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Taped betrayal is a breach of trust that may not heal

A FORMER colleague phoned me recently. He was having a major row at work and, given my history of spectacular bridge-burning exits from jobs, wanted some advice.

I poured forth with my perspective on How Not To Handle Workplace Conflict. I put both sides of the issue to him and how each might be argued out.

There was unparliamentary language and dire warnings on the ruthlessness of the corporate environment.

Later, when I mentally replayed the call in my head, my stomach turned over.

Imagine if the conversation had been taped? If just one or two sentences, taken out of context, were played back? I'd die. Of course, the person has no reason to do that, but you just don't know people, do you?

Oliver Connolly, who was appointed to receive complaints about the gardai in confidence, must never have imagined that someone who came to him would do it.

It wasn't Connolly's job to do any investigating, and he was required by law to protect Sgt Maurice McCabe's identity. He fulfilled his function and ended up losing his job because one or two sentences of an alleged conversation were read out in the Dail.

Sentences that, surprise, surprise, are damaging to a minister who the Opposition and some members of the media would dearly love to take down.

Like reading diaries, taping conversations is taboo. I understand that Sgt McCabe must have been in a place where he didn't trust anyone. Whistleblowers get a rough time, and he probably felt he had to protect himself.

But I don't understand why he felt he had to protect himself from Connolly, who was there only to help.

Now consider the consequences of his actions.

I doubt that Oliver Connolly, or anyone else in his position, will trust anyone again. And that's something we really should worry about. What will the next appointee to such a position do when approached by a whistleblower?

Will they sit down with them for a cup of coffee and have a good heart-to-heart? Or will they keep them at a distance and write stiff, formal letters that don't give anything away?

APOLOGIES

If someone phones them for advice, will they make apologies and hang up?

I imagine other professionals asked to take up public service duties will run a mile from this or similar posts.

There is no way they could conduct business if the supposed victims are potential enemies. The betrayal wrecks the good faith required to carry out these sensitive jobs.

Across the state apparatus there are all kinds of jobs that private citizens do, often for no reward. It would be a terrible thing if citizens began to refuse sensitive appointments if they feared becoming bait in someone else's political agenda.

But similar taping has happened before in a different context.

Last year, Labour Party TDs Aodhan O Riordain and Anne Ferris were recorded by pro-life activists making frank comments that in public they would have expressed more diplomatically.

People complain about politicians refusing to speak frankly in public. If they can't even speak frankly in private, we all lose out. Whether we like it or not, the world can't function without trust.

Sgt McCabe may feel the system let him down, but in betraying Connolly he inflicted more damage.

The Garda Siochana Act will be overhauled to fix the flaws in the system, but repairing people's trust in whistleblowers won't be so easy.


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