The most ludicrous utterance from a politician about the McCabe affair this week was also the most representative, says Michael Clifford.
On his way into the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Shane Ross said his Independent Alliance would be representing Maurice McCabe’s views at the Cabinet table.
Lucky McCabe. Apparently, Shane had been in contact with the beleaguered garda sergeant. The transport minister didn’t physically beat a path to the McCabe home. But he was in telephone contact, and he was now taking it upon himself to be McCabe’s representative at the Cabinet table.
Ross has long considered himself to be the people’s champion, and this week there was no better cause to be championing for the people.
The sight and sound of politicians scrambling to identify with McCabe during the week must have elicited wry amusement in Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. That pair had travelled the hard yards with McCabe for nearly five years, while most others either gave the story a passing nod, or ignored it because it offered no electoral capital.
All that changed over the last nine days. The story has hit a chord with an appalled public, and therein lies thousands of floating voters, ready to be harvested.
Mary Lou McDonald was interviewed on RTÉ’s News at One on Tuesday about the unfolding affair. Four times in the relatively brief interview she referenced “Maurice”. The Cavan-based garda sounded like her Very Best Friend Forever.
Micheál Martin does know McCabe to a certain extent. They first met in 2014, but the sergeant had been more or less sanitised by that point. During the week, Martin came across as somebody who had stood shoulder to shoulder in the trenches with the cop, their friendships forged in the heat of battle.
Then there is Brendan Howlin. On RTÉ radio on Saturday, the Labour Party leader breathlessly revealed how he had had a “long conversation” with the garda that morning, and he related what McCabe and his family wanted done to address the horror that had been visited on them. He, the fearless Brendan, was going to carry their load.
Howlin’s grab for the reflected glow was probably the basest. He was in cabinet in 2013 when his then colleague, Alan Shatter, accused McCabe, and the sergeant’s then confederate John Wilson, of failing to co-operate with the internal Garda investigation into the penalty points scandal.
On October 1, 2013, Shatter said under Dail privilege: “Having engaged with members of this House, and published material, they didn’t co-operate with the garda investigation that took place.”
Very few in the Dail batted an eyelid as the sergeant and ex-guard were accused by the minister of justice of failing to comply with an internal investigation covered by garda rules. Whether intended or not, an impression was created that the complainants had acted mischievously in kicking up a din about a scandal and then withdrawing when an investigation was launched. None of it was true.
Where was Mr Howlin then? Six months later the tide was turning on McCabe’s public standing. On March 26, 2014, the day after the resignation of Martin Callinan, Shatter apologised, saying it had not been his intention to mislead the House or create any upset.
During that intervening period there wasn’t a peep out of Brendan Howlin, or other ministers, up until Leo Varadker’s declaration of support for the whistleblowers the week before Shatter’s apology.
For the last week or so, “Maurice” has been namechecked across the media, as politicians queued up to be associated with him in public. God knows with the cost of advertising today, who wouldn’t want to sidle up to a bit of free publicity.
I, for one, would have been saved a few sleepless nights if all these politicians had been so welcoming of McCabe and his tidings four years ago.
I knew McCabe back then. I had seen the evidence, met the victims of crime whose plight this turbulent cop was attempting to have addressed. Yet something wasn’t adding up. Why was there such little take-up on the story by politicians or media?
The scurrilous rumours about child sex abuse were out there being spread like manure. People didn’t have to believe the lies to shy away from McCabe. Why take a chance?
Why be associated with somebody who is discommoding the most powerful institution in the country if there is even the smallest chance that he turns out to be toxic? Why get involved in something that may see you targeted as Daly had been when she had been erroneously arrested, or Wallace had been live on TV when Shatter divulged an innocuous traffic incident he’d been involved in. Why bother?
In such an environment of indifference and febrile rumour, I was nagged by a feeling that despite all the evidence, despite McCabe’s obvious sound character, I was missing something that discredited his story.
One day in early 2014, I briefly found myself in the company of Conor Brady, the former editor of the Irish Times and former chair of the Garda Ombudsman Commission. We barely knew each other, but in the course of a conversation about the Garda controversies he asked had I met McCabe. “He’s an impressive guy,” said Brady. “A serious man who should be listened to.”
Brady had encountered the sergeant through his former role in GSOC. At that point I realised my doubts were unfounded. I was not crazy (well, not too crazy). Everything did make sense.
Three days after that encounter, Brady went on the This Week programme on RTÉ radio and said much the same thing in public. To my mind, that was a crucial moment in the tide of public opinion turning in relation to McCabe.
Brady, a sober and mainstream voice with an intimate knowledge of policing, wasn’t just saying that this cop was a credible person, as others had. He wasn’t just referencing the penalty points issue that had been highlighted by Wallace and Daly.
He was indicating that this was a man without baggage, a rare voice bearing the truth about the darker elements of Garda culture. For me, that confirmed what I’d thought I knew but had questioned because so many seemed not to want to know.
Maurice McCabe has done the State some major service. Just look up reports from the Garda Inspectorate, the public accounts committee, the Comptroller and Auditory General. Read the reports from Sean Guerin SC, or retired judge Kevin O’Higgins. Talk to the victims of crime in Cavan/Monaghan whom he ensured would receive justice.
Talk to 400 or so members of the Irish Road Victims Association, who rose to their feet to applaud McCabe at their annual function last November when he received an award for his work on road safety.
Maurice McCabe and his family have paid a terrible toll for his bravery and persistence.
It’s really terrific that so many politicians are now flocking to bask in his reflected glow. Pity it took so long.
Pity he and his loved ones had to endure so much pain until this day arrived.
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