Fintan O’Toole: McCabe also a victim of Irish hunger for toxic gossip
The Irish desire to be in the know makes it easy for abusive institutions to traduce whistleblowers
Well, of course, you know the real story about your man, don’t you?
How often have you heard this and how often have you taken the bait, allowing yourself to be reeled in by malicious gossip? Ireland is a school for scandal. We have an insatiable appetite for rumour, especially when it is salted with luridly salacious detail. Abusive institutions know and exploit this craving.
The smearing of Maurice McCabe is primarily a frightening abuse of power by public bodies. It has to be confronted through a robust criminal inquiry led from outside the State. But this vile and disgusting story must also make us reflect on the hunger for vicious gossip that almost devoured a good man and his family. Smears don’t work unless there is a willingness to believe them – and this desire runs deep in Irish culture.
It is true, of course, that gossip-mongering is part of being human – it is our nature to be nosy creatures. But there are three factors that intensify its power in Ireland. First, it is the dark side of something we greatly value: intimacy. Ireland is still a very personal society. With this lovely intimacy comes the desire to feel that you “really” know anyone who is in the public eye. And conversely, in this intimate society, there is a fear of being left out of the intimacy. There’s something shameful in being the one who doesn’t know the “real” story about your man or your one. It implies not just that you are a gullible eejit but that you’re not plugged in to the informal networks where “real” stories are traded as tokens of social prestige.
The ulterior motive
Second, there is the drama of the ulterior motive. In a highly personalised society, we do not believe there is really such a thing as an office, a role that is above and beyond its occupant. The typical Irish whistleblower is not in the classic mould elsewhere, such as Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam or, more recently Edward Snowden. The Ellsbergs or Snowdens are broadly ideological – they have come to believe that the job they are doing is morally and/or politically wrong.
But for the typical Irish whistleblower, the opposite is the case: he or she is actually trying to do the job, to fulfil the role in an impersonal way. Maurice McCabe was simply trying to do his job as a Garda sergeant. Tony Spollen and Eugene McErlean were successively group internal auditors at Allied Irish Bank. It was their job to look for problems and when they discovered, respectively, a systematic tax fraud and massive overcharging of foreign exchange customers, they thought they would be praised for doing good work.
The problem is that Irish culture is fundamentally distrustful of the idea that people can do their jobs honestly. If they do the job “too well”, we all know that there must be an ulterior motive – a deranged obsession, revenge for some personal slight. Our storytelling culture can’t abide simple motives – give us the dark drive every time.
Thirdly, Irish scandal-mongering is a substitute. It is a toxic form of curiosity that substitutes for the real thing. What makes our whistleblowers so easy to crucify is that they are surrounded by people who keep their heads down and their eyes closed. In her report on how dozens of women were mutilated through unnecessary hysterectomies by the rogue obstetrician Michael Neary at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital, Judge Maureen Harding Clarke, noted acidly: “No one saw anything out of the ordinary, no one heard even a whisper of disquiet”.
So our culture makes it easy for abusive institutions. AIB brilliantly fired Eugene McErlean on the same day they announced the huge John Rusniak fraud in their US subsidiary. They didn’t even have to openly smear him – they relied on the Irish imagination to put two and two together and get 22: sure your man must have been up to his neck in that US thing. (Of course he had nothing whatsoever to do with it.)
Tony Spollen, as he later recalled, was painted as “a disgruntled guy, a chip on his shoulder”. The midwife who called out the saintly Michael Neary? Getting way above herself and sure she wasn’t even Irish.
The smearing of Maurice McCabe may take all of this to a new level of pure evil, but it followed a well-worn path. Those who created the sick rumours knew that there were journalists and politicians who would get a thrill from being “in the know”, whose friends in the pub would lean in eagerly as they lowered their voices to say, “Ah, do you not know the real story?”