If institutional Ireland were a stick of rock, the words ‘loyalty is prized above honesty’ would run through it. Irish authorities always choose loyalty
Awkward truths: former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, who resigned on Tuesday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Awkward truths: protesters outside Government Buildings on Thursday, calling for the resignation of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Awkward truths: Sgt Maurice McCabe on his way to a Public Accounts Committee meeting at Leinster House in January. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Camera 19 looked away so that it could see no evil. Around 2.30am on January 29th, 2010, Anthony Holness was walking up New Street in Waterford after a feed of pints when he was caught short. He stopped to urinate in a doorway. He was caught in the act by Garda Daniel Hickey, who was on patrol with a student garda. He resisted arrest and was abusive to the gardaí.
Sgt Martha McEnery came to help her colleagues after Hickey radioed for assistance. Holness was blinded with pepper spray, but then Hickey punched and kicked him. McEnery, by her own account, “flicked my right hand a number of times at the back of his neck”.
These things shouldn’t happen, but they do. And in this case the Irish system dealt reasonably well with a sordid little incident. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission investigated. Hickey and McEnery were tried and found guilty of assault. But there was another aspect of this rather banal event that makes it emblematic of the less flattering side of Irish official culture: the movement of camera 19.
While Holness was being arrested, a CCTV camera, operated by Garda John Burke in the control room of Waterford station, was trained directly on what was happening.
When Hickey was beating Holness, the camera swung away for a few crucial seconds. The same thing happened when McEnery got involved. Burke later claimed that he “may have accidentally brushed against” the joystick that controlled the camera at these crucial moments. The jury didn’t believe him: Burke was found guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
Yet Burke could have claimed both precedent and wider sanction for “brushing against” the joystick of camera 19 so that it did not see what ought not to be seen. Camera 19, indeed, deserves a place in the history of iconic Irish objects, along with St Patrick’s shamrock and the Brian Boru harp. The unofficial anthem of America’s Old South, Dixie , swells on the line “Look away! Look away!” It should be spliced into Amhrán na bhFiann .
Haunting Irish politics
As it happens, the squalid event on New Street four years ago returned to haunt Irish politics this week. It was in its report on the Waterford case that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission noted that telephone calls were made between some of the gardaí involved shortly after the arrest of Anthony Holness. “These calls,” it noted in a public report posted on its website last June, “were recorded on the Garda Síochána recording system and a recording was provided to GSOC.”
The prosecution had tried to use some of these calls as evidence, but they could not be admitted, because they were illegal. Perhaps, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission suggested, the Garda commissioner “may wish to re-evaluate his practice regarding the recording of such calls”.
Rather aptly, the official response was to do a camera 19: turning away from the unfortunate evidence until other events made it impossible to do so any longer. As Alan Shatter explained this week, rather astonishingly, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission had not “submitted” its report to him, merely issued it for everyone to read, so his CCTV didn’t pick it up.
The Waterford incident tells us some important things about Irish culture. One of them is that it is perfectly possible for Irish people to behave decently and morally. It is not easy, especially in a police force that relies on collective morale, to tell the truth about bad things your colleagues are up to.
But it should be noted that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission described as exemplary the behaviour of many gardaí in Waterford who were questioned about what they saw and heard. Most of them co-operated with the investigation and told the truth. There may be relatively few Maurice McCabes and John Wilsons out there, willing to destroy their own careers to highlight abuses, but most gardaí, like most priests, most bank officials, most politicians and most ordinary members of any system that becomes corrupted, are decent people who want to do the right thing.
But there are indecent people, too, people who either commit abuses or, by their collusion, enable it. They are a minority but not an insignificant one. In the Waterford case a number of gardaí who were not among the accused gave the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission inquiry only “slow and less than optimal” co-operation.
The Garda authorities themselves failed to produce a number of documents that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the prosecution asked for. Those same documents were then suddenly supplied to the defence. The damning verdict of the Smithwick tribunal was mirrored here: “There prevails in An Garda Síochána today a prioritisation of the protection of the good name of the force over the protection of those who seek to tell the truth. Loyalty is prized above honesty.”
But this is not just about the Garda, an institution that might be expected to be better than the rest but that can, alas, claim the dubious consolation of being no worse.
If institutional Ireland were a stick of rock, those words – loyalty is prized above honesty – would run through it. We could place them in Latin above the oak doors of so many offices: pietas super veritatem . When it comes to the contest between loyally upholding the good name of an institution and the attempt to tell the truth, Irish private and public authorities have almost always declared a knock-out victory over truth in the first round.
