Sunday 26 May 2019

John Downing: Hard-hitting Charleton report lays a challenge to leaders for real reforms

Acted correctly: Former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle. Photo: Collins
Acted correctly: Former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle. Photo: Collins
John Downing

John Downing

This large basket of woes created a series of political earthquakes, and the aftershocks will be with us for some time to come.

The rolling Garda controversies afflicting two governments since 2011 brought the current minority coalition to the brink of collapse at a time of Brexit crisis. It speeded up the exit of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and cost the cabinet posts of two ministers.

It also played a big role in the early departures of two Garda commissioners and the transfer of the most senior official at the Justice Department.

Mr Justice Peter Charleton lays this and much more out in an engaging and hard-hitting tribunal report totally in keeping with his no-nonsense approach to the task. The Supreme Court judge poses huge challenges for our politicians and senior administrators, especially regarding An Garda Síochána, which requires fundamental reform.

It also poses big questions for the new child protection agency, Tusla, found to be afflicted with "astounding inefficiency and inertia".

But spare a thought also for former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, forced out of a government brought to the brink of collapse last November, just as crucial Border talks over Brexit were building to crisis point. The crisis and the loss of office is shown to have been gratuitous as Mr Justice Charleton finds she behaved correctly in not interfering with another legal inquiry.

Ms Fitzgerald resisted the temptation to say 'I told you so' as yet another political storm buffeted her former government colleagues.

"I note his findings which totally accord with the arguments I made in November 2017 - that I could not interfere with a commission of inquiry," she told the Irish Independent. There was speculation that the timing of the report, coinciding with the dramatic resignation of communications minister Denis Naughten, might offer a way back. In other circumstances, such speculation would be dismissed out of hand.

At the centre of this extraordinary drama is the diminutive figure of Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe, and his wife Lorraine. Their persistence and fortitude have been remarkable and the relief they will feel at this report's publication does not require much imagination.

Mr McCabe was station sergeant at Bailieboro, Co Cavan, when he and former Garda John Wilson intensified complaints about abuses in the traffic penalty points system and other extremely serious shortcomings in management.

There followed a series of escalating inquiries and investigations. Sgt McCabe was initially met with scepticism and reluctance among political leaders, and considerable hostility which became a campaign of vilification by certain senior gardaí.

This report pinpoints extraordinary and reprehensible behaviour by former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, and his press officer, Superintendent Dave Taylor.

In a dramatic series of hearings in Dublin Castle, the former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), John McGuinness, recalled the commissioner telling him Sgt McCabe was a child sex abuser.

The first allegation in Leinster House was followed by a macabre meeting in a hotel car park where the allegation was repeated.

Two other prominent figures in Irish life told similar stories. These were PAC member Deputy John Deasy, and Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy, and their stories were reinforced by another account by RTÉ journalist Philip Boucher Hayes.

It is hard to think of a more base attack - and it came from the nation's most senior police officer and his official press person. Mr Justice Charleton does not spare either garda in his report findings.

Supt Dave Taylor was head of the Garda Press Office for Martin Callinan, but his tenure when Nóirín O'Sullivan took over was short-lived. He was transferred to the traffic corps but then arrested in 2015 charged with disclosure of information to the press without authority.

There were months of investigation focused on allegations that he had broken the law by leaking details of gardaí taking two Roma children away from their family over misplaced child welfare concerns. In all, Supt Taylor was suspended from work for two years. But in 2017 he returned to his current job in the Garda Traffic Corps after the Director of Public Prosecutions ordered the charges be dropped.

He often walked to the tribunal hearings from his office, which is also within the Dublin Castle complex.

These Disclosures Tribunal hearings were replete with irony and dramatic revelations. Now comes the serious business of remedying wrongs and preventing a repeat.

In that regard, the history is not particularly encouraging. But Mr Justice Charleton strikes a hopeful note.

Irish Independent

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