How political crises around treatment of Maurice McCabe played out
Whistleblower issues: Garda leadership and Cabinet lurched from one controversy to another
Former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan; Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe; former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald; former Garda commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan. File photographs: The Irish Times
The Disclosures Tribunal, which published its report on Thursday, arose from controversies centred on Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe.
It was established in February 2017 as a result of a political crisis over how Sgt McCabe had been treated by senior figures in An Garda Síochána, as well as other State organisations such as Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
Its initial purpose was to investigate a number of matters, including whether the former head of the Garda Press Office, Supt Dave Taylor, was ordered by the ex-Garda commissioner Martin Callinan to conduct a smear campaign against Sgt McCabe.
In 2016, Supt Taylor made a protected disclosure in which he claimed was directed and encouraged by his superiors, including Noirín O’Sullivan, another former Garda commissioner, to damage Sgt McCabe. This was denied by both Mr Callinan and Ms O’Sullivan.
The claims were examined by Iarfhlaith O’Neill, a retired judge, who recommended to ex-minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald that a commission of investigation should examine the claims. The Cabinet agreed to this proposal in February 2017.
During the same week as the Cabinet decision, another controversy erupted over reports that Tusla had a file which contained false allegations of sexual assault against a child by Sgt McCabe.
Tusla said this was as a result of a “clerical error”. However, the claim was pursued and was passed on to gardaí, which Sgt McCabe believed may have been part of the smear campaign.
Sgt McCabe made it clear he would prefer a full public tribunal and would have no faith in a commission of investigation, which takes place in private. His request was granted, and the Disclosures Tribunal, led by Justice Peter Charleton, was set up.
The political crisis caused by the events of February 2017 effectively brought Enda Kenny’s leadership of Fine Gael to an end.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone met Sgt McCabe and his wife the day after RTÉ’s Prime Time reported the Tusla details and said she had informed her Government colleagues of the meeting.
At the time, Mr Kenny and Ms Fitzgerald said they did not know anything about the Tusla file and the allegations in it until they saw the RTÉ programme.
Mr Kenny later said he met Ms Zappone before she met the McCabes. He told her, he said, to make sure she took notes of the meeting. This was later corrected by Ms Zappone, and Mr Kenny apologised to the Dáil for giving a mistaken account of events.
Mr Kenny faced criticism from within his own party for how he handled the affair, and ministers Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney told a party meeting that Fine Gael needed to be ready for an election, which was seen as a coded way of saying Mr Kenny needed to stand aside. He later did so in May, and Mr Varadkar won the subsequent Fine Gael leadership contest.
Sgt McCabe then found himself at the centre of another political crisis which pitched the country to the brink of a Christmas general election and cost Ms Fitzgerald, by that stage minister for business but still tánaiste, her job, last November.
That crisis focused on the legal strategy pursued by lawyers for Ms O’Sullivan at the O’Higgins commission, which investigated alleged malpractice in An Garda Síochána in the Cavan-Monaghan region.
Ms Fitzgerald had insisted she was unaware of a legal strategy pursued by lawyers for Ms O’Sullivan in relation to Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins commission.
Details emerged last November which showed Ms Fitzgerald received three emails advising her on the legal approach, but Ms Fitzgerald and Mr Varadkar insisted it would have been inappropriate for her to intervene.
Attorney General Séamus Woulfe also told the Cabinet it would be “inappropriate and improper” for Ms Fitzgerald to have intervened.
Fianna Fáil sought Ms Fitzgerald’s resignation, which Fine Gael said was a breach of the confidence-and-supply agreement between the two parties.
Ms Fitzgerald resigned to prevent a general election and, in her resignation statement, said she “acted correctly in difficult circumstances and, in fact, did everything that I could to support the search for truth and protect whistleblowers”.
Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin agreed that Ms Fitzgerald’s handling of the emails would also be examined by the Disclosures Tribunal.