Annoying, maybe, but whistleblowers provide essential service

IF Garda Sgt Maurice McCabe had been a docile, compliant and fearful member of An Garda Síochána, his complaints about malpractice within the force would never have come to light. It was his resilience, courage and, above all, his turbulent persistence that assured his observations gained the oxygen of publicity required to expose shortcomings within the organisation.

Whistleblowers can be annoying, interfering and irritating in the extreme, but they play a huge and valued role in society. Without them, we would not be able to exercise fully the checks and balances that democracy requires. Without them, we would dwell in a complacent veil of ignorance and apathy. Without them, we would not be able to investigate, let alone challenge, our institutions of government or, in this instance, how our ‘Guardians of the Peace’ force operates.

Sgt McCabe, along with his colleague Superintendent David Taylor who made a protected disclosure on alleged attempts to discredit McCabe, have been vilified for daring to upset the apple cart. That – more often than not – is the fate of whistleblowers. Most are, at first, ignored or their allegations discounted. If that doesn’t work they face being discredited.

The controversy concerning the Air Corps is a case in point. Government chief whip Regina Doherty passed an Air Corps whistleblower’s requests for contact with former Defence Minister Simon Coveney on to her Cabinet colleague last year. However, Mr Coveney, who since moved to the housing ministry, claims he was unaware of such requests.

The issue, therefore, is what did Mr Coveney know and when did he know it? The divergence between his response and that of Chief Whip Doherty highlights significant inconsistencies in the Government’s account of how it managed the warnings it received relating to concerns for Air Corps technicians’ health.

The issue at stake is, literally, a matter of life and death. As the Irish Examiner recently revealed, the Health and Safety Authority threatened to prosecute the Air Corps unless it introduced a number of improvements in how it manages its employees’ exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. This warning came almost a year after Mr Coveney had received protected disclosures advising him of the potentially dangerous working conditions at Casement Aerodrome in Dublin.

Mr Coveney – the Golden Boy of Fine Gael and tipped as a future Taoiseach – is usually loquacious but he remains tightlipped on this issue and needs to be more revelatory than he is. So far, his spokesman has said the minister had received legal advice “not to make himself available to meet with” the whistleblowers. Neither was he prepared to respond to queries as to how he could be unaware of their requests to speak with him in light of Ms Doherty’s text messages.

His refusal to engage fully with efforts to provide the public with a full account of what happened sits uncomfortably on a day when attempts were being made to penetrate the shroud of secrecy surrounding allegations about the Garda Síochána made by Sgt McCabe and Supt Taylor.

There is now the hope of progress in that case as the Government yesterday outlined the terms of reference for the Commission of Investigation established to investigate allegations that there was an organised campaign against whistleblowers at the highest levels of the Garda.

The terms of reference are wideranging. Not only will it examine records of all mobile phone use by Supt Taylor, former commissioner Callinan, and Commissioner O’Sullivan over the relevant period, the commission will also have an unusually broad remit to investigate matters it considers relevant.

The terms of reference state that the commission “shall have discretion in relation to the scope of the investigation it considers necessary and appropriate to achieve the general objective of the investigation”. That isn’t quite carte blanche to investigate – but it’s close and should ensure that a more complete picture will emerge.

Whistleblowers are like fire alarms – a nuisance if the toast is burning but essential if the house is on fire.

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