Wednesday 26 October 2016

Gene Kerrigan: There's no telling where this will end

When the O'Higgins report was published, the story suddenly took a new twist

Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30

‘For day after day, with the full report from Judge O’Higgins withheld from the public, selected sentences were leaked'
‘For day after day, with the full report from Judge O’Higgins withheld from the public, selected sentences were leaked'

The odds are you didn't even notice - but last week, they did a job on you. Some very smart people did a job on your perception of what's been happening.

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And it wasn't to do with some passing political party issue that we won't remember this time next year. This case involved murder, serious assault, child abuse, the policing of the State - law, order, justice and accountability.

They pulled a fast one.

Most people have a hundred things to do each day -work, family stuff, looking after the home. Few take in the great bulk of the media coverage of any one issue. Even fewer check the evidence behind that media coverage.

We see headlines, we hear fragments of stories.

Last week, headlines and fragments of stories were manipulated to give a skewed view of the O'Higgins Commission Report.

The media was slow to follow a startling twist in the Garda whistleblower case.

Let's see if we can unpick some of this.

There's a reason most of us have a soft spot for what are these days known as "first responders" - fire, police, army, rescue and medical personnel. It's because when danger pops up, we instinctively back away, and by training, they move towards that danger.

They are public servants, sometimes at great cost to themselves.

We're grateful for that service, but we're not sentimental eejits. We know, for instance, that medics work within a two-tier structure - a public system put at risk to meet the needs of tax evaders (in the 1980s and 1990s) and bankers (since 2008); and a private system that's extraordinarily lucrative.

We know that the police force has been involved in very dark episodes - from the Heavy Gang scandals of the 1970s and 1980s, through the Donegal scandals. The responses have become habitual - closing of ranks, demonisation of those who raise questions.

Some years ago, Sergeant Maurice McCabe became aware of persistent failures of police work in the Bailieboro area. McCabe was sergeant-in-charge at Bailieboro.

The most serious failing involved the murder of Sylvia Roche Kelly, in Limerick. Shortly before Christmas 2007, she was murdered by Jerry McGrath. Eight months earlier, McGrath seriously assaulted a taxi driver, Mary Lynch, in Cavan. He was caught and charged.

The assault was treated as minor. McGrath got bail.

While on bail, he burgled a house and tried to abduct a five-year-old girl. He was caught and charged, and got bail. At which point, he murdered Ms Roche Kelly.

The failures in the case are heartbreaking - steps taken that led to tragedy, steps not taken that could have led to a different outcome.

These were human failings, they were also management and structural failings.

Sgt Maurice McCabe has been a garda since 1985. Had an officer of his experience ignored the various failings, he saw, he would have been guilty of negligence. Given his treatment, it would be understandable if any garda today who witnessed such failures merely turned a blind eye. The price of doing your duty can be wretched.

McCabe wasn't a finger-wagging busybody, playing Gotcha with other gardai. He was a diligent police officer, attempting to protect the public from very, very serious policing flaws.

Last week, the publication of the O'Higgins Commission Report showed he was repeatedly set up, in attempts to pretend all was well.

And the manner in which the O'Higgins report was leaked, further demonised McCabe.

In 2014, the political playacting surrounding the case resulted in the resignations of Garda Commissioner Callinan and Justice Minister Shatter. Both of these men suffered unfair treatment by the political establishment, but nothing compared to the years of attempts to bring Sgt McCabe down.

Retired judge Kevin O'Higgins was commissioned to examine the case. He gave his report to the Minister for Justice almost three weeks ago.

On RTE's Drivetime, Philip Boucher-Hayes summed up the report with admirable brevity: "Maurice McCabe identified Garda practices in a number of cases which were of concern to him; he reported them to his superiors; his superiors investigated and found in each case, or nearly all cases, that he was wrong... but then, Justice O'Higgins investigated the same incidents and upheld Maurice McCabe's concerns."

Over the past couple of years, there has been strategic leaking of Garda-related information, for political ends. The fact that charges were to be made in the water-tax protests was leaked before those charged were informed. Gossip was leaked about Mick Wallace TD and about Ming Flanagan, when he was a TD.

Most notoriously, when Clare Daly TD was breathalysed in January 2013, she was arrested, handcuffed by the side of the road and taken to a Garda station, to give a blood sample. Within hours, her arrest was leaked. She was blackguarded as a drunk driver in the media and on social media. Weeks later, the sample cleared her of drink driving.

It was a notable coincidence that Wallace, Flanagan and Daly had all backed a proper examination of Sgt McCabe's complaints.

Boucher-Hayes said: "So, 70pc, maybe even 90pc of what this report is concerned with can be summed up as: whistleblower makes complaints, gardai reject complaints, judge rejects Garda interpretations and upholds the whistleblower's complaints. And any other reading of it misses the big picture."

Boucher-Hayes referred to some who were "cherry-picking" the report, which "doesn't make any of us any the wiser as to what went on".

And that's what was persistently done. For day after day, with the full report withheld from the public, selected sentences were leaked. Maurice McCabe "overstated" or "exaggerated" some points, or got some things wrong. Every instance of this was repeated as though it was the main thrust of the report.

On Friday, Michael Clifford produced a story for the Irish Examiner. He had seen, he reported, documents produced at a private hearing before Judge O'Higgins. There, a lawyer claimed that Maurice McCabe confided to at least two gardai that he had made complaints against gardai out of malice.

Are you impugning McCabe's character, the judge asked. According to Clifford, the lawyer replied, "Right the way through."

The gardai to whom McCabe allegedly confessed malice had drawn up a statement to that effect. When McCabe revealed that he had recorded that conversation, and when the recording showed he said nothing of the kind, the claim was dropped.

The gardai to whom McCabe allegedly confessed didn't give evidence to O'Higgins. For some reason, O'Higgins left this extraordinary matter out of the report.

Can we imagine how this might have gone had McCabe not made that recording? His career would be over, he would be scorned by colleagues, possibly charged with an offence - and certain people would have danced for joy.

For some reason, the media didn't seem terribly interested in this story, until Micheal Martin asked questions about it.

According to Clifford, the lawyer who raised the issue of malice with the O'Higgins Commission was acting for the current Garda Commissioner, Noirin O'Sullivan and the two gardai.

What all this is about, and who got what wrong, and how, is beyond my understanding. Is there much more to come?

Now, you might very well think that; but, I couldn't possibly comment.

Sunday Independent

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