Did dark forces try to silence Garda McCabe?
A cut-and-paste of criminal proportions; false allegations of child rape against a sergeant embarrassing his bosses; politicians running for cover - it all points to a scandal, says Gene Kerrigan
Could happen, I suppose. You're copying and pasting material within a child abuse file - we're not sure why that was happening, but let's see where this goes.
You're copying and pasting material within a child abuse file and you copy a couple of sentences. They are serious, distasteful words, about an adult digitally penetrating a young girl, vaginally and anally.
And what happens? Maybe your finger slips on the mouse as you move the cursor across the screen and whoops, the couple of sentences get away from you.
And you don't notice it happening.
It's probably happened to everyone who works with word processors.
But in this instance the sentences don't land on some inappropriate space in the file you've been working on, where they stand out as an error. Instead, they somehow land in a completely different file.
And there, they don't just land on some random spot, they land somewhere that - by sheer chance - appears to blend them into the narrative already recorded in this new file. The words aren't an obvious and inappropriate interloper - they somehow fit in.
The file goes to Tusla, the child protection agency. And the words that landed by chance in an unintended file fit in there so well that 16 months later someone from Tusla reads this file and contacts the person named within to inform them that they're under investigation for one of the most serious crimes in the book.
Possible, I suppose.
If true, we'll presumably have to reconsider a lot of child abuse cases - just to be sure that no other case involves a damning line or paragraph accidentally migrating from one file to another.
But that's not the end of it.
Of all the files in all the world, the stray words dropped into a file labelled Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
Previously, the McCabe file was deemed to involve an innocent man. It concerned a decade-old matter about which no action was considered appropriate. Now, however, the runaway words from the other file upgraded the McCabe file to one of child rape.
That's some series of mishaps.
And this Maurice McCabe, as it happens, is the guy who's become a pain in the neck for the Garda hierarchy. Such a pain that the then Garda Commissioner publicly described him as "disgusting". The stuff McCabe's been reporting involves the wrongful handling of everything from the Pulse system and penalty points to serious assaults and murder.
Word goes out.
The Garda whistleblower known throughout the country, says the whisper, turns out to be in the files of Tusla. And word spreads from cop to hack to politician and beyond. The air is full of whispers - we're not saying the force is perfect but, come on, have you heard about this guy McCabe? Tusla's had to open files on his kids, for God's sake.
And the explanation is ready: Look, some young guards messed up a bit on some serious cases, but that's been looked after - no need for anyone to make a fuss about any of it. Meanwhile, I'd be careful of yer man McCabe, if I was you. You're best not listening to anything he has to say.
We do not know if all of this calumny was verbal, or if the Tusla file was quietly shown to selected people. Certainly, its narrative was so convincing that it fooled a childcare professional - it would have been very handy for blackening McCabe's name.
But, let us for the moment accept the coincidences involved in accidentally upgrading a Tusla file. Because this is where things take an even stranger turn. This is where it goes from eyebrow-raising to pure WTF.
There now exists a file accusing Maurice McCabe of child rape. The man is a danger to children. He's also a Garda sergeant. He holds a position that gives him responsibility for and access to children in the rural town where he's stationed.
It's eight months before word of this development is sent to the Superintendent of the area where McCabe is stationed.
McCabe is not informed that he's now categorised as a serious child abuser, so serious that files have been opened on his children.
He's not questioned.
He's not relieved of his position of responsibility until such time as the authorities are satisfied he isn't a threat to children.
It appears that a Tusla notation of a child rape allegation has no effect on one's career, even if one is a Garda sergeant.
One other odd thing.
When the word spread about McCabe, blackening his name, it had to have reached the highest circles of the force (leaving aside the allegation that the word came down from senior circles).
Now, imagine you're a senior Garda. This McCabe guy has been a real problem - to your eyes he's been disloyal, portraying the force as dysfunctional. If only we had something on him, something that would close him down while we get on with the job.
They now had something on him, albeit a false accusation of child rape. All that had to happen was that the normal investigatory procedure be followed, with McCabe arrested and questioned. A whisper to an obliging reporter would ensure McCabe would be publicly neutered.
Instead, they apparently turned the other cheek.
It's almost as though someone knew that Sergeant McCabe's name had been wrongfully blackened.
By now, the politicians were involved. And, for decades politicians have found involvement with complaints against the Garda force to be toxic. They prefer to keep such matters at a distance.
And the culture of 'blue glue', inculcated in training, where gardai stick together regardless of right or wrong, renders the innocent civilian helpless.
In the old days there was much talk of heavy gangs and beatings. Since these accusations usually came from Provos and the like, anyone raising questions about such matters was deemed a fellow traveller. Politicians kept their eyes averted, accepting that the bruises came from suspects falling down steps.
An exception was Conor Cruise O'Brien, a minister in the 1970s. Twenty years later he wrote of how a garda told him, when he was in office, about how he "beat the shit" out of a suspect. "It didn't worry me," O'Brien admitted.
Though the paramilitary aspect receded eventually, the incidences of garda misbehaviour continued - as did the reluctance of politicians to do anything about them.
Up in Donegal, the police tried to frame Frank McBrearty for a murder that never happened. They framed Frank Shortt for allegedly allowing drugs to be sold in his nightclub. Shortt went to jail for three years and his health was shattered. He refused early release, as it would require him to admit to something he hadn't done. He and his lawyers eventually proved his innocence. He got almost two million in compensation and launched an appeal - the appeal court doubled the award.
The litany of dodgy major cases has been mirrored in a stream of lesser cases, where the State usually pays off the claimant.
