We have, inevitably but almost without noticing it, reached an extraordinarily dangerous point.
It is not an exaggeration to argue that the legitimacy of our public administration is at stake. Neither is it an exaggeration to suggest that unless two pressing controversies are resolved quickly, openly and in a credible way the authority entrusted to State agencies will come into question.
Two important arms of the State are under investigation because of courageous whistleblowers. One set of allegations is unprecedented and chilling, the other familiar but nevertheless horrendous.
The allegations of a smear campaign orchestrated at the highest levels of An Garda Síochána against Sgt Maurice McCabe are a cause of deep concern. If confirmed they must provoke a response far beyond anything seen since Jack Lynch sacked two ministers — Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney — over allegations of arms smuggling in 1970.
The smear allegations have already had an negative impact; garda morale is ebbing almost as quickly as public confidence in the force fades. This disabling spiral cannot continue.
Mr Justice Peter Charleton faces an onerous, once-in-a-generation task as his investigation will lead to conclusions that will either endorse the integrity of a considerable rump of the garda officer class or make it impossible to pretend that fiddling at the edges of the culture that has been so publicly challenged is an adequate response.
If those allegations, or even a portion of them, are confirmed, kicking the infamous can down the road will not be an option.
The allegations facing HSE administrators, some of which the agency has accepted as accurate, involve the gardaí in a peripheral but important way. Gardaí were used unwittingly as shields against legitimate questioning.
Nevertheless, the controversy around how “Grace” was abandoned to her appalling fate springs from the same culture; one where accountability is not recognised as an obligation but rather an ignorable intrusion that tries to challenge a well-established, deeply-embedded culture of corporate and personal self-preservation.
How else did all the discredited ballyhoo about not being able to publish a 2012 report into Grace’s abandonment because of an imagined garda investigation get such traction?
Those who failed “Grace”, if they are still within the HSE orbit, must face whatever passes for sanction in our public service — suspended for a year on full pay maybe — but those who generated such a distracting, dishonest fog must face sanction too. After all they dishonestly tried to deflect legitimate questions about the performance of a public body.
These challenges come as Government’s capacity is compromised by its weak Dáil position. That we are in an unofficial interregnum as Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s leadership plays out exacerbates that weakness.
Brexit, President Trump’s tax plans and the Stormont election all add pressure. Despite all of those issues, establishing and celebrating a culture of accountability in our public affairs must be a priority. We cannot afford to avoid this obligation again.
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