Sunday 24 September 2017

Justice Minister refuses three times to fully back O'Sullivan

Garda Sergeants and Inspectors taking part in the AGSI protest at Govenment Buildings. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Garda Sergeants and Inspectors taking part in the AGSI protest at Govenment Buildings. Photo: Steve Humphreys

John Downing and Tom Brady

Frances Fitzgerald refused three times last night to express full confidence in Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan.

Commissioner O'Sullivan remained under pressure to explain differences in her public and private stance on whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe on foot of revelations yesterday, leading to calls for a fuller explanation from the garda boss.

The Justice Minister would not give a 'yes' or 'no' answer when asked three times on RTÉ's 'Prime Time' last night if she had full confidence in the Garda Commissioner. However, a spokesman insisted after the programme that Ms Fitzgerald did, in fact, back Ms O'Sullivan.

Legal documents seen by the Irish Independent show that lawyers for the Garda Commissioner were instructed to challenge the "motivation and credibility" of Sgt McCabe on his allegations of corruption against five senior officers.

It is also clear that the Commissioner did not accuse Sgt McCabe of "malice" in making his allegations - which were otherwise largely upheld by a Commission of Inquiry headed by Mr Justice Kevin O'Higgins.

Ms Fitzgerald said all the evidence she had was that Commissioner O'Sullivan was trying to advance "cultural change" in the force.

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan

Asked whether that was "yes or no", the Minister said: "That is a 'yes' in terms of her leadership of An Garda Síochána."

Minister Fitzgerald said she could not possibly comment on new documents which came to light yesterday. She said these were partial, and it was impossible to judge their context in light of an inquiry which heard from 97 witnesses, and led to a 360-page report which made no reference to the cited documents.

Asked whether she could express confidence in the Commissioner, if the documents proved to be true and in keeping with the report, the Minister said she could not answer such a question.

Her spokesman later tried to clarify the remarks: "What she was trying to do was give a fuller context on what was happening."

The stance adopted by Commissioner O'Sullivan was heavily criticised during heated Dáil exchanges on the issue. Some deputies questioned whether Commissioner O'Sullivan's stance during the investigations was consistent with her recent praise for the whistleblower and her endorsement of the report findings.

Fianna Fáil last night said that Ms O'Sullivan must make a full statement clarifying the issue, while Labour said the new Policing Authority may yet have to deal with the apparent contradictions.

Fianna Fáil welcomed clarification that Ms O'Sullivan's lawyers withdrew allegations of "malice" - but pointed to concerns about potential differences in public and private statements and said consideration should be given to publishing full transcripts of evidence.

Whistleblowers

Earlier, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Sgt McCabe "felt he was the person on trial" during "adversarial exchanges" at the Commission of Inquiry.

"It's a very serious matter. It cuts to the heart of how whistleblowers are treated," the Fianna Fáil leader said.

Mr Martin and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams challenged Minister Fitzgerald to speak to Commissioner O'Sullivan (below) and have her specifically deal with this issue.

Commissioner O'Sullivan was heavily criticised by Independent TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace.

"She's still not rowing back on challenging his motivation or his credibility. Who in God's name would be a whistleblower?" Mr Wallace asked in the Dáil.

Ms Daly said key questions were not going to go away.

"The issue is that the Garda Commissioner's legal team, allegedly on her instruction, attempted to deliberately mislead the commission by entering false information to challenge the motivation and credibility of Maurice McCabe.

"The fact that legal counsel have come out and said the idea to challenge his integrity was their idea and not the Commissioner's doesn't make it any different. It is reminiscent of former Minister Shatter throwing Oliver Connolly under the bus," she told the Dáil.

"The Commission was also told that two gardaí would give direct evidence that Maurice McCabe was present at a meeting and said that he operated under malice. It was only when irrefutable evidence was presented showing that was false, that allegation was withdrawn," Ms Daly added.

"There is now an immediate crisis of trust and confidence in the Garda Commissioner. Public statements of her supporting whistleblowers have been contradicted by her actions behind the scenes. It is time for this commissioner to go and unless you act, she's going to take you with her," Ms Daly said.

The whistleblower subsequently withdrew all of his corruption allegations against the officers, except against former commissioner Martin Callinan, although he was invited to do so by Mr Justice Kevin O'Higgins.

In his report published last week, Judge O'Higgins found there was no evidence to support the allegations against Mr Callinan.

Sources told the Irish Independent last night that a transcript of the exchanges between Judge O'Higgins and counsel for Ms O'Sullivan clarified the confusion over the use of the word "malice".

Ms O'Sullivan's senior counsel Colm Smyth said his instructions at all times were to "challenge the motivation and credibility" of Sgt McCabe in relation to the corruption allegations.

Integrity

Mr Smyth acknowledged that it was an error on his part when he had said earlier his instructions had been to challenge Sgt McCabe's integrity.

He told the judge that the Commissioner was challenging his motivation and credibility in relation to the corruption and malpractice allegations.

He said the Commissioner had a duty of care to all gardaí.

"On the one hand she has Sgt McCabe, who she has a concern for and his welfare and on the other hand, she has a concern for the superintendents, who are under her control and she has to hold the balance," her lawyer said.

Mr Smyth told Judge O'Higgins he had never claimed Sgt McCabe was motivated by malice and "never used the words mala fides".

Irish Independent

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