Maurice McCabe: He fought the law – and he won

Whistleblower review: This darkly enthralling story really is one of good versus bad

During one brief pocket of calm in what we can call the Maurice McCabe saga, the second part of Whistleblower: The Maurice McCabe Story (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm) allows us to see its drama through the eyes of a child.

That perspective belongs to Tom McCabe, Maurice’s young son, as related by his mother, Lorraine. Like many of us, Tom watched the end stages of his father’s tribulations and ultimate vindication on television. “Is he on Daddy’s side?” he would ask his mother of any new character in this litany of allegations, revelations, recriminations and investigations. “Is he good or bad?”

That is the question. Unimaginably complicated yet somehow dirt simple, McCabe’s story is enthralling precisely because there is an almost childlike simplicity beneath its narrative. It pits a noble individual against a contaminated institution, matching a figure of virtue and tenacity with depraved efforts to discredit him. Tom is right. Peel away the politics – if such a thing were even possible – and this really is a story of good versus bad, as fundamental as a folk tale. Mercifully, one with a happy ending.

Never attribute to malice what could be explained by incompetence, Hannon's razor might state

In the second part of their exhaustive and intimate documentary, the RTÉ journalist Katie Hannon and the director Máire Kearney keep pace with the McCabes – earning their trust, presumably, with Hannan's Prime Time special detailing the disturbing smear campaign against him.

They too look for narrative shape, tracing McCabe's dogged sense of justice to the example of his father, Michael, a vigorous man we see celebrating his 90th birthday in the middle of the Disclosures Tribunal. As part of that celebration, photographs of McCabe as a young Garda recruit are projected over a particularly wry soundtrack: The Clash's I Fought the Law. It's a nice inclusion, and hardly the only gesture of family support we see, sustaining the spirits of an otherwise lonely crusader.

The stakes in McCabe's story keep getting higher, following the then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan's public rejection of McCabe's allegations of Garda misconduct as "disgusting" while privately spreading damaging fabrications about him that were infinitely more sordid. When Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, brings a dossier of McCabe's allegations to light, it sets in motion a series of reports and investigations that eventually wrongly draw Alan Shatter, as minister for justice, Nóirín O'Sullivan, as acting Garda commissioner after Callinan's abrupt retirement, and Frances Fitzgerald, as Shatter's successor, into the morass of other people's efforts to discredit McCabe.

The most disturbing allegation that emerges is an entirely groundless one of child rape, filed away in a Tusla report, apparently by clerical error, which was potentially circulated for years. Never attribute to malice what could be explained by incompetence, Hannon’s razor might state, but even though the Disclosures Tribunal ruled out conspiracy in the matter, citing Tusla’s “astounding inefficiency”, Mr Justice Peter Charleton, the tribunal’s chairman, called it “one of the most unlikely coincidences ever to be accepted by a judicial tribunal”.

If the adage that behind every great man is a great woman seems outdated, one reason is because Maurice and Lorraine are equal partners, sharing support and the screen

The more consoling aspect of the documentary, though, is the extraordinary resilience of the McCabes' family life. If the adage that behind every great man is a great woman seems thoroughly outdated, one reason is because Maurice and Lorraine invariably stand beside each other, equal partners sharing support and sharing the screen. Lorraine is uncommonly frank about emotional difficulties. "That's the tree I was going to hang myself from," she recalls her husband saying after one of what he admits were several bleak periods.

The documentary has frequently nudged at the issue of abject despair, the gravest consequences of a good man dragged down by sinister powers, the awful prospect of the bad triumphing over the good.

The arc of the moral universe is long, Martin Luther King observed, but it bends towards justice. In this story of justice finally served, after a torturous struggle, those words seem refreshingly resonant. Others call for revision. McCabe fought the law – or the most deplorable abuses within it – and he won.

Read Peter Crawley's review of the first part of Whistleblower: The Maurice McCabe Story here

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