Walter Scott’s admonishment — “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!” — perfectly describes just one layer of the now runaway McCabe scandal.
It does not capture the full price we pay for tolerating a society-wide culture that is at best secretive, is routinely evasive, but, at its worst, turns a blind eye to the dishonesty that perpetuates dysfunction and failure in public life.
Sgt Maurice McCabe spoke to that sleazy culture yesterday when he called for a public inquiry rather than the behind-closed-doors one proposed. He said he and his family had been “systemically attacked by a number of state agencies” and that his family had been “the subject of a long and sustained campaign to destroy its character”.
There could hardly be more serious allegations made against state agencies and, if proven, they should be recognised as acts of sedition against this democracy. If Sgt McCabe’s charges are vindicated, the consequences will be seismic, career ending and probably lead to criminal prosecutions.
Most pertinently, Sgt McCabe showed he had learnt history’s lessons when he dismissed the proposed inquiry because that would mean a secret investigation. He, after all, had his motives challenged by the garda legal team at an earlier inquiry held behind closed doors.
Sgt McCabe is right to demand a public inquiry. The skeletons dragged from the darkest cupboards over the last week demand the truth be established in a public forum.
The institutions of the State — and this is no reflection on Mr Justice Peter Charleton who has yet to begin his work — are so discredited, so open to question that anything less would not be convincing. The appalling charges demand nothing less if we are to make even a passing nod towards the principle of transparency in public affairs.
The scandal has escalated and is no longer a policing or justice issue. Consider the impact it is having on government capacity and energy.
Unknown Brexit threats; an imploding health service; the likelihood that President Trump’s policies will hit our economy, and a Stormont election provoked by the hatreds that fuelled decades of terrorism will get less attention than they demand. At the highest levels, government’s decision-making is compromised, if not on hold.
This morning those issues are framed in a shifting political reality, one tottering towards an election. That possibility diminishes Government’s options and certainly reorders its priorities. Weekend polls showing Fine Gael on 21% and Fianna Fáil on 32% exacerbate that reordering and reenergise a distracting subplot — Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s leadership and the appetite those who would succeed him might have for a mano a mano challenge.
The diametrically opposed versions of a Leinster House conversation between Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan seem the issue most likely to end the arrangements sustaining the Government.
Mrs Fitzgerald’s and Mr O’Callaghan’s recollections are irreconcilable; one must be wrong. Mr O’Callaghan has warned that unless a way forward can be found, the Government would collapse this week. Both he and Ms Fitzgerald will expect the full support of their leader which makes conflict inevitable.
Despite the shocking revelations, there is something even more disconcerting about official Ireland’s response, a concern underlined by Sgt McCabe’s call for a public hearing. A commission of inquiry has limited powers and no power of sanction. Its conclusions cannot be used as evidence and, most importantly, inquiry findings are easily ignored.
Sadly, and challengingly, inaction on the findings of some earlier inquiries, private or public, has occasionally rendered those reports, and possibly that process meaningless. Equally, these get-today’s-crisis-off-the-agenda inquiries perfectly symbolise our relationship with the idea that dishonesty destroys the better Angels of our nature and the society that sustains us all.
Sgt McCabe’s call yesterday afternoon was informed by that understanding. He should have a public inquiry, it is the very least fairness demands — especially as a public hearing would serve honesty and all of our interests.
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