Sunday 25 September 2016

We can't just move on. If we don't get answers, the force will lose authority

Published 19/05/2016 | 02:30

The office of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan has said she is prohibited by law from discussing matters relating to the O'Higgins report, but this has been disputed by former Tánaiste Joan Burton and a number of legal experts
The office of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan has said she is prohibited by law from discussing matters relating to the O'Higgins report, but this has been disputed by former Tánaiste Joan Burton and a number of legal experts

Did members of the Garda Síochána fabricate evidence with the intention of undermining the credibility of a colleague who had raised questions of malpractice within the force? It is by no means certain that anything of the kind happened, but revelations of the past week have raised that frightening spectre. If it did happen, what did Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan know of it and what did she do when, according to media reports, the evidence was shown to be false?

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Such are the numbers of issues swirling around in relation to justice matters, it can be hard to get to the nub of the matter.

Leaking - now and over many weeks - along with other interventions, have made an already complicated saga appear even more so.

But these two relatively simple questions remain unanswered. When it comes to the future of the administration of justice in this country, they are among the most important of the many questions that must be answered.

A line cannot be drawn under the ongoing controversy until they are answered and clarified. There can be no moving on - because without clarification public trust in An Garda Síochána and in the woman who leads the force would suffer, possibly irreparably.

Such is the importance of An Garda Síochána and the unique position the force has in public life that it is always necessary to state in any discussion of alleged malpractice that the vast majority of its members are scrupulous, hard-working, honourable people.

Moreover, they risk life and limb on a daily basis so that law-abiding people can live in peace and security. It is all the more important to say these things at a time when morale in the force is weakened by seemingly never-ending crises.

It is equally important to say that close scrutiny of the force and its members is essential. All police forces are vested with enormous powers. With great power must come great scrutiny.

Without adequate checks and balances some people will, as sure as night follows day, misuse and abuse their powers. When that happens to any significant extent in any entity, its organisational culture is degraded.

Having said all that, let's return to the two questions above.

In 2008, two members of the force interviewed Sgt Maurice McCabe. The two officers left that meeting and then reported in writing.

There is no indication that the report stated Sgt McCabe admitted to acting out of malice and no consequences ever seem to have arisen out of the report.

Seven years later the report was introduced to the inquiry, which was presided over by retired Judge Kevin O'Higgins, on the matters raised by Sgt McCabe.

But the two officers' version of events by then included the supposed admission of malice. With the word of two officers against one, there would be serious questions about Sgt McCabe and the credibility of his claims.

As has been pointed out frequently over the past week, had the word of the two officers been accepted, the outcome of the O'Higgins inquiry, which was made public last week, would in all likelihood have been very different.

But their version of events was not accepted by O'Higgins because McCabe challenged it.

He is said to have produced an audio recording of the 2008 meeting, which has no record of him ever saying he was motivated by malice towards anyone.

This is an incredibly serious matter, if that is what happened. A worst case scenario (and we can only talk about scenarios because so much is unclear) is that the two officers reported as fact something that never happened.

That would amount to fabricating evidence.

For any police officer to fabricate evidence of any kind against anyone, even a hardened criminal, is very serious. For two officers to do so with the intention of destroying the reputation of a colleague who sought to bring to light failings in policing that led, among other things, to the murder of a woman, would be the gravest of matters, particularly if their actions were co-ordinated with senior colleagues. It is for this reason that the matter must be clarified.

The Garda Commissioner has become engulfed in all of this. It is imperative that she clarify issues regarding her own role.

Did she and/or her team interrogate the findings of the 2008 report before submitting it to the O'Higgins inquiry?

If she agreed to present the report to O'Higgins in early 2015, with claims of an admission of malice included, then why did she promote Sgt McCabe in September 2014?

What was her response when Sgt McCabe's audio recordings led to O'Higgins rejecting the findings of the two officers against him?

In the days after the journalist Michael Clifford broke the story last Friday, the Commissioner's office said that she was prohibited by law from discussing the matter. This has been widely disputed, by Joan Burton, who was Tánaiste up until very recently, and a number of legal experts.

This has made the Garda Commissioner's position even more difficult.

We have now entered dangerous territory. There is a real risk that the authority of the Garda could be permanently eroded, much as happened to the authority of the Catholic Church as scandal after scandal washed over that institution.

If that were to happen, the effects would be much more serious for the life of the nation.

In a secular society such as ours, the individual's relationship with their god is a private matter. There are no more public matters than law enforcement and the administration of justice. If the institution that is so central to both were to suffer a loss of authority of the kind the Church suffered, the consequences would be much greater.

Irish Independent

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