Everybody is rushing to stand at McCabe’s shoulder. There is no risk now, writes Michael Clifford
Some of the worst aspects of our political culture were on view during the week. The gathering storm was thick with both hypocrisy and expediency.
As the country hurtles either towards an election immediately, or in the near future following a breakdown of trust, it’s worth asking what it’s all about.
On the face of it, the whole thing revolves around the treatment of Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Frances Fitzgerald, in her former role as Minister for Justice, abrogated her duty to protect McCabe, a whistleblower who is by now widely regarded as a man of integrity and substance.
When Fitzgerald was informed in May 2015 — in a badly written and confusing email — that the garda commissioner was attacking McCabe behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins commission, she did nothing.
A year later, when the nature and extent of the attack was published in the Irish Examiner, she gave the impression that this was the first she’d heard about it.
Her excuse that she forgot the email lacks credibility. And now she must walk the plank or cling tight to the wreckage of the current government.
In a political culture where accountability is properly implemented, Fitzgerald would have been heaved overboard last Monday when the email controversy broke.
The opposition is affecting outrage at the carry-on. Maurice McCabe is their hero. They point to him as a man of honour, a courageous policeman who was hounded by the state, an exemplar of public service.
Some of them reference him as “Maurice”. (“Vote for me. I’m on first-name terms with the whistleblower!”). Others speak in scandalised tones about that to which he and his family have been subjected.
They’re all his bestie now that he’s been washed clean of all scurrilous rumours. And even on the government benches, every mention of the man’s name is accompanied by a little genuflection for the sorrows to which he has been subjected.
Where were they all when it mattered? Running to hide behind the nearest rock any time Maurice McCabe came into view.
Three, and only three, politicians have the right to speak with moral authority about the plight of Maurice McCabe at the hands of the State and its agents.
If there is to be an election, so be it but let’s not be treated to the sight of politicians claiming that they are making a principled stand on behalf of whistleblowers in general or Maurice McCabe in particular.
When it was necessary to invest political capital and take serious risks to do the right thing only three TDs sitting in the current Dáil stepped up to the plate.
Clare Daly and Mick Wallace met and got to know McCabe. They constantly highlighted his case in the Dáil and outside it.
Their input went far beyond just firing in a parliamentary question to make a wave or two. They researched the issue, got their heads around it, travelled to Cavan/Monaghan, and came to see that McCabe was making genuine and startling claims which stood up.
They both paid a toll for going where others dared not tread. Daly was subjected in January 2013 to being handcuffed — entirely inappropriately — and arrested for suspected drink driving. (As it turned out, she was not over the limit.) The details of her arrest and detention were then leaked to the media within hours.
In May 2013, Wallace had to endure having his personal details about an innocuous traffic incident publicised by Alan Shatter on live television. (The Court of Appeal has ruled that Shatter did not break data protection laws on that occasion, but Wallace is still pursuing a civil action over it).
The other politician who can hold his head high at this time of faux outrage is John McGuinness.
When, in late 2013, McCabe was looking for somebody to take notice of the obvious, yet unacknowledged, widespread abuses in traffic laws, the Fianna Fáil TD opened a door and ushered him in from the cold.
In November 2013, McCabe outlined for McGuinness, the then chair of the Public Accounts Committee, what was going on.
Thereafter, McGuinness moved mountains to ensure that McCabe got his hearing, and when that came to pass it was a seminal moment in the vindication of the garda sergeant.
What united the three politicians was their refusal to walk away in the face of a vicious smear campaign against McCabe.
Other politicians had met him, and still more were curious, but all saw him as a risk. The rumours were churning away. Why take a chance?
“I had heard the rumours,” McGuinness told me in an interview for the book, A Force For Justice: The Maurice McCabe Story. “I knew who was lined up against him. It wasn’t just senior management in the guards but a lot of people in Leinster House as well.”
Instead of interrogating the rumours or bothering to excavate the truth, all but these three just kept their distance.
There were no votes to be harvested and it would be great to do something positive but why take any risk? In 2014, Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar both did play roles in accessing the truth, but by then the tide against McCabe had turned.
That’s the background to this week’s political upheavals.
The shape throwing we’ve seen is all about politics and has nothing to do with the protection of whistleblowers. Everybody is rushing to stand at McCabe’s shoulder.
There is no risk now. There is everything to be gained and nothing to be lost anymore.
Everybody is lining up to be outraged that Maurice McCabe did not receive the protection to which he should have been entitled.
And so, a head must be presented to take the heat from the frenzy.
Of course, Frances Fitzgerald did not do right by McCabe.
But the real question is under the circumstances that prevailed at the time, would any other candidate for Minister for Justice have done anything differently? All the available evidence says highly unlikely.
If Fitzgerald’s head must roll, off with it. But please, none of the high-minded waffle across the opposition benches that this is about protecting whistleblowers.
And let’s not pretend that it will go any way towards addressing the deep malaise that exists in the Department of Justice. That was supposed to get fixed in the wake of the exit of Fitzgerald’s predecessor, Shatter, in May 2014.
It patently didn’t. Not by May 2015 when they were telling their captured minister to keep the head down, and not by two weeks ago when a “trawl” was finding material that should have been submitted to the Disclosures Tribunal at least six months ago.
Addressing deep-rooted problems in the department would take tenacity, courage and a political compass that reaches way beyond the next election.
Far easier to go looking for a head instead.
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