Thursday 27 June 2019

Mishandling of the whistleblower row shows Coalition no longer fit for office

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Children's Minister Katherine Zappone Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may yet agree some formula of words to save the Government and prevent an election, but the utterly shambolic handling of the Maurice McCabe controversy suggests it's time for this administration to slink from office.

Yesterday, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were in damage limitation mode after divergent accounts of a meeting between Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan came to light.

Mr O'Callaghan was "100pc certain" that, at a meeting with the minister on Wednesday night, he warned her on "three or four" occasions that a Tusla file, alleging criminal conduct against Sgt McCabe, was going to be revealed in a 'Prime Time' exposé the following night.

The minister, for her part, was adamant that no reference to Tusla was made at the meeting and the first time she heard of a file, containing false and scurrilous allegations against Sgt McCabe, was when she sat down to watch RTÉ on Thursday night.

When it became apparent yesterday that the two accounts of the meeting could not be reconciled, attempts were made to downplay the significance of the disagreement, with suggestions that mere crossed wires were at fault.

However, the spat is much more serious than that. If Mr O'Callaghan told the minister a Tusla file concerning Maurice McCabe had been created, then she may have misled the Dáil.

During Leaders' Questions on Thursday, Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald asked the Tánaiste to confirm "if she [was] aware of contact between An Garda Síochána and any other State agency in relation to Sgt Maurice McCabe?"

In response, Ms Fitzgerald said that, other than GSOC, she was unaware of any other State agency that was involved in the controversy.

The meeting between Mr O'Callaghan and the Justice Minister is significant for other reasons.

The Fianna Fáil TD maintains he told the minister she needed to speak to Children's Minister Katherine Zappone in relation to the Tusla file. That discussion never took place.

Alarm bells didn't ring - despite the fact the minister was aware Ms Zappone had met with Sgt McCabe and his wife in January.

Displaying amazing indifference, the minister tasked with setting up a Commission of Inquiry into a smear campaign conducted against Sgt McCabe failed to ask why a Cabinet minister was meeting with him.

The Taoiseach, despite purportedly being told by Ms Zappone that Tusla was implicated in advance of last week's Cabinet meeting, also remained disinterested.

See no evil, hear no evil is evidently the mantra of this ragtag Government.

Ms Zappone, for her part, is guilty of an extraordinary dereliction of duty in failing to tell her Cabinet colleagues that fake allegations of child abuse found their way into a Tusla file about Sgt McCabe.

Quite apart from the pernicious impact of these allegations on the McCabe family, and the ramifications for the Government and An Garda Síochána, was the Children's Minister at all concerned about the implications for child protection services in this country?

Did it cross her mind at all that a pall of suspicion now hangs over the State institution tasked with documenting and investigating allegations of heinous crimes against children?

Now that the political temperature has risen, and the fiasco has been made public, all sorts of promises to conduct independent external reviews are being made.

But, in 2014, when Tusla first learned an erroneous allegation against Sgt McCabe had been added to his file, it did nothing. It didn't even tell him. Worse, the record wasn't corrected, because a year later a Tusla officer was tasked with conducting a fresh investigation.

How can people have confidence in a system in which ruinous information can be added to files because of a supposed "administrative error"?

Who is in a position to stand over the integrity of the reporting system?

Certainly not the Children's Minister, because she met with the McCabes a month ago and did precisely nothing. It's only now, as the fate of the Government hangs in the balance, that she is springing into action.

Yesterday, political commentators wondered if the Government could withstand this controversy. A better question is, why should it?

Why, given everything we have learned in the past week, should this Government be maintained in office?

The only answer appears to be, because Fianna Fáil is not ready for an election.

The level of gross incompetence that has dogged this scandal has been beyond parody. Tusla, when it eventually attempted to apologise to the McCabes last week, couldn't even manage to deliver it to the correct address.

A HSE apology contained inaccurate information.

Where will this crisis end and how much damage will be done to public confidence in important State institutions before it comes to a conclusion?

As it stands, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Children's Minister all now stand accused of mishandling and exacerbating this escalating crisis.

Having demonstrated nothing but ineptitude to date, should they really be left in office to clean up their own mess?

Irish Independent

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