John Downing: A latter-day 'Gubu' which cries out for some long-overdue honest answers to disturbing questions
When does a person in a position of power "know" something? Does one know something only when it is conveyed in a form which is signed and sealed? What status does "knowledge" have if it is based upon things widely known and accepted in one's circle and work environment? What if it is widely rumoured and/or gleaned from one's own peripheral vision and surmise?
Often in public life, denials of knowledge are effectively denials of formal knowledge of the signed and sealed variety. Thus, the word "know" conjures up one of the slipperiest concepts in the public life.
Questions of who knew what and when are now centre stage as the reputation of An Garda Síochána continues to take a hammering. We need to know who in the senior management of the force knew about alleged efforts to calumniate the whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
We also need to know who in the Government knew about the especially pernicious nature of the allegations being made against Sgt McCabe. And when they knew such things is just as important. This week, the Government announced that Supreme Court Judge Peter Charleton would head a full Commission of Inquiry into these matters.
It is the latest in a clatter of related inquiries into these dismaying series of events. The Fennelly Commission examined the circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan in March 2014; the O'Higgins Commission looked at alleged Garda malpractice in the Cavan-Monaghan district; the Guerin inquiry probed alleged penalty point "fixing"; and the O'Neill inquiry looked at the alleged defamation of Sgt McCabe, which led on the latest full-blown commission.
The above list is a strong indication of the need for some definitive resolution here sooner rather than later. The public trust which mandates policing in all democracies has been deeply eroded and that erosion continues. This reality means that in the coming week, the Government and the majority of TDs must nail down effective terms of reference for Mr Justice Charleton's inquiry.
Interestingly, on this very day 25 years ago, February 11, 1992, the Charlie Haughey era ended in Irish politics with the election of Albert Reynolds to the posts of Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach. Mr Reynolds had many fine qualities, but he showed himself incapable of maintaining working relationships in two coalition governments, with different parties.
And Mr Reynolds lost office after a mere 33 months in an extraordinary controversy about the extradition of sex offenders. Those byzantine events, in late 1994, were replete with claim and counter-claim about who knew what and when.
Mention of Charlie Haughey conjures up the memory of the term Gubu, an acronym for "Grotesque, Unprecedented, Bizarre and Unbelievable." This was Mr Haughey's own summation of the surreal events in August 1982 surrounding the discovery of the double-murderer, Malcolm MacArthur, hiding out in the home of the Attorney General.
The term Gubu is a fit for the current extraordinary turn of events. These raise serious concerns, we will put it no higher than that until Mr Justice Peter Charleton completes his upcoming Commission of Inquiry.
But those concerns centre on contested claims that senior people used allegations of heinous sex crimes against Sgt McCabe in efforts to sideline a difficult but honest whistleblower. A false accusation of "sex abuse" is terrifying, more so because it embroils the child and family agency Tusla.
The involvement of Tusla raises more fears and doubts. We urgently need answers to these issues.
This dizzying farrago has the potential to end careers. It also has the potential to bring this hybrid Coalition crashing down in a heap.
The first inkling we got of "sex crimes" being among allegations against Sgt McCabe was on Wednesday when Labour leader Brendan Howlin used Dáil privilege to raise the matter. He has been heavily criticised in some quarters for this - despite the veracity of his statement having been largely borne out over the ensuing days.
It is worth remembering that Mr Howlin has a credible record in this regard. He led the charge in eventually having Garda misconduct in Donegal examined by the Morris Commission over a decade ago. He is also an unlikely abuser of Dáil procedures as a TD for the past 30 years, a former Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and a punctilious Public Expenditure Minister who put through legislation on whistleblowers.
Explosive revelations on RTÉ's 'Prime Time' on Thursday night, about the role of Tusla, led questioning to switch yesterday to Children's Minister, Katherine Zappone. She met Sgt Maurice McCabe on January 25 last and kept "relevant ministers" informed.
It brings us neatly back to our opening questions about the definition of "know".
The strange thing is that on Thursday afternoon in the Dáil, the Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was directly asked by Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald if An Garda Síochána and "any other State agencies" had been in contact over Sgt McCabe.
Rather falteringly, Ms Fitzgerald said she had no knowledge of such contacts - bar routine Garda contact with the oversight body, GSOC. Later Ms Fitzgerald did not miss a beat when she told Fianna Fáil's John McGuinness that Tusla could be included in the Charleton inquiry. All this came before the explosive RTÉ Tusla revelations.
It all led to allegations yesterday by Ms McDonald, and Dara Calleary of Fianna Fáil, that the Justice Minister had misled the Dáil. That of itself is a serious allegation for any deputy, let alone a Justice Minister and Tánaiste.
But Ms Fitzgerald rejected the charges, insisting that Ms Zappone had told her in mid-January of her intention to meet Sgt McCabe. But the Children's Minister gave no details concerning Tusla's role. The Taoiseach, presumably another "relevant minister", also only knew generally of the meeting.
So, we are left with important decisions being taken here based on very partial knowledge.