News Analysis

Saturday 30 August 2014

How speculation over celebrity favours mushroomed into a full-blown crisis for Coalition

Shane Phelan

Published 25/03/2014 | 02:30

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Main: Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Brussels on Friday. Inset: Transport Minister Leo Varadkar (left) and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan arriving for the Dail Public Accounts meeting at Leinster House yesterday.Pic Tom Burke 23/1/14
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan

WHEN the Irish Independent broke the garda penalty points story in November 2012, it was scarcely imaginable that the unfolding controversy could end up threatening the stability of the Government.

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Don't get me wrong, the headline – Garda 'let drivers off penalty points, including sports star' – caused quite a few ripples.

But it was nothing compared with the tsunami of recent months.

Indeed, when the article was published, the general public seemed more interested in speculating about which high-profile figures had points wiped than in the potential that the system was open to widespread abuse by gardai.

Both security editor Tom Brady and myself, who wrote the story, were inundated with enquiries about who the sports star, the television personality and the judges mentioned in our report might be.

At that early stage in the controversy, nobody seemed to care that there might be a systematic problem. The common assumption was that "a few strokes" had been pulled to spare well-known people penalty points or the embarrassment of a court appearance.

At the time, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan appeared to be doing a good job dealing with the issue and, after an initial flurry, public interest died down.

Mr Callinan had already set up an inquiry, led by Assistant Commissioner John O'Mahony, even before our story appeared.

It, we were told, had zeroed in on a few errant inspectors and superintendents who were not doing things by the book. There was no evidence of widespread corruption, and in several instances allegations did not stand up to scrutiny.

However, not everyone was convinced with the findings of the investigative report when it was published in May of last year.

Least of all Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, who privately raised questions about its "thoroughness". The minister felt the report did not reflect what he himself had seen in the whistleblower dossier.

He pushed for the matter to be investigated by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission, but his cabinet colleague, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, didn't feel the same way.

Road Safety Authority chairman Gay Byrne was also alarmed that neither of the two whistleblowers who had come forward were interviewed by the O'Mahony inquiry.

The whistleblowers, for their part, refused to let the matter rest, continuing to agitate and campaign behind the scenes.

Independent TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace kept the issue alive on the floor of the Dail, much to the discomfort of Mr Shatter.

Most crucially, the chairman of the Dail's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), John McGuinness, took an interest in the issue.

His committee invited Mr Callinan in to answer questions and it is fair to say the hearing did not go well for the Garda Commissioner.

Mr Callinan's choice of words on several occasions was somewhat unfortunate. Phrases such as "my force" and "I cannot be usurped by subordinates" did not play well with the public gallery.

Two points he made that day in particular have haunted him since.

The first was his insistence that one of the whistleblowers, Sgt Maurice McCabe, refused to cooperate with the O'Mahony inquiry – a point bitterly disputed by Sgt McCabe.

The second was his use of the term "quite disgusting" to describe the behaviour of the whistleblowers in downloading and distributing large amounts of material from the Garda Pulse computer system.

Sgt McCabe also had his day before the PAC, albeit in private. Afterwards he was widely described by committee members as "credible".

Earlier this month, the head of the Garda Inspectorate, Bob Olson, also said he found Sgt McCabe to be credible when it came to information he provided about the fixed-charge processing system.

By this point Mr Varadkar had clearly had enough. His concerns, he felt, had largely been ignored by Mr Shatter and Mr Callinan.

So he used a road safety event, attended by relatives of people who had lost their lives in traffic accidents, as an opportunity to describe the whistleblowers as "distinguished" and call on Mr Callinan to withdraw the "disgusting" remark.

Four Labour ministers quickly rowed in behind him while Mr Varadkar's Fine Gael colleagues have stayed silent. Mr Callinan has remained unmoved by the criticism of his comments and insists he will not apologise.

The scene is now set for what could be a lengthy and fractious Cabinet meeting today.

Labour will stop short of looking for the commissioner's head, but it may take the establishment of a new garda oversight body before they are satisfied and the crisis in government is averted.

Irish Independent

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