The prospect of corruption in any institution raises an uncomfortable question: are we dealing with rotten apples or with an entirely rotten barrel?
The story of Maurice McCabe, the Garda whistleblower who found himself the subject of a co-ordinated and groundless smear campaign, suggests the latter. If no good deed goes unpunished, McCabe's saga is an almost biblical example.
A man of obvious conviction, McCabe had gone "to extreme lengths to fulfil his dream of becoming a guard", we hear from Katie Hannon, the RTÉ journalist who presents Whistleblower: The Maurice McCabe Story (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm). Actually, that length was an eighth of an inch, the measure by which he fell short of the height requirement for new recruits in the early 1980s. "I slept on a board for two months," he tells us at home. "I made the height." That may be the only thing he tells us in Whistleblower that sounds like a stretch.
What does it do to someone so unswervingly moral to discover people capable of inventing something so unconscionable?
If anything McCabe comes across as almost parodically straight. He was a man who took pride in his uniform, his physical training, his impeccable record. He was a genuine incorruptible. With family interviews and details of his upbringing, his courtship and his marriage, Máire Kearney’s documentary is at pains to humanise a man whose name has so scurrilously been dragged through the muck.
In airing McCabe's clean laundry in public, though, the documentary makes his sheer goodness worryingly hard to relate to. As the scale of McCabe's personal ordeal mounts – he is tarred by allegation and innuendo for reporting gardaí's misconduct, and his wife, Lorraine, describes the shunning and suffering of their family in a small community – the question that nags the viewer is whether any of us could withstand this "campaign of calumny", as the Disclosures Tribunal called it, or, much more grimly, whether we would instead fall into line.
While sergeant in Bailieborough, the Co Cavan town where he first reported alarming complaints of misconduct, McCabe endured the unimaginable. A groundless allegation of sexual assault, made by the daughter of an officer demoted after the complaints, hit him hard. “I didn’t bathe the kids ever again,” McCabe now says. Lorraine recalls it starkly. “I was afraid he’d take his own life,” she says, without elaboration. What does it do to someone so unswervingly moral to discover people capable of inventing something so unconscionable?
If McCabe became obsessive, to use his wife’s description, that may have been prompted more by the cover-up than by the abuses he reported. When an investigation, by Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne and Chief Supt Terry McGinn, of his sweeping complaints about policing standards upheld a third of his allegations, the chief superintendent for the division that covered Bailieborough, Colm Rooney, circulated a document insisting that nothing was found while congratulating all those involved for “upholding high standards”. Rooney apologised, long after.
“It took them seven years to correct it,” McCabe says. “But the harm was done.” That reflex to deny or distort finds a similar expression among the rank and file, with one disturbing incident of menacing pictures, shared on social media, involving a plastic rat, darts, sexual poses and a truly revealing lack of wit. McCabe is labelled a “cheese-eating rat bastard”.
“It just gave us a complete sense of the feeling towards him,” Lorraine says of the incident. Yet it also gives us a complete sense of the feelings such guards harboured towards themselves, so threatened by exposure that they repudiated the messenger in ways befitting the mafia. Was corruption was so endemic that Garda integrity had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese?
In person McCabe is unswervingly credible and creditable, a hard man to undermine. The sorriest part of the documentary, then, is how isolated he still seems
At one point McCabe adjourns to St John of God psychiatric hospital, anticipating a significant stay. Instead he departs the next morning, intent to redouble his efforts. What follows is an escalation of both his exposures and the smears against him, an almost unimaginable saga of an individual pitted against the institution. By the time a savvy McCabe sits down with John McGuinness, the chairman at the time of the Public Accounts Committee, to expose losses to the exchequer through quashed motoring offences and uncollected fines, McGuinness returns his own verdict of character. “Well, you’re not mad, and you’re not bad,” the politician recalls telling him.
It’s no surprise that the documentary shares McGuinness’s opinion: in person McCabe is unswervingly credible and creditable, a hard man to undermine. The sorriest part of the documentary, then, is how isolated he still seems. It’s telling, for instance, that so few contributors come from outside his family, while the gardaí are represented only through archival footage of inquests and tribunals. Everybody knows the old maxim that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. McCabe is not alone in his goodness. His extraordinary example, at a steep personal cost, should be more conspicuously supported.
Read Peter Crawley's review of the second part of Whistleblower: The Maurice McCabe Story here