Mr Callinan has remained silent. All we have to go on is the unchallenged account, offered up by Mr McGuinness and confirmed by other sources, which paints the retired Commissioner in a poor light.
It merely bolsters the image conjured up by his use of the word “disgusting” to describe Sgt McCabe and Mr Wilson one day before he met Mr McGuinness in that now infamous car park meeting.
Mr Callinan’s successor, current Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, has said she was unaware of the meeting.
She has had to try to convince the public that the force is now a changed place for those people willing to speak out. She faces two stern tests later this month when she goes before the new Policing Authority in public session.
Ultimately, this might not be a popular view on this topic, but I believe Mr McGuinness should be cheered, not chastised, for ignoring the will of the establishment by allowing Sgt McCabe a forum.
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