FERGUS FINLAY: O’Sullivan and Fitzgerald have both been victims of rough justice

Pic: RollingNews.ie/Eamonn Farrell

I can only imagine what a bittersweet weekend it must have been for Frances Fitzgerald and Nóirín O’Sullivan.

They both now find themselves in quite unique places in Irish political history. Both were hounded out of public office by political pressure. 

Both have been accused time and time again. Both have been subject to detailed and rigorous enquiry, in public, into their conduct of office. And both, having lost the careers they treasured (and were good at), have been publicly exonerated.

With the possible exception of what happened to Alan Shatter, I can’t think of any instance in political life, here or elsewhere, where that sequence of events applies. 

Guilty before the trial, punished by loss of career, then found to be innocent after all.

It ought, I hope, to be some consolation to them that they can hold their heads high. 

I wrote here in May of last year that “there’s a lazy consensus in place right now. Nóirín O’Sullivan has gone through her career with a cast-iron reputation as a good cop. More than that, as a brave and tough cop, dedicated to putting bad guys behind bars. Suddenly, she’s a bad cop.”

She had inherited a mess. Actually, as the Charleton Tribunal has shown, she had taken over from a commissioner whose instincts were almost the opposite of genuine leadership. 

She was a woman in an organisation that has always had a strong macho culture. Bad things had happened on her watch, and she was held personally responsible for all of them.

Shortly after I wrote that column about her, Nóirín O’Sullivan was summoned in front of the Public Accounts Committee and subjected to six or seven hours of the most contemptuous questioning I can remember, especially from those staunch defenders of policing in all its forms, Sinn Féin. 

Mary Lou McDonald asked her whether she had the clout to be Garda commissioner, and one of Mary Lou’s colleagues David Cullinane accused her or behaving like a hostile witness.

O’Sullivan and Fitzgerald have both been victims of rough justice

This is a woman, remember, who is known to have risked her life in the pursuit of crime and in the defence of the State.

And O’Sullivan was gone a month or so after that, effectively in disgrace. 

Sure, I’ve no doubt she retired on pension and all that, but pension wasn’t the thing Nóirín O’Sullivan worked for. 

If you’ve devoted your entire career to being the best you can be at what you do, it’s hard to recover from the feeling that you’ve let everyone down who matters to you.

In the column I wrote here in May last year, I said that “the abuse of whistle-blowers, now the subject of a commission of enquiry, is the most serious of the things we need to get to the bottom of. 

"Maurice McCabe will, I believe, emerge from that commission with his reputation enhanced and secure. But whose reputation will be damaged or destroyed? 

It may be the case that when that commission reports, Nóirín O’Sullivan will have to resign in disgrace. But it may equally be the case that in the aftermath of the report, we will realise that she too has been done an injustice. We won’t know until we see that report.

Well, we’ve seen the report now. We know that Nóirín O’Sullivan has been done an injustice. 

No-one is going to rectify that and publicly acknowledge that she was a good cop after all. Her opponents aren’t that big.

But she will, I hope, have the satisfaction of knowing that she retired as a good cop. Nobody goes through a career without making mistakes and no doubt she made her share. 

There’s probably little doubt too that she took on a task that perhaps no-one can accomplish alone, the task of changing the closed and defensive culture of An Garda Síochána.

I’m saying all that without really knowing Nóirín O’Sullivan at all, although I always had a positive impression of her. (For the record, I think I may have met her three or four times at public functions.)

I do know Frances Fitzgerald reasonably well, at least in a professional sense. I soldiered alongside her during the referendum on children’s rights, and I met her many times when she was minister for children. 

She was an effective and competent minister, and a warm and always gracious politician.

So, along with many others, I was surprised when she too was accused of effectively participating in a conspiracy to destroy the reputation of Sgt Maurice McCabe. 

Mary Lou McDonald put it most stridently — there was a “very malicious strategy” she told the Dáil on November 23, “designed by … Nóirín O’Sullivan and her legal team to destroy the reputation and the life of Sgt Maurice McCabe. 

"It seems to me that there was a conspiracy to ruin this honourable man and that members of An Garda Síochána and [Frances Fitzgerald’s Department of Justice] were part of this conspiracy.”

There was, it transpires, no such strategy. Even if there had been, I don’t honestly believe that anyone who knows Frances Fitzgerald would accept that she would have been part of it.

Apart from anything else, it would have required the most odious hypocrisy on her part. 

She was on the public record on a number of occasions as a supporter of Maurice McCabe and the principles he was fighting for. 

And yet it was alleged again and again that she was up to her knees in a secret conspiracy to do him in, that she knew of and effectively condoned a legal strategy to attack his motivation and integrity.

As Mary Lou put it in that Dáil debate last year: “Why did she sit idly by as the plan to discredit Sgt McCabe unfolded?”

In the middle of all that, I wrote a column here that said: “I don’t believe France Fitzgerald was, or could have been, part of the vicious conspiracy against Maurice McCabe.

O’Sullivan and Fitzgerald have both been victims of rough justice

 

"It’s not in the nature of the woman I know ... Whatever mistakes or misjudgments might have happened, it’s entirely clear from the pattern of her actions that she is a supporter, not an enemy, of Maurice McCabe.”

I felt a bit foolish, I admit, when within a day or two of that column appearing, Frances Fitzgerald resigned from Government. 

But she resigned because Fianna Fáil had put down a motion of no confidence in the Government, and it looked almost certain that there would be an election around Christmas. 

There was a fevered political atmosphere, and she acted to calm things down and save the Government.

She may also have come to the realisation that, as Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil, in the middle of the feeding frenzy she was never going to get a fair hearing.

Her resignation was described last week in the Charleton Report as a selfless act.

It would require the tiniest bit of selflessness for Jim O’Callaghan on behalf of Fianna Fáil, and Mary Lou McDonald on behalf of Sinn Féin, to stand up in the Dáil this week, admit they got it wrong, and apologise to the two people they damaged.

I’d like to think that will happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

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