Garda chief is entitled to her good name until it is proved otherwise
Brendan Howlin abused Dail privilege to remind people that the tinpot Labour Party still exists, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
It might be that Noirin O'Sullivan is the worst Garda Commissioner the country has ever seen. It might be that she is up to her neck in shenanigans the likes of which have never been seen before.
But just saying it is not enough. There's a little thing called proof which it ought to be necessary to provide before making such claims. In Noirin O'Sullivan's case, it seems that none of those normal caveats apply. One can say anything at all about her without any risk or consequence, and she will still be expected to take it.
Latest to have a go is a young, up-and-coming politician by the name of Brendan Howlin who used Dail privilege last week to tell the country that he'd heard from a journalist who'd heard it from another journalist that the Garda Commissioner, when working in a previous role in the force, had personally rung up journalists to circulate lurid allegations about an alleged sexual offence involving whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, who'd come forward about alleged abuses of the penalty point system.
This can't be the same Brendan Howlin who, for five loyal years, was a member of the Government which appointed O'Sullivan to the most senior role in the country's policing service and then backed her to the hilt, surely?
The same Howlin whose government excoriated Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald for herself abusing Dail privilege?
Apparently, it is. He's now leader of some tinpot outfit called the Labour Party, whose whereabouts have become the subject of legend since mysteriously - or maybe not so mysteriously - vanishing in the 2016 election.
What better way to remind voters of your continued existence than to make unsubstantiated allegations about named individuals from the floor of the Dail? Six One News, here we come.
The Garda Commissioner has, not altogether surprisingly, denied everything, saying that she has "no knowledge of the matters referred to by Howlin" and refuting "in the strongest terms the suggestion that she has engaged in the conduct alleged against a serving member of An Garda Siochana". Undeterred, the Labour leader has called on her to stand aside while the allegations are investigated.
Is that how it works now? Someone makes serious allegations about you based on something someone told them while having a gossip before work, and then you must go on extended gardening leave while the allegations are investigated, or be considered guilty by default?
Howlin appears to believe that his only route back to political relevance is to become Wexford's second Mick Wallace, who has a form of political Tourette's syndrome which means that he blurts out some allegation about O'Sullivan practically every time he gets to his feet.
Howlin's intervention was arguably even worse. As he himself admitted: "I don't know whether the charges being made against the Commissioner are true or not."
Normally, one might say that the person acting this way knows exactly what they're doing. In Howlin's case, that would now appear to be far too charitable a statement. He seems to have acted without much thought at all, and floundered on Morning Ireland to justify himself.
Maurice McCabe's life has become the stuff of nightmares. Thursday's Prime Time made for terrifying viewing.
But that's why it's more important than ever to be careful about what we say. Clare Daly TD said of the false allegation of a sexual crime being circulated against McCabe: "Why was it out there? Well, the only reason it was out there was to deter people from listening to his actual real allegations of Garda serious wrongdoing."
That's not an entirely neutral version of events.
The allegation may subsequently have been circulated to damage McCabe, but the reason it was "out there" in the first place was because it was contained on a file which had been opened on him following a complaint, as Tusla, the State's child and family agency, was required to do in the normal manner. The file's existence then fuelled the whispering campaign.
It's now evident that this allegation should not have been included in the file; much less wrongly remain on the database for almost two years. Tusla says this was a clerical error, and its chief executive, Fred McBride, personally apologised on Friday.
Convenient as the file might have proved for McCabe's enemies, there's no evidence this was anything other than a mistake by Tusla. McBride insists there was no "collusion" with gardai.
To suggest differently means going into a new world of conspiracy theories. The question is whether those who spread the rumours against McCabe knew they were groundless, or whether they simply believed what was in the file?
The next question is who was behind that whispering campaign and how high up it went.
That's what the inquiry which was established last week under Supreme Court judge Peter Charleton now has to decide. It may also now have to be expanded to include details of when and how the Government became involved.
There's some confusion about that, as Minister for Children Katherine Zappone so far refuses to say in which "relevant government colleagues" she confided after being informed of Tusla's error.
How has the work of that inquiry been helped by Howlin opportunistically turning the issue into a political sliothar? So far all claims against Noirin O'Sullivan have been unambiguously denied. Until such time as those facts change, the Garda Commissioner, like Maurice McCabe, is entitled to her good name.