MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Strange tale of Shatter and whistleblower

I’LL tell you something, Maurice — and this is just personal advice to you — if Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished.” So went a line read into the record of the Dáil last Wednesday by Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin.

The line was taken from what Martin said was the transcript of a conversation between garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, and a Mr Oliver Connolly, who was appointed to receive information from garda whistleblowers. Connolly is the holder of the office known as the ‘confidential recipient’.

This office was set up in the wake of the Morris Tribunal into garda corruption in Donegal. It was designed to be a route through which officers who had concerns about malpractice or corruption in the force could make their complaints, secure in the knowledge that their identity would be protected. Connolly was appointed by Shatter in 2011. In a previous election campaign, Connolly contributed €1,000 to Shatter’s campaign fund.

Enda Kenny has ordered an investigation into the transcript. Three TDs have now related lines under privilege from what they say is the transcript. Mick Wallace did so on February 5, with Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins adding to that last Tuesday, followed by Martin.

The veracity or otherwise of the transcript has yet to be established. But the line above is typical of what has been revealed. Wallace related another line of similar character, alleging that it was also spoken by Connolly. “If Shatter thinks ‘here’s this guy again, trying another route, trying to put on pressure’, he’ll go after you“.

Wallace added his own lines: “He’ll go after you? Our minister for justice? What is going on?”

Last Tuesday, when faced with Collins contribution, Shatter told the Dáil he never threatened anybody. However, if the transcript is a true and accurate account of the alleged conversation, what it does reveal is that Shatter’s acquaintance was offering an opinion of how Shatter would react in a particular situation.

Irrespective of what Connolly may or may not have said, it’s worth examining how Shatter conducted himself in relation to the whistleblower.

The conversation between McCabe and Connolly is alleged to have taken place on February 9, 2012. Later that year, McCabe attempted to bring abuses in the penalty points system to the attention of the minister for justice and the Taoiseach. He had no luck.

Then he approached a number of independent TDs, as he was legally entitled — arguably obliged — to do. They publicised the complaints, and, under pressure, Shatter ordered an internal garda inquiry in November 2012.

From that moment on Shatter gave little or no solace to McCabe the whistleblower, who was putting his career on the line.

In December 2012, Shatter received an interim report on the investigation into the whistleblowers’ allegations. (McCabe’s former colleague John Wilson had also complained). Shatter inferred it all could be a ball of smoke. He made reference to cases such as “a young child being taken on an emergency basis (to hospital)”. At the time such excuses were being widely for cancelling penalty points. Since the controversy blew up, the health of the nation’s children has improved immeasurably.

On publication of the O’Mahoney internal garda report, that largely vindicated operation of the penalty points system, Shatter had another go at McCabe and Wilson.

“Whistleblowers also have responsibilities. Their concerns must be real and genuine, and based on evidence rather than conjecture, especially when the allegations made are of widespread criminality in the authority responsible for enforcing the law and are therefore such as to be likely to undermine trust in and respect for that authority. They should also be mindful of the rights of others.”

The publication of a report into the same issue by the Comptroller and Auditor General in September last year to a large extent disputed the O’Mahoney report and substantiated the whistleblowers’ allegations. Yet Shatter has never revised his apparent appraisal of the character and motives of the whistleblowers.

Just before the O’Mahoney report was published, McCabe wrote to Mr Kenny, pointing out that he hadn’t even been interviewed by O’Mahoney’s team: “I have serious concerns regarding not being contacted or interviewed regarding my allegations,” the sergeant wrote to Enda Kenny.

“It would appear that the investigation is complete and if this is the case it’s a shocking development. One would have imagined that I would be one of the first to be interviewed.”

Kenny’s office passed the letter onto Shatter, who responded on April 30: “The conduct of the investigation is an operational matter for the Garda authorities. It would not, therefore, be appropriate for me to comment on whether Sgt McCabe was contacted or interviewed in the course of the investigation.”

Yet, on October 1, Shatter told the Dáil that the whistleblowers “did not co-operate with the garda investigation that took place”. He was aware that McCabe was highly agitated that he hadn’t been contacted by the investigation team, yet here he was alleging that McCabe hadn’t co-operated. If Shatter wasn’t “going after” the whistleblower, he was doing a great impression of same, and misleading the Dáil into the bargain.

It didn’t stop there. When McCabe, in frustration, brought his complaints to the Public Accounts Committee, Shatter moved to try and stop the sergeant giving evidence to the committee. Three days before McCabe’s scheduled appearance, Shatter announced that the Garda Ombudsman Commission would now be investigating the penalty points issue. The ruse didn’t work and McCabe was invited in to give his evidence in private.

Back in June 2011, when he was appointing Connolly to the office of confidential recipient, Shatter pledged his fidelity to the concept of whistleblowing.

“Any member or civilian employee of An Garda Síochána who wishes to report in confidence about corruption and malpractice can be assured that any such report will be taken seriously and extensive protection will be given to him or her.”

How does that sit with the minister’s barely concealed contempt for whistleblowers over the last year? Again, it must be emphasised that the transcript read into the Dáil has not been verified. It may not be an account of a conversation between Oliver Connolly and Maurice McCabe. But one way or the other, there is no doubt but that the minister for justice did precious little to protect or defend a whistleblower in the force, whose allegations have in time been shown to have a large degree of substance.

The whole affair has eerie echoes with the controversy between Shatter and GSOC. Whenever GSOC came into conflict with senior garda management, Shatter came down on the latter’s side. When the whistleblower’s allegations quite obviously discommoded senior garda management, Shatter also made plain whose side he was on.

That approach by a minister would have been standard fare in the middle decades of the last century. Since then, notions of democratic norms, and civil and human rights, have greatly evolved, particularly in relation to policing. We are all supposed to have moved on. Some, quite obviously, haven’t.

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