The Charleton Inquiry - Any delay in report will add to crisis

THE imperative of staunching the flow of An Garda Síochána’s haemorrhaging credibility has become a career-defining challenge for even the most secure, assured and well-supported individual. 

Or at least it did. Allegations, made under Dáil protection by Labour leader Brendan Howlin, that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan played a hands-on role in black-ops to dishonestly discredit Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, have cast that net far, far wider.

Those who appointed Ms O’Sullivan and supported her through earlier difficult moments will surely be caught up in the whirlwind despite yesterday afternoon’s entirely appropriate reminder from Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald that “an allegation is not a conviction”.

If Ms O’Sullivan’s forceful rejection of Mr Howlin’s spine-chilling charge is not corroborated in clear, robust terms by Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Peter Charleton, who will investigate the matter, then a number of careers will end in ignominy or maybe worse.

The charges are so sharp, so very threatening to the institutional trust, the conduit through which our police secure their mandate and authority, that it is hard to imagine that anything short of sweeping changes in senior personnel and culture might ensue.

Those changes might hardly end in the Phoenix Park but would surely reach the Department of Justice.

They may go even further.

Unless Mr Justice Charleton can, preferably before year’s end, publish a report that clearly says that Ms O’Sullivan’s version of events is an unquestionably accurate record then we will have reached that hackneyed but salient state of affairs depicted by Lord Denning nearly 40 years ago when he described the suggestion that West Midlands Police had lied about injuries inflicted on the Birmingham Six while they were in custody as “an appalling vista”.

Even though Ms O’Sullivan has rejected the accusation with considerable assertiveness the charge that the senior police office in this Republic deliberately, consciously lied to a journalist working for our national broadcaster to serve the dishonest, dishonourable end of sidelining a difficult but honest whistleblower means that even that highwater mark — the GUBU Scale — must be revised.

These concerns — it’s too early to call them anything more concrete — carry weight as Mr Howlin has a very credible record in these matters.

He has made allegations before that were, on first hearing, dismissed but later vindicated.

It is more than likely that Mr Charleton’s inquiry will try to interview the journalist who informed Mr Howlin.

That will renew the debate about journalists’ right not to identify sources.

As was seen just last week in the Kerins case these conventions — regarded as a right by journalists but not by our courts — should be honoured.

At this moment we have the worst of all worlds — toxic suspicion that will corrode until it is dismissed or confirmed.

Mr Charleton carries a heavy responsibility and he must quickly complete an authoritative report.

As we saw from yesterday’s further damaging and unpleasant allegations the train is leaving the station.

Rapid action is needed before this gets out of control.

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