We’ve seen this time and again: in the crushing of the internal auditors who warned that our major banks were up to their white-collared necks in skulduggery; in the systematic protection of child abusers by the Catholic Church; in the extreme reluctance of many health professionals to shout stop when they saw dangerous and even deadly practices; in the parade of politicians coming out to assure us that Charles Haughey was a patriot to his fingertips who would no sooner take a bribe than he would kiss a Brit; in the vicious shouting-down of those who suggested that the property boom might be a bubble.
This instinct should have been rooted out by now. Three of the big scandals that resulted from it can reasonably be called catastrophic. The Catholic Church’s option for its “good name” over the truth all but destroyed an institution that had endured for 1,500 years in Ireland.
The refusal to listen to what honest men such as Tony Spollen and Eugene McErlean had to say about the abysmal practices of our largest bank, AIB, was staggeringly costly. If the implications of the truths they revealed had been taken seriously we would not have ended up with the collapse of the banking system. And the covering-up of the rottenness of the political system ultimately led to the loss of national sovereignty.
One would think that any society that experienced such traumas, even one addicted to denial, would change radically. Yet the response of the Garda leadership, of Alan Shatter and of the Government as a whole to McCabe and Wilson has been depressingly familiar.
In some respects it is all the more depressing because it was so irrational. Child abuse was a genuine threat to the church. Revelations of malpractice in the banks cost them, at the time, hundreds of millions of euro. Corruption had the potential to undermine the structure of political power. In each case the stakes were very high.
What makes the Garda scandal so bizarre is that, initially at least, nothing of this gravity was at stake. Especially after the Comptroller and Auditor General essentially vindicated the allegations the whistleblowers had made about the penalty-points system, there was no substantial issue to argue about.
It would have been relatively easy for Martin Callinan to acknowledge their courage, promise reform and wheel out the standard rhetoric (to quote his own words) of “parking it, moving on and learning from the lessons of the past”. Shatter could have brought in reforms and emerged smelling of roses. Given the willing compliance of significant parts of the media, the whole thing would have gone away.
Instead there was a visceral, irrational rage against those who had raised awkward truths – rage and, notoriously, disgust. But this was not just Callinan’s personal aberration: his instincts of denial and denigration were backed 100 per cent by Shatter, by the Taoiseach and (with the exception of Leo Varadkar) by the whole Government and most backbench TDs.
Callinan seemed almost as if he were determined to put Judge Smithwick’s question – loyalty or truth? – to the test. He was answered from the highest ranks of power with a resounding chorus of “Loyalty begod!”
Why has this culture persisted even when we know it to be so corrosive and so inimical to the public interest? Behind the persistence, perhaps, is the uncomfortable truth that, belying the image of the wild Irish, we are a timid and conformist people. Whistleblowers are easily isolated, easily painted as mad or bitter, because they are so very rare. It is not that most Irish people are comfortable with immoral behaviour when they see it around them. It’s just that they are afraid. And this fear is self-reinforcing: the fewer people speak up the easier it is to make life hell for those who do as a warning to others.
There’s intimacy, too: Irish society values the quality of being one of the lads or one of the girls. At the institutional level this intimacy becomes clubbability. The Irish political, business and administrative elites are closely intertwined. There is a shared interest in keeping things as they are, in preserving power within its proper circles by repelling unsettling truths and those who tell them.
This habit of mind ought to have changed with the evidence of how disastrous it has been, but in fact the response to the economic crisis has deepened it. The new governing mentality is managerial and technocratic – a mentality in which, by definition, those at the top know best. Signals of distress coming from below are unwanted interference and best switched off.
It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. Ireland is not doomed to live, again and again, through the disastrous consequences of denial. The encouraging fact is that, in relation to the Garda scandals, the arrogant assumption that everything could be massaged or bludgeoned away has turned out to be wrong.
Martin Callinan, Alan Shatter and the Government badly miscalculated when they imagined that the public would buy the line that everything was just grand and the whistleblowers were just cranks.
Their fatal mistake was to forget that one big thing really has changed: hardly anyone believes what they say any more. Assurances and instructions from on high no longer carry much weight. As the story has become more fantastical, and the official explanations more obviously dodgy, the public knows that the stories just don’t add up.
We’ve learned from this saga that camera 19 is still operating in the control room of official Ireland. The desire to turn it away from unpleasant realities is still at work, still a primal instinct. But we’ve also learned that more and more people know that the camera lies. In this scepticism there is some hope that the urge towards honesty and accountability, so badly betrayed by those in power, can be rediscovered.