Commissioner’s stewardship dogged by whistleblower issue

Nóirín O’Sullivan at centre of Garda management at time of McCabe claims

Ever since her appointment as Garda Commissioner in November 2014, Nóirín O’Sullivan’s stewardship has been dogged by the whistleblower issue.

O'Sullivan had been deputy commissioner, operations, since 2011, one of two deputies in Garda Headquarters directly under the officer she was to subsequently replace as commissioner, Martin Callinan.

It meant she was at the apex of Garda management when the force was being buffeted by claims from Garda whistleblowers, particularly Sgt Maurice McCabe.

A succession of resignations, claims and inquiries have followed one upon another since the sergeant’s claims were first made, and there is no doubting the saga has been a significant part of the challenges confronting O’Sullivan in her professional life.

Negative views

There is also little doubt that Callinan had strongly negative views about McCabe. In March 2014 Callinan described the actions of Garda whistleblowers McCabe and

John Wilson

to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as “disgusting”.

After Callinan resigned in circumstances that led to the establishment of the Fennelly Commission, which investigated his resignation as well as the recording of certain telephone calls to Garda stations, O’Sullivan was appointed commissioner on an interim basis and later given the top job.

McCabe welcomed her appointment, telling the Irish Examiner that from his dealings with her, he would "class her attitude [towards reform] as positive".

Since then, new allegations have emerged that senior Garda management engaged in a campaign to discredit McCabe during the period when Callinan was the commissioner and O’Sullivan was one of his two deputies.

In the Dáil last year Independent TD Clare Daly said new allegations from whistleblowers alleged that a smear campaign was conducted "with the sanction of the current and former Garda commissioners".

The former head of the Garda Press Office, Supt Dave Taylor, has alleged the media and some politicians were negatively briefed about McCabe.

Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness has said that when he was chairman of the PAC, and Callinan was still the commissioner, Callinan warned him McCabe was “not to be trusted”.

“The Garda commissioner [Callinan] confided to me in a car park on the Naas Road that Garda McCabe was not to be trusted and there were serious issues about him,” McGuinness told the Dáil last May.

"The vile stories that circulated about Garda McCabe, which were promoted by senior officers in the Garda, were absolutely appalling," he said. "Every effort was made by those within the Garda Síochána at senior level to discredit Garda Maurice McCabe."

Confidential sittings

In the wake of the O’Higgins commission, which was established to look at the McCabe allegations, there was a controversy about what O’Sullivan’s stance had been during its confidential sittings.

A report in the Irish Examiner said Colm Smyth SC, for O'Sullivan, had indicated his client would be attacking the motivation and character of McCabe. However, documents that subsequently came to light via RTÉ showed that, while Smyth had said that his instructions were to challenge McCabe's integrity, he subsequently corrected this and told Mr Justice Kevin O'Higgins that his instructions had, at all times, been to challenge the "motivation and credibility" of McCabe. The earlier indication that he was to challenge the sergeant's integrity was "an error on my part".

The issues to do with McCabe’s motivation and credibility had to do with allegations regarding senior officers – allegations which were ultimately rejected by the O’Higgins commission. The commission report said McCabe was a person who acted out of “genuine and legitimate concern” and the commission “unreservedly accepts his bona fides”.

O’Sullivan, in an appearance before the Oireachtas Committee on Justice last October, responded to Daly’s claims in relation to McCabe, saying: “I am not privy to, nor did I approve, nor would I condone any campaign of harassment or any campaign to malign any individual employee.”

She has said she never regarded McCabe as being motivated by malice. His contribution was “valued and the service has changed for the better in response to the issues about which he complained.”

Commissions of investigation have the power to compel the attendance of witnesses, search premises, and take documents. Failure to co-operate can carry penalties, upon indictment, of five years in jail and/or fines of up to €300,000.

The latest commission is to be headed by Supreme Court judge, Peter Charleton, who was an experienced criminal barrister before becoming a judge, and who worked as counsel for the Morris tribunal which investigated allegations of corruption in the Donegal division of An Garda. The commission will examine the telephones of the current and former Garda commissioners as part of its investigations.

It is easy to envisage how a smear campaign such as the one alleged would have left electronic traces, whether by way of text messages or emails, that an inquiry could find.