Dear Sergeant McCabe...
First of all, I hope you don’t mind me writing this letter in public. Secondly, I hope you don’t mind me addressing you by rank. We’ve never met, and you’ve more than earned your title of Sergeant, a title that has always earned respect in Ireland.
The main reason I’m writing is because I think you’re owed a lot more than an apology. I also think you’re owed a considerable debt of gratitude. In saying that, I believe I speak for thousands of Irish people.
We’ve seen how you tried to do your job to the best of your ability; we’ve seen how you’ve been treated by the force you’ve tried to serve; and we’ve seen how you and your wife and children have suffered.
Bayard Rustin was a black American advocate who was persecuted and vilified because he was gay. He coined the phrase “speaking truth to power”, in the title of a famous pamphlet about non-violence. He knew, as many since have known, how hard and lonely a thing it can be to seek to speak truth to power.
But you’ve done that. You’ve done it despite unbearable pressure, and you’ve done it without flinching. In fact, everything you’ve done, you’ve done as a servant of the public, trying to serve the interests of the public the best way you know how. You deserve our gratitude, for reasons I’ll try to outline in a moment.
First, the apology. I listened to an interview the Taoiseach gave on radio on Sunday when he was asked if he wanted to add his voice to the apologies you’ve been sent. He said yes, but failed to elaborate. For my part, I felt ashamed that he didn’t take the opportunity to affirm how immorally you have been treated, in ways that are really only becoming clear to the majority of us now.
It transpires that a file has been in circulation about you for years. It accuses you of the only thing you can be accused of where, almost by definition, you are guilty until proven innocent. You were never investigated, nor confronted, nor told about the existence of this file. Instead it seems to have been bandied about, used to blacken your name, used to influence journalists and others.
Although we are led to believe that dozens of key journalists and people prominent in public life knew of the appalling allegations in this file, nobody demanded to know why you hadn’t been charged or even interviewed.
Because the truth is that if allegations of this sort are made against a person in authority, they have to be taken seriously. And that means that the person against whom they are made has to stand aside from a position of trust while the matter is being investigated. If people in positions of responsibility believed these accusations against you, they had to act.
The file contained a fundamental falsehood.
That falsehood has been described as a “clerical error”. It may well have originated that way, but when it was apparently brought to the attention of the relevant authorities, it wasn’t fully shut down.
I’m guessing that’s, at least partly, why you have rejected the apology offered in public by the HSE. In their apology, they congratulate themselves for following “correct procedure” once their original “error” was discovered. If they had followed correct procedure at any point, it would not have been possible for that file to continue to exist — and, it seems, to grow — without your knowledge.
But it did. It is useless, surely, for the system to continue to protest that this was some kind of comedy of errors. You only have to look at the history of other cases — the case of Grace is one example that still awaits an independent investigation — to know that the first instinct of some people in the HSE is to cover up.
It may sound odd to say that I have faith, based on experience, in the senior management of the HSE. But I believe people like Tony O’Brien have tried as hard as they could to change the culture of the organisation. And I have enough experience of Fred McBride, the head of Tusla, to believe that he, too, would not tolerate the sort of practice that permeates large bureaucratic systems.
You’ve experienced at first-hand how that operates within An Garda Síochána. It is terrifying to think that there might be any element of it within an agency like Tusla, set up to protect children when the State acknowledged that the HSE had abjectly failed in that task.
That’s why their apologies aren’t enough. I hope that, both Tusla and the HSE will hold emergency board meetings this week (Tusla has an external board, unlike the HSE), and that they will devote themselves exclusively to finding ways to root out the culture of cover-up already embedded in the HSE, and before there is any chance of it taking hold in Tusla.
That’s the least the rest of us, citizens who depend on these bodies to do their work in accountable ways, are entitled to expect. They must make no assumptions, and take nothing for granted. There’s been far too much of that in the past.
But you’re entitled to far more. A commission of inquiry is about to be established into all these matters, with terms of referencea that are supposed to be “precise” (so it says in the act, although the Cabinet has made a mess of that already).
You are morally entitled to be consulted about those terms of reference, and indeed what form the inquiry should take, public or private, and there is no legal reason why you can’t be (although there will be some in the bureaucracy that won’t like it).
And you are morally entitled to insist that any investigative resources hired by the Commission — and it has extensive powers in this area — should meet certain standards. Witnesses are to be interviewed, statements taken, documents secured and assessed, reports prepared for the Commission.
It’s surely critically important that the Commission be given authority to recruit vital resources like this from outside the jurisdiction, and that no member of the Gardai is given effective power to influence the direction of this investigation. Anything else would render the entire exercise pointless.
I believe that you will be vindicated, Sgt McCabe. I believe that justice will be done in the end, and that we will know who did this. In the meantime, I hope you know that you and your family are not alone.
You have earned the gratitude of thousands of people for your courage and honesty. And an apology from this State.
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