Miriam Lord on Charleton tribunal: ‘Are you serious?’ gasped the lawyer

To think Nóirín O’Sullivan wasn’t aware of dangerous ripples is hard to credit

 Sgt Maurice McCabe, Michael McDowell SC, and his solicitor Kathryn Ward, arriving at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sgt Maurice McCabe, Michael McDowell SC, and his solicitor Kathryn Ward, arriving at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Never underestimate the long arm of the law.

It can be very long indeed.

Sometimes, as long as a bargepole. Other times, just long enough to bend and hold the nose while looking the other way.

It’s up to the individual officer.

Nóirín O’Sullivan, if her evidence to the Charleton tribunal is anything to go by, had a prodigious reach and excellent bendibility.

When it came to keeping the monumentally sensitive and volatile matter of Sgt Maurice McCabe at arm’s length, the former Garda commissioner proved amazingly adept: a law enforcement officer who was always (long) armed and oblivious when the situation called for it.

During his cross-examination, senior counsel and serving senator Michael McDowell was lost in admiration as he marvelled at Nóirín’s “extraordinary lack of curiousity” at one point in the ever-unfolding drama of the never-ending McCabe crisis.

It was a long day in the witness box for O’Sullivan. At the end of it, she didn’t shake McCabe’s hand, as she did on the first day. However, TDs Claire Daly and Mick Wallace barrelled in after she finished and had a animated chat on the landing outside with McCabe.

But then O’Sullivan had to pass the to get out the door. All four of them exchanged pleasantries and a few laughs.

Malpractice

Allegations by McCabe concerning malpractice in the Cavan-Monaghan division started more than a decade ago. O’Sullivan didn’t become acting commissioner until March 2014. She has been at pains to point this out during her time in the witness box.

But she sat at her predecessor’s shoulder during some very controversial meetings of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee and was an assistant commissioner looking after human resources back in 2008.

And all that time, the dogged McCabe was causing great upset with his whistleblowing antics in Cavan and very senior officers were getting dragged in from all over the place to investigating his charges.

The saga was causing ructions at government level and ministers were being discommoded over it. The force was being ballyragged on a regular basis on the floor of the Dáil and its reputation was taking a pasting.

He may have been making allegations about other gardaí who also had her protection, but by God, she was going to make sure he was protected too

To think that the high-flying O’Sullivan wasn’t aware of the dangerous ripples being made by McCabe in the cosy calm of Ireland’s policing pond is hard to credit. But then again, it’s a large organisation and people aren’t, eh, inclined to gossip or send tit-bits of information up the food chain. Oh, no.

But then Nóirín got the top job – a magnificent achievement for a woman in such a male-dominated environment. When she got her feet under the table in the Phoenix Park, did she not immediately summon her top people and demand a list of the burning issues, the possible flashpoints which might cause trouble down the road?

Rocking the boat

Did nobody mention McCabe – a national figure – still rocking the boat?

It seems they did, because from that moment, the new commissioner set out to ensure that not a hair on Maurice’s head would be harmed from that moment on. He may have been making allegations about other gardaí who also had her protection, but by God, she was going to make sure he was protected too.

So the government sets up an inquiry into his allegations. And the commissioner drags her heels in putting a legal team in place for it. It’s all very last minute and on only the second day of the O’Higgins Commission, McCabe’s lawyer blows a gasket when he finds out that the commissioner’s lawyer has been instructed to attack his client’s motivation and credibility.

Nóirín’s lawyer, who too was kept at bargepole length, is instructed by three senior officers. It turns out that these three men have considerable issues with McCabe and his allegations. They wouldn’t be described as being supportive of the sergeant. Far from it.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t recall some of the things he says happened. Or some of the things he wrote down about a meeting they attended. There were quite a few memory lapses

This didn’t seem to bother the commissioner, because it never occurred to her. If the three officers had problems with their “objectivity” when briefing her lawyer on the publicly cherished McCabe, she just assumed somebody would have informed her of this.

But who? McDowell was incredulous.

“She relied on these three people to give the actual instructions and background on Sgt McCabe to her legal team,” he told the tribunal.

The commissioner had a liaison officer who could keep her informed of what was happening. Unfortunately, she doesn’t recall some of the things he says happened. Or some of the things he wrote down about a meeting they attended. There were quite a few memory lapses.

She didn’t ask to see the document prepared detailing the grounds on which to challenge McCabe. But on the plus side, she probably didn’t ask in a manner which was very supportive of the sergeant.

Spooked

This document totally spooked Maurice. He stepped down from his new post in the Traffic Corps in Mullingar. The then commissioner said she wondered why he did this, but it never occurred to her it might just be the document.

Wasn’t she curious to find out what was going on in McCabe’s head, McDowell asked?

It would be hard to figure out what’s in anyone’s head, came the reply.

Nóirín was “more concerned” something might have happened to him at work in Mullingar.

“Are you serious?” gasped the lawyer.

The tribunal chairman got involved as the hearing progressed. He seemed particularly interested in a circular posted a number of years ago in all stations in the Cavan-Monaghan division which proclaimed that the allegations made by McCabe had been without foundation and congratulated gardaí for their fine work during a difficult time.

It was like a red rag to the sergeant. McDowell said the circular could only be seen as an attempt to isolate and “belittle” McCabe and the man who posted it was one of the people briefing O’Sullivan’s lawyer.

She said she couldn’t possibly comment on this, in the light of ongoing legal matters.

Mr Justice Charleton, more or less told her to fire away. She’d be fine.

So she conceded it might not have been the “most prudent” document.

But who is she to know? “I find it very difficult to put myself into the shoes of the author of this document.”

Charleton wondered if she thought the three men instructing her counsel “had an emotional involvement” bearing in mind they had been “under attack” in some of McCabe’s allegations.

“Do you think they were too wrapped up in it?”

The entire affair has taken “a huge emotional toll on all of the individuals” in that division, O’Sullivan said.

“And I include Sgt McCabe.”