Going along with an attempt to impugn Garda Maurice McCabe’s character raises fundamental questions about the Commissioner’s attitude to him and his concerns, writes Michael Clifford.
This article was subject to the publication of the following apology ...
APOLOGY - SUPERINTENDENT NOEL CUNNINGHAM
In the Irish Examiner on 13, 17, 18 and 26 May 2016 we carried a number of articles referring to the O’Higgins commission and the actions or intended evidence of certain Garda Officers. In the course of these articles a reference was made to two Garda officers who attended a meeting in Mullingar with Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
One of the Garda officers who attended that meeting was superintendent Noel Cunningham. Insofar as there was any suggestion that, had it not been for Sergeant McCabe’s recording of the meeting in question, the two Garda Officers intended to give a false account of the said meeting, we unreservedly withdraw any such suggestion and accept that the report prepared by Superintendent Noel Cunningham of the meeting, was in accordance with the recording which subsequently came to light.
We acknowledge that Superintendent Cunningham is a person of the highest personal and professional integrity. We unreservedly apologise for the damage, hurt and distress which the articles in question caused to Superintendent Cunningham.
At her first Garda graduation ceremony, days after her appointment as Garda Commissioner in November 2014, Nóirín O’Sullivan told a class of reservists they had to stand up for what was right.
“We have to make sure that the little things, that sometimes may not be right, are very much addressed and I’m asking for all of you to support that,” she said.
“It’s also about having the courage to say ‘no’ and to stand up to a consensus that has taken hold but is wrong, and all of us in our lives, and I’m not just talking about policing, have occasions that we see something happening that isn’t the right thing to do.”
It was sterling advice and obliquely referenced the circumstances in which she had taken up the role as head of the gardaí. Her appointment came after six months during which she had served as acting commissioner following the retirement of her predecessor, Martin Callinan.
He had left office at a time when the force was beset with controversies. One of the main issues at the time was the manner in which he had dealt with two garda whistleblowers, Sergeant Maurice McCabe, and retired officer John Wilson.
At an Oireachtas committee the previous January, Mr Callinan had described as “disgusting” the actions of the two men in bringing forward their concerns about the penalty points system.
By April of that year, the tide had turned. Then minister for transport Leo Varadkar revived the controversy when he called the actions of the two men “distinguished” rather than disgusting. The political heat was turned up.
Within days, an issue arose about tape recording in garda stations and Mr Callinan decided to retire after it appeared he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the Taoiseach.
Ms O’Sullivan was hailed as a new broom, who would erase the negative aspects of Garda culture. She initiated a programme of consultation with officers across the country, and she indicated that the force should be more open, particularly towards criticism from within.
It was in that vein that she appealed to the graduates to stand up for what was right even in the face of consensus saying otherwise.
She also offered support to one officer who had stood up for what he believed was right. She told an Oireachtas committee that Sgt McCabe had the “full support of garda management”. And she seconded him to assist the professional standards unit in devising a new system for penalty points.
All of that is difficult to marry to events at the O’Higgins inquiry in which her counsel submitted that it would be the commissioner’s case that Sgt McCabe had been motivated by malice in his actions to highlight malpractice. The evidence for this, the inquiry heard, would come from two officers in whom Sgt McCabe had confided that he had been motivated by malice.
Then it turned out that McCabe had a recording of the meeting with the two officers and that recording showed he made no such admission. Once the recording was produced, the evidence from the two officers was not called at the inquiry.
The contention from Ms O’Sullivan that one of her officers had acted in an underhand and spiteful manner against other officers simply disappeared.
One might well conclude it was no way to treat a man whom she had said publicly was receiving her full support. It could be the case that the commissioner was misled.
She was not at the meeting herself. But her apparent willingness to go along with an attempt to impugn McCabe’s character raises fundamental questions about her attitude towards him and the concerns he brought into the public domain.
The fact that she was represented by the same counsel as two of the officers against whom Sgt McCabe had made allegations is also curious. The perception could easily be that Ms O’Sullivan was aligning herself with the officers and against Sgt McCabe.
The arrangement also meant that she was not in a position to cross-examine the two officers if issues arose that might ordinarily require the attention of the head of the force.
If McCabe had not had a recording of the meeting in question, there may have been an entirely different outcome to the commission of investigation. If two officers gave sworn testimony that he was motivated by malice, Mr O’Higgins may well have accepted their evidence as upstanding members of the force.
Where would that have left Sgt McCabe? Where would it have left the victims of the crimes that he said were not properly investigated? The sergeant may well have been discredited, and his legitimate concerns brushed aside.
It wasn’t the first time McCabe had been saved by a recording. In February 2014, a statement purporting to come from then commissioner Callinan stated that two officers had, in a meeting, instructed the sergeant to co-operate with the O’Mahoney inquiry into penalty points.
At the time, McCabe had expressed frustration that the inquiry had never contacted him. Then he produced a recording of the meeting in question which showed no such instruction had been issued to him. Once again, his integrity was saved by his forethought in keeping a record.
Some have questioned his conduct in secretly recording meetings. Yet, had he not done so, there were at least two occasions in which his reputation could have been buried, along with his concerns about malpractice.
That may well have suited some within the force, but according to O’Higgins it wouldn’t have served wider interests.
O’Higgins reported that Sgt McCabe is due a debt of gratitude “not only from the general public, but also from An Garda Siochana”. The price he paid, and the even bigger price he might have paid had he not taken precautions, is perfectly obvious.
The depressing aspect to the attempt in the inquiry to impugn his character is that this stuff is not historic. It happened just last year, under a new broom, in the bright new era when standing up for what is right is commended by the garda commissioner.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved