Sunday 18 August 2019

Explainer: How did the whistleblower scandal come to this

Leo Varadkar (right) with Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Tom Burke
Leo Varadkar (right) with Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Tom Burke Newsdesk Newsdesk

Yesterday was a dramatic day in the Dáil as Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald fought for her political life. Here is what led to the controversy

What is the origin of this controversy?

This all goes back to a meeting in Mullingar in 2008 when whistleblower Maurice McCabe raised concerns about Garda malpractice. That meeting started a series of events that nobody could have predicted.

What happened next?

Sgt McCabe came to public prominence during the penalty points controversy. He highlighted how some well-known personalities and others had points wiped. 

Presumably he was widely praised for this?

Far from it. Sgt McCabe continued to make allegations about malpractice in the force and in January 2014 then-Garda commissioner Martin Callinan told the Public Accounts Committee that, “on a personal level”, he thought the whistleblower was acting in a way that was “quite disgusting”.

However, then-Transport Minister Leo Varadkar caused a stir by calling on Mr Callinan to withdraw his remarks, and described the whistleblower as “distinguished”.

Was Callinan forced out over this controversy?

No doubt the impact of the row over whistleblowers impacted Mr Callinan’s decision to retire early but there were other issues facing the hierarchy of An Garda Síochána that would have influenced this as well. Nóirín O’Sullivan replaced him in November 2014.

What was the O’Higgins Commission of Investigation?

This inquiry was set up by Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in February 2015 to probe accusations made by Sgt McCabe of Garda malpractice in Cavan/Monaghan. It found some merit in Sgt McCabe’s claims. But another tribunal would follow soon.

How can one inquiry lead to the need for another?

Days after the O’Higgins report was formally published in May 2016, leaks revealed that Ms O’Sullivan’s legal team had a strategy of attacking Sgt McCabe’s motivation and integrity – later clarified as “motivation and credibility”.

The Commissioner issued a statement saying she never regarded Sgt McCabe as malicious. But she pointed to the 2008 meeting at which it was claimed Sgt McCabe had expressed a grudge towards a senior officer. Sgt McCabe produced a recording to disprove this claim. Further claims about the treatment of Sgt McCabe emerged, leading to the suspicion that he was subjected to a smear campaign by senior gardaí. The Government set up the Charleton Tribunal to investigate the incidents in February 2017.

So shouldn’t the Tribunal just get on with its work?

Labour TD Alan Kelly has placed a series of Dáil questions which raise the prospect that officials in the Department of Justice were aware of the legal strategy adopted at the O’Higgins Commission.

The Taoiseach says the Tánaiste and the Department of Justice “had no hand, act or part in the legal strategy, did not know about it until after it had happened, did not know beforehand” and could not have influenced it after the fact.

So that’s a reasonable explanation?

It might be, but the Taoiseach also told the Dáil that Frances Fitzgerald didn’t know about the strategy until it entered the public domain in May 2016. Then an email emerged suggesting she was alerted to “a clash” between legal teams in 2015.

But just because she’s was aware of a clash doesn’t mean she knew about a strategy?

This is the exact point the Tánaiste tried to articulate.

What does the Opposition want?

That’s not exactly clear. Fianna Fáil has a confidence and supply arrangement with the Government, meaning any attempt to force out Mrs Fitzgerald risks sparking an election.

Online Editors

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