Tuesday 25 June 2019

'New politics' fails its first test as ministers abandon whistleblowers

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins
Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Desperate attempts by a succession of Fine Gael ministers to downplay the current controversy embroiling the Garda Commissioner are pathetic and suggest that new politics is nothing but an empty slogan.

Health Minister Simon Harris had a lot to say about senior gardaí in the Dáil in 2014 after the publication of the Guerin Report; none of it was complimentary.

"To be frank, as somebody who sat through the hearings at the Committee of Public Accounts with the then Garda Commissioner, Mr Callinan, it was very clear that the top brass of An Garda Síochána viewed whistleblowers and dissenting voices as 'not on the team'. That is the problem," he said, in a reference to Martin Callinan's infamous description of the actions of whistleblowers as "disgusting".

Mr Harris didn't stop there.

He said the State, via An Garda Síochána, had "sneered at and belittled" Sgt Maurice McCabe and Garda John Wilson and the country had "a very bad culture, reputation, history and track record when it comes to how we treat whistle-blowers".

Fast-forward two years and Mr Harris's passionate defence of whistleblowers and trenchant criticism of the manner in which they were treated by senior gardaí has evaporated.

Asked on Sunday about reports that the current Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan instructed her legal team to impugn the character of Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O'Higgins Commission of Investigation, Mr Harris suggested that it amounted to a mere "personality issue".

"It is very important (that) we don't allow ourselves to be sidetracked by personality issues, that we look at substantive issues in (the final report) in relation to issues whereby we simply have to do better in relation to policing issues in the future," he said.

It's worth repeating the detail of what is alleged to have arisen during the early stages of the O'Higgins inquiry. According to journalist Mick Clifford, Commissioner O'Sullivan's barrister said evidence would be produced to show that Sgt McCabe was motivated by malice against a senior officer when he made complaints which ultimately led to the setting up of the inquiry.

It was claimed that two gardaí had taken notes of a meeting they held with Sgt McCabe, in which it was alleged that he admitted having a personal vendetta and that they subsequently prepared a report on the matter which was forwarded to a senior garda.

Mr Justice O'Higgins asked Commissioner O'Sullivan's senior counsel whether he was "attacking (McCabe's) motivation and attacking his character".

"Right the way through," was the reply from Colm Smyth SC, who said he was acting on instructions.

However, when Sgt McCabe produced a recording of the meeting, proving that he had never admitted any kind of malice as a motivation for making his complaints, this accusation simply fell away. Curiously, the final report makes no mention of this incident, although there is an oblique reference to the fact that "some people, wrongly and unfairly, cast aspersions on Sgt McCabe's motives".

To be clear, the O'Higgins' report concludes: "Sgt McCabe acted out of genuine and legitimate concerns and the commission unreservedly accepts his bona fides."

Why is this revelation so explosive? Because, since taking over the reins from her predecessor, Martin Callinan, Nóirín O'Sullivan has expressed nothing in public but admiration and support for Sgt McCabe.

In fact, she went so far as to promote him to a Professional Standards Unit, suggesting that he was an exemplary garda whose actions should be emulated by others in the force.

Speaking as recently as last month, at the first public meeting between senior gardaí and new independent oversight body the Policing Authority, Commissioner O'Sullivan assured those present that gardaí had "forged a new direction in relation to our critical friends".

She said: "We're not trying to be defensive and we want to engage and listen to all of our critical friends - we are committed to openness transparency and accountability, listening and learning. It's all about trust."

However, it now seems that even though she told an Oireachtas committee that Sgt McCabe had the full support of garda management and the Policing Authority and that critics would be engaged with fairly, in private she was instructing her legal team to depict him as a crank motivated by a personal grudge.

If you thought this apparent divergence between public and private sentiment would trouble members of the Government, you would be wrong. The identikit reaction of almost everyone questioned to date has been 'move along now, nothing to see here'.

Mr Harris is not the only Fine Gael minister running a mile from the latest controversy in the fervent hope that if they starve it of the oxygen of publicity it will simply fade away and be forgotten.

Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty even seemed to endorse the Commissioner's position, saying she was "entitled to have her views and it is up to her to respond".

Meanwhile, laughably, the best excuse for declining to comment that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald could cobble together was that she didn't want to "second-guess" the work of the Commission.

Depressingly, Independent Minister Denis Naughten's feeble response that reports of what transpired at the Commission were "something that would concern everyone" are the strongest remarks to date from anyone in our shiny new Government, whose members routinely enthuse about the supposed era of 'new politics' we are all living in.

While members of the Government clearly view this controversy as nothing more than a political headache, it is imperative that the Garda Commissioner's views on Sgt McCabe, and whistle-blowers generally, are clarified.

Otherwise, how are whistle-blowers in An Garda Síochána expected to have any confidence that they will be listened to and treated fairly?

While the Commissioner has said that she is precluded by law from commenting on evidence heard in private during the inquiry, she released a statement last night saying she never regarded him as being malicious.

If members of our Government are really serious about new politics, they will be calling for her to clarify how that statement accords with the instructions she gave her legal team.

Irish Independent

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