Fine Gael have seen a minister and commissioner resign on its watch. Is that why it’s so disinclined to get to the bottom of the Garda whistleblower scandal, asks Michael Clifford
This article has been subject to a clarification:
Alan Shatter: Clarification
This article includes the following sentence: ‘In the course of the mishandling of Maurice McCabe’s complaints, a Garda Commissioner and a Minister for Justice had to resign’. We acknowledge that the then Minister for Justice referred to is Mr. Alan Shatter. Our report relates to the inquiry carried out by former Judge Iarfhlaith O’Neill. We are happy to clarify that the reference to ‘mishandling’ Sergeant McCabe’s allegations was not directed at Mr. Shatter and to restate that the Court of Appeal ruled that Mr Shatter had not been afforded a fair hearing and that his rights had been breached in the conduct of the inquiry resulting in the Guerin Report and that the O’Higgins Commission’s findings were that Mr. Shatter had dealt with the issues raised by Sergeant McCabe appropriately and properly. The Irish Examiner does not, and never has, disputed Mr. Shatter’s integrity and honesty”.
DOES Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald want to find out the whole story in relation to how garda management moved against whistleblower Maurice McCabe?
Or will she, and the Government, be happy throwing a few morsels of truth to the great unwashed, hoping that all else will disappear into the ether?
On Wednesday evening retired judge Iarfhlaith O’Neill delivered his report to the Department of Justice. He was examining two protected disclosures, from Superintendent Dave Taylor and Sergeant Maurice McCabe, which allege there was an orchestrated campaign in senior garda management “to bury” McCabe by blackening his character. The next step is expected to be the setting up of a statutory inquiry, but how wide or deep will such an inquiry go?
Mr McCabe had highlighted malpractice in criminal investigations and abuses of the penalty points system. By 2013-2014, he was a horrendous pain in the neck to senior management.
He was also doing the State some serious service with his whistleblowing. The issue is whether there was an attempt to destroy him.
The alleged campaign centred on briefing both media and politicians that Mr McCabe was a person of ill repute, including totally groundless claims that he was guilty of crimes of a grievous nature. That is about as low as you can get in character assassination.
If such a campaign was conducted, serious questions arise. What politicians were briefed with false and scurrilous information? If, for example, the then justice minister Alan Shatter was thus briefed by any senior garda, it raises the uncomfortable issue of trust between a police force and its political masters.
We already know that Mr Shatter was briefed by former garda commissioner Martin Callinan about an innocuous road traffic incident involving Indepedent TD Mick Wallace. We also know that, in a carpark rendezvous, Mr Callinan briefed the chair of the Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness about Mr McCabe.
Mr McGuinness has said he was told Mr McCabe was not to be trusted, and he put the briefing in the context of the “vile” stories circulating about Mr McCabe. The TD said he didn’t believe any of it and he holds Mr McCabe in the highest esteem. What other briefing went on?
A statutory inquiry would presumably also examine the role of the media in this affair. Did elements of the media become players, their reporting coloured by briefings from the force? Were some in the media too closely aligned to garda management? How balanced was the reporting on what was unfolding between garda management and Mr McCabe?
Superintendent Taylor, who was head of the garda press office at the time in question, has claimed he himself was central to the media element of the alleged campaign.
In 2013-2014, he was head of the garda press office. His evidence, and any evidence surviving from his phones or personal computers, would be vital to an inquiry. He has been suspended on an unrelated, disputed issue for 20 months. He no longer has access to the phones and laptop he possessed while at the press office. Those items are in garda custody.
There is another element to the whole affair and how exactly it is addressed will give an indication as to whether or not the Government wants the whole truth to tumble out.
One element of the disclosures examined by Judge O’Neill concerned Mr McCabe’s allegations that there were attempts to attack his character at the O’Higgins Commission, which examined his claims of malpractice within the force.
This, Mr McCabe says, represented a continuation of the campaign to blacken him.
Last May, on publication of O’Higgins, this newspaper revealed that there had been attempts at the commission to attack McCabe’s motivation in bringing forward his claims.
As a result, Gsoc is now investigating what went on behind the closed doors of O’Higgins. The only problem is Gsoc is not entitled to the transcripts of what was a private hearing, and must apply to the High Court to access them.
On December 19, Gsoc will apply to the High Court to grant access. According to legal sources, the chances of success are only fair to middling.
If Gsoc can’t get access to the transcripts, it will be one more potential scandal swept under the carpet. Nothing more to see here folks, move along.
Now, however, Minister Fitzgerald has an opportunity to get access to the full truth. If she deems that the O’Higgins element of Mr McCabe’s disclosure be included in the proposed statutory inquiry, access to the transcripts will be quite possible.
The Commission of Investigation Act makes provision for transcripts to be made available to a tribunal if one “is established to inquire into a matter all or part of which was within the commission’s terms of reference”.
The law in this area hasn’t been tested, but if the political will was there to access the truth it would certainly be worth examining.
The big question concerns the political will. In the course of the mishandling of Maurice McCabe’s complaints, both a garda commissioner and a minister for justice have had to resign.
A thorough examination of what went on in the O’Higgins Commission, and as well in Garda HQ, might lead to the door of the current commissioner. Is the Government prepared to risk any damage to the commissioner? It was unfortunate to lose one head of police, it might be downright careless to lose two.
In a functioning democracy such political considerations might be dismissed, but it remains to be seen whether the will is there to let the chips fall where they may as the truth tumbles out.
As long as any of the insidious stuff that lurks in the garda culture remains untouched, the scandals of the last few years are doomed to be repeated.
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