Monday 21 January 2019

Martina Devlin: Gardaí's integrity on the line after claims whistleblower was demonised by his superiors

Whistleblower Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe arriving for a private session of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee at Leinster House in 2014 Photo: Tom Burke
Whistleblower Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe arriving for a private session of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee at Leinster House in 2014 Photo: Tom Burke
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Remember when An Garda Síochána was a term used with widespread respect? When Irish people were proud of their police force for upholding its end of the bargain between citizens and law-enforcers with honour?

Those days are gone. The respect is vanishing, the trust is dented. As of this week, gardaí integrity hangs in the balance.

If senior officers are found to have orchestrated a smear campaign against whistleblower Maurice McCabe, as claimed, then the credibility of the force will be compromised. Only root-and-branch reform to make it fit for purpose, as happened with the RUC, will restore its reputation.

An "appalling vista" is yawning - to paraphrase controversial judge Lord Denning, who refused to accept that British police officers lied to secure the 'Birmingham Six' convictions.

The allegations surrounding Sgt McCabe's treatment are not comparable with the 'Birmingham Six' miscarriage of justice, yet the scenario conjured up is equally alarming. Citizens need to have confidence in their police force's commitment to the rule of law - this is non-negotiable.

Also incontestable is the principle that whistleblowers are protected, because they help to safeguard democracy. Any suggestion of a whistleblower being demonised by his superiors must set warning bells ringing.

Claims now in the public sphere about deliberate vilification of Sgt McCabe, by those who had a duty to respect - indeed, reward - his honesty, need to be investigated as thoroughly as possible.

It should be noted that rank-and-file gardaí do a difficult and dangerous job. However, questions surfacing about the leadership compromise the force in its totality. The ethics, judgment and lack of transparency among the Garda upper tier, including Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan, are called into question by events swirling round Sgt McCabe.

She and her senior team are entitled to due process during the forthcoming commission of inquiry, but it's hard to foresee every member of the top brass emerging in a squeaky-clean condition by the time it concludes.

The more we learn about the experiences of Sgt McCabe - the public face of whistleblowing - the more it is to be wondered that anybody steps forward.

Whistleblowers provide a valuable service by exposing wrongdoing. Yet they pay a high personal price. Messengers aren't just shot, they are crucified. In Sgt McCabe's case, the issue is whether a pattern of consistent vilification can be traced.

"He has gone through a lot through so many years. It seems every number of months something occurs," Sgt McCabe's solicitor, Seán Costello, told Seán O'Rourke's RTÉ show yesterday. "They (the family) want to know when this will end and when they can start to live a proper life, and not wonder whether tomorrow they are going to read something else about Maurice."

Despite legislation introduced in 2014 to give them protection, it must be a matter of public concern that whistleblowers continue to be harassed and ostracised in the workplace. Their careers judder to a halt.

Whistleblowing is a friendless road to take. Support for their stance is not to be found among the bulk of their colleagues, nor from their bosses, nor from the representative bodies to which they belong. Workplace isolation is imposed as a punishment for speaking up. Perhaps, too, with the expectation that this silent treatment will elbow out these 'troublemakers' from the pack.

So, we await the commission's findings with interest - possibly towards the end of the year, though deadline overruns are more common than not. Key questions include: did Ms O'Sullivan authorise the alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe? Or did the order originate with her predecessor, Martin Callinan? If the latter, how much did she know? She categorically denies any knowledge.

However, the need for an inquiry suggests a dysfunctional and unfit-for-purpose leadership, and an ongoing circle-the-wagons mentality. Even if Ms O'Sullivan emerges as the one sound apple in a barrel of worm-ridden fruit, she cannot fail to be damaged by this controversy. She was a senior member of Mr Callinan's team, after all.

As for Sgt McCabe, this honourable public servant has suffered because he consulted his conscience and turned whistleblower. Consider again the letter he asked to be read into the Oireachtas record previously, in which he said the way his complaints were handled "destroyed me, my career and my family".

Brendan Howlin used Dáil privilege to put forward the claim that journalists received garda briefings in which Sgt McCabe was accused of sex crimes against children. Soon after, we learned the sergeant was wrongly labelled as an alleged sex offender due to the incompetence of a State agency.

There was absolutely no truth in those allegations from child protection agency Tusla, according to a 'Prime Time' report on RTÉ.

Tusla has questions to answer about its procedures, including glaring oversight and accountability deficits. It is inexcusable that someone's good name could be muddied due to "clerical error". How much confidence can we place in Tusla's child-protection procedures, with mistakes of this magnitude?

For more than two years, Tusla never put the allegations to Sgt McCabe, but they were circulated to his bosses - who didn't raise them with him, either. Instead, they rubbed their hands in glee and used them for the purposes of character assassination, according to the version of events offered by the Labour leader.

If this is shown to be the case, it betrays a wanton disregard for the 'innocent until proven guilty' foundation stone of the law - by senior gardaí sworn to uphold the law.

It treats an allegation as if indistinguishable from a conviction.

Mr Howlin was roundly criticised for mentioning the alleged sex abuse. In fact, he did Sgt McCabe a service because the loathsome - and ungrounded - innuendo was damaging him.

Meanwhile, we are still awaiting that "new era of policing" promised by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald back in 2014.

Until the all-essential cultural change is achieved, including the embrace of transparency, senior management continue to let down the men and women who wear a guard's uniform. As well as the citizens who rely on them for law and order.

It was a mistake not to appoint an outsider with a brief to overhaul the entire management team when Mr Callinan stepped down as Garda commissioner - regardless of how well-qualified Ms O'Sullivan was for the job, and how committed to reform.

I hope that lesson is remembered when the time comes to name a new commissioner. Probably sooner rather than later.

Irish Independent

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