Park the apology call, and sort out penalty points controversy
Colum Kenny wonders how the garda commissioner and his political master can ride out the storm over whistleblowers
When Sergeant Maurice McCabe ran into a brick wall about penalty points, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar met him last May and gave him heart. So Varadkar was consistent last week in calling the garda whistleblowers “distinguished”.
Delegates at a road safety conference applauded his words.
Cynics claim that he spoke as he did because the penalty points affair is damaging his Government.
But Varadkar found McCabe credible when they met, and as Minister for Transport he is concerned about the safety implications of letting people off penalty points.
His strong intervention, when he also said that Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan should withdraw his description of whistleblowers’ actions as “disgusting”, put him at odds with his party and cabinet colleague, Alan Shatter. On this issue Varadkar has seemed more reformist than a Minister for Justice who prides himself on law reform, and more radical than the Labour Party.
Labour ministers and deputies were scrambling last week to get onside with public opinion. But their promises of future reform will not erase what went wrong. As ministers divide, how can both Callinan and Shatter ride out this storm?
The Government might like a scapegoat for its mishandling of whistleblower complaints. But there is no reason why Commissioner Callinan should withdraw remarks that he honestly made. It would be an insincere gesture.
Callinan is a loyal policeman. He feels that the whistleblowers handled their complaints wrongly and he was entitled or even obliged to say so when asked by an Oireachtas committee. He was likewise ostensibly obliged by the Garda Act to give Minister Shatter confidential information about Deputy Mick Wallace.
If he resigns it should be because of failures in the penalty points system and not because of something he said. How others acted on his words is their responsibility.
What Callinan said in January at the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was clear and honest. He can hardly withdraw it while remaining credible. Why humiliate himself to save face for ministers?
What he said was: “. . . we have two people, out of a force of over 13,000, who are making extraordinary and serious allegations. There is not a whisper anywhere else or from any other member of the Garda Siochana, however, about this corruption, malpractice and other charges levelled against their fellow officers. Frankly, on a personal level I think it is quite disgusting.”
Mary Lou McDonald challenged him: “It is a strong thing to say
that they have carried themselves in a manner that is disgusting.”
Callinan replied: “Correct. In the context of the manner in which they decided to pursue what they are pursuing, that is definitely something that I cannot accept at any level.”
McDonald came back: “I am also aware that the individuals concerned claim they were isolated in their workplaces.
“They felt they were victimised to whatever extent. One of them subsequently left the service of An Garda Siochana.
“Does the commissioner not accept it would be difficult for them to hear him use a word like ‘disgusting’ to describe their behaviour?”
Callinan answered: “There are live actions in the High Court in respect of these two people [the whistleblowers]. I am not going to enter into that province because I will have an opportunity to air my particular views in the context of what the deputy is now putting forward in the courts. That is where I intend to. . .”
McDonald intervened: “That is all right but it was the commissioner and not I who offered up the term ‘disgusting’. I am simply saying that is a strong term.”
Callinan did not budge: “I agreed with the deputy that it is a strong term. It reflects my view.”
Callinan has a police force to run, and serious crime to tackle. He does not want gardai going public. Government ministers, even Leo Varadkar, continue to express confidence in him. Last week, Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes backed Callinan’s efforts to protect private information from improper disclosure. But Hawkes also acknowledged the right of whistleblowers to base complaints of garda malpractice appropriately on garda data.
The Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Garda Inspectorate have each heavily criticised garda management and operations of the penalty points system.
On January 27, Shatter asked the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) also to investigate allegations about penalty points. Last week Sergeant McCabe formally offered to meet GSOC if they want that.
Last week, Minister Pat Rabbitte indicated that he cannot understand how Shatter accused the whistleblowers of not co-operating with internal garda inquiries into the affair. Varadkar was asked, in the context of the commissioner’s “disgusting” remark, if the whistleblowers deserve an apology. He replied: “There is no point in making an insincere apology.”
But any apology will be sincere only if it comes with a clear determination to get to the bottom of outstanding issues, including the failure to serve a large number of summonses in respect of various offences. At that same PAC meeting, Fine Gael TD John Deasy asked Callinan if he had come across any evidence of deliberate non-serving of summonses by gardai.
The commissioner said: “No”.
Deasy, who last week publicly backed Varadkar, continued: “Has the commissioner taken disciplinary action against any garda with regard to the non-serving of summonses?” Again the answer was a simple “No.” Deasy seemed to have something in mind: “Has the commissioner ever detected multiple non-serving of summonses by a particular garda?”
Callinan replied: “To be fair, no. It is a volume issue. It is a difficult area for us and we accept it is a difficult area for us but we are working to try to reduce the level.”
No doubt genuine problems arise when trying to serve summonses, needing garda time and resources also required elsewhere.
But the penalty points affair turned out to be about more
than reducing the level of let-offs, and it may take more than the commissioner’s assertion to satisfy critics that some people have escaped being served summonses only because of the volume of work involved.