Frank Shortt's treatment was described by a judge as "a shocking abuse of power on the part of two Garda officers, namely a Superintendent and a Detective Garda. They both engaged in a conspiracy to concoct false evidence against the plaintiff which, in turn, resulted in perjured Garda evidence being given at his trial".
Despite his experiences, Shortt refused to regard all gardai as being as dishonourable as those who wrecked his life. He treated gardai as he found them - decent or flawed, according to the evidence; which would be a good starting point for the rest of us, particularly the politicians.
The failure of the political establishment to acknowledge that gardai are human and require effective oversight means that overwhelming evidence is required before the average politician will get off the fence. And whenever anyone dares speak or write critically about the police they are answered with references to those gardai who were murdered or gravely injured in the line of duty.
It's as though, even after they've given their all, gardai who sacrificed their lives could once more be pressed into service to excuse the inexcusable.
If those who question garda behaviour are regarded as malcontents, true revulsion is reserved for the garda who puts truth before loyalty. So it was with Sergeant Maurice McCabe and Garda John Wilson, publicly denounced by their Commissioner.
When McCabe first complained of an abuse of penalty points, he was banned from using the Pulse system, which effectively stopped him functioning as a garda. As ever, the official response was not "Is this true, and if so, what should follow?" The 'blue glue' culture demanded outright suppression of dissent.
McCabe didn't back down. He pursued the path of duty, even though the obstacles piled up.
The difference with this case and all that went before was twofold: One, McCabe was simply hard to stop. He kept at it, regardless of the obstacles.
Two, the election in 2011 of a number of left-wing TDs. Clare Daly and Mick Wallace were among those who dealt with such issues as they might deal with any complaint - without prejudice.
The persistence of Daly and Wallace and others kept the McCabe and Wilson case in the public eye - it became impossible to kill it by ignoring it.
Complaints against gardai should, of course, be dealt with simply. Follow the evidence as far as it stands up. If the evidence doesn't exist or isn't convincing, reject the allegations.
Instead, politicians have traditionally automatically deemed complaints to be ill-founded.
Even as the whistleblower case was being pursued through the Dail, the underground campaign to blacken McCabe continued. This time, the fact that the case was fought in the Oireachtas, before an Oireachtas committee and in the media, meant it was judged on its merits.
Eventually, Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan resigned.
That was in May 2014.
Which brings us back to that copy-and-paste error.
In that same period in which the McCabe affair concluded in public, with two high-profile resignations, the accusation of child rape was withdrawn.
It was a mistake, Tusla was told. There was a copy-and-paste error. There was never any evidence of digital penetration, vaginally and anally. That was from another case, and it was an accident that it got into the file of Maurice McCabe, a wholly innocent man.
Had the file been scrapped, we'd have heard nothing of the child rape allegation. But the file remained in Tusla and in December 2015 a social worker - who seems to have been ignorant of the fact that the rape accusation had been withdrawn - wrote to McCabe, informing him he was the subject of an investigation.
McCabe was shocked. His lawyer responded, McCabe and his wife followed up and a few weeks ago Children and Youth Affairs Minister Katherine Zappone met the McCabes.
Last week, one staggering revelation followed another, via the work of journalists Katie Hannon and Mick Clifford, and once again we were being taken aback by things that we were never meant to see.
Even accepting that Brendan Howlin's motives were sound, his handling of the matter was clumsy - a journalist handling things so badly would be in trouble. His actions spilled the sex abuse charge into the public eye.
Even now, the politicians seem to be dancing around the facts.
Zappone told the "relevant ministers" about unfolding events. And, no, she wouldn't say who she'd told.
Then it turned out she hadn't told anyone, even when the Cabinet was discussing the matter. It would have been inappropriate, she said, "to brief the Cabinet on confidential, highly sensitive and personal information".
Except, the fact that Maurice McCabe had been entered in official documents as a child rapist was not 'personal' information. It was untrue; it was a false blackening of his name, therefore a matter of public importance, and the Cabinet should have been informed.
The media asked: "What did Zappone know and when did she know it?" And something similar was demanded about the Taoiseach - valid questions, but beside the point.
Yes, the political handing of this has been inept - no one wants to touch these things, no politician ever has. Much better to stare into the far distance and hope they go away - look what happened to Alan Shatter.
Some of us could think of reasons why Shatter should have resigned, but none of them have anything to do with the way in which he was forced out. As for the resignation of the Garda Commissioner and the extraordinary behaviour of Taoiseach Enda Kenny - politicians want to forget such matters.
All of these political manoeuvres are beside the point - they're all to do with politicians covering their backsides.
The point is who was involved in the attempt to destroy Maurice McCabe's reputation, and thereby eliminate a troublesome garda who took his duties seriously?
That is the important point because we need a police force that is amenable to the democratic structures. A police force that rejects oversight, that rejects the efforts of sincere officers to expose failings in the force becomes a danger to us all.
Some have asked themselves in the past week: if this could be done to an experienced Garda sergeant with a proven record of public service, what might be done to any citizen by gardai knowing they have nothing to fear from within the force?
What might be done to the teenager stopped on a dark street, to the citizen unhappy with the response to a request, to anyone with a justified complaint about garda behaviour?
In 2014, the Government had an opportunity to bring in an outsider who could deal fairly and fearlessly with the force. Instead, it chose as the new Commissioner the officer who sat beside Martin Callinan as he denounced McCabe and Wilson as "disgusting".
Perhaps the Government feared revolt within the ranks if one of their own wasn't given the job - in which case it was even more important not to give in to the dangerous loyalty-before-truth brigade.
A police force demands great effort from its members - not least an understanding that with the powers necessary to police a society comes the responsibility to be answerable to that society.