Maurice McCabe: How a controversy became a story about politics

The series of events that turned another Garda scandal into a full-blown political crisis

Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe at Leinster House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe at Leinster House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

It was barely 6am when Katherine Zappone’s phone began flashing and buzzing with the incoming call. The first light before dawn was still nearly an hour away in Seattle, on the west coast of the United States.

Back in Dublin, however, a political crisis that would bring the Government to the brink of collapse and fatally undermine the Taoiseach, was about to unfold. Seven thousand kilometres away, and eight hours behind, Zappone would play a pivotal role.

Garda Commissioner Nóirin O’Sullivan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Garda Commissioner Nóirin O’Sullivan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Clustered in crisis session since early that Friday morning, the Minister for Children’s officials hurriedly spoke to their boss, briefed her on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme broadcast the previous evening, one that was dominating the news.

Zappone’s officials had learned on the Thursday afternoon that the programme was coming after she had departed for Seattle at lunchtime on Thursday, to attend a long-standing family event. (Her officials will say no more about it).

Everyone else knew it was coming too. Leinster House, as so often before, had throbbed to a cocktail of gossip, rumour and reality, all day; the two words most often heard were “Prime Time ” and “Tusla”.

In Kildare Street, you can’t keep a secret but details are always sketchy. Prime Time revealed a jaw-dropping story. A counsellor seeing a young woman had erroneously – she cited a “cut-and-paste” mistake between two files – informed the State’s child protection agency of an allegation of child abuse against a garda. But not just any garda.

The alleged perpetrator just happened to be Sgt Maurice McCabe, the biggest whistleblower in the history of the force, and someone who (he says) has faced a smear campaign for years by senior Garda management.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Fateful decision

Questions and calls flooded into the Department of Children, which oversees Tusla, and to which it is responsible. Zappone and her staff, principal advisers Patricia Ryan and Jerry O’Connor and senior civil servants, felt she could not stay silent.

Besides, she was a part of the story, they felt. She had met the McCabes, heard their story and been profoundly moved by it. She was on their side. As ever, she felt she was on the side of the good guys. She could tell that story.

Leinster House, as so often before, had throbbed to a cocktail of gossip, rumour and reality, all day

But not in an interview. Political history in Ireland is littered with examples of disastrous interviews given by politicians from abroad, when they are not sufficiently close to the details of an unfolding crisis back home.

Plus, because Zappone’s hearing is not great, she does most of her interviews in person. However, the pressure for public comment grew. Zappone and her officials decided she should issue a statement. It was a fateful decision.

Drafts bounced frantically across the Atlantic as the mood of crisis deepened. The Scottish-born Tulsa chief executive Fred McBride went on RTÉ to offer an apology, but not much by way of an explanation.

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

At 3.03pm on Friday (7am in Seattle), journalists’ emails pinged with a statement from the children’s Minister. It revealed her involvement with the McCabes, detailing how she had intervened with Tusla on their behalf.

Someone was lying

She had also, it said, “informed relevant Government colleagues”. That single line in Zappone’s statement fundamentally altered the trajectory of the controversy. Suddenly it veered away from the gardaí and the child protection authorities into politics, into the heart of the cabinet.

Journalists read the statement and thought: who did she inform? Of what, exactly? And when?

They knew, too, as presumably did Zappone, that spokespeople for both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste had been saying since Thursday night that they knew nothing of the Tusla file and its false allegations of sex abuse against Sgt McCabe.

Both versions of the story could not be true. Someone was lying. That was the story now.

Zappone’s officials were bombarded with more questions. Her press secretary replied tersely: “We are not elaborating on the remarks at this stage.”

The questions, however, were not now just coming from the press. Officials and Ministers were now on the warpath as well. What is she doing? What are they at, wondered one Fine Gael Minister.

Five and bit hours later, another terse statement arrived from Zappone’s office: “It would have been highly inappropriate for the Minister to brief the cabinet on confidential, highly sensitive and personal information which one could reasonably assume was the subject of a protected disclosure, which was leading to the establishment of the commission.”

Journalists read the statement and thought: who did she inform? Of what, exactly? And when?

This half-contradicted her earlier statement about informing her colleagues. But it still left the Taoiseach in the spotlight: he would never get out of it.That Friday afternoon, the controversy morphed from another Garda scandal into a full-blown political crisis.

Contradiction

The Sunday papers were a nightmare for the Government; every one led with fresh revelations about the controversy, prompting further questions, piling on the political pressure. Few had doubted the scale of the crisis. If they had, they were in no doubt now.

Later that day, the Taoiseach travelled to RTÉ for a scheduled appearance on This Week, radio’s flagship Sunday news programme. If there was one question that could have been foreseen, it was on the issue of McCabe, and Zappone’s comments.

The Taoiseach had his answer ready: Zappone had told him she was going to meet McCabe. And did he have any advice for her? He did. “Make sure you take a good note.” He knew nothing about Tusla.

But on Monday, Zappone, not long off a plane from the US, contradicted him. Speaking to reporters on the plinth at Leinster House, Zappone knew she was fighting for her political life. She turned in a bravura performance, more akin to a dramatic soliloquy than a political press conference.

But she stuck to her story: she had told Kenny about Tusla before the cabinet. There are certain laws in politics. They are not always observed, but they usually are. One of them is that big political scandals always require somebody’s head before they will abate.

By the time Ministers gathered for the cabinet meeting, they wondered who it would be: the Garda Commissioner? Zappone? Fitzgerald? Few entertained the thought it would be the Taoiseach himself.

Former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Concerns grew

The road to the extraordinary political events of the past 10 days began 10 years ago when McCabe, a garda sergeant stationed in Bailieboro, Co Cavan, became concerned about the way a number of investigations had been conducted.

McCabe was punctilious, exact, a stickler for proper procedure – something which did not endear him to some of his colleagues and which subsequently led to conflict with his superiors. His concerns grew, and he began to document them in careful detail.

Several years later, frustrated with the internal Garda procedures which he believed had failed to properly investigate and address the serious shortcomings he had identified, McCabe brought his concerns to the leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin, assembled in a dossier.

Martin immediately passed the dossier onto the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. By that time, though, politics was already involved. McCabe and his colleague and fellow whistleblower John Wilson had also made allegations about abuse of the penalty points system.

Wilson detailed instances where they said gardaí had intervened to wipe penalty points for pals, superiors and, at one point, allegedly, high-profile journalists. A Garda Inspectorate report detailed widespread abuse of the system.

The Dáil Public Accounts Committee, citing the loss to the public purse of the fines foregone, invited the whistleblowers and the then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan in to explain themselves.

There, Callinan infamously described the whistleblowers’ actions as “disgusting”. His contribution lit a spark which was to result – albeit indirectly – in Callinan’s resignation from an organisation that he had described as “my force”. And it led to the ousting of Alan Shatter as minister for justice.

In 2015, the government established a Commission of Investigation under Judge Kevin O’Higgins to inquire into McCabe’s allegations. Published last year, it found that many – though not all – of McCabe’s allegations about garda malpractice and incompetence stood up.

“It praised him as a dedicated and conscientious public servant. Speeches in the Dáil echoed those sentiments. The gardaí pronounced themselves duly chastened. That was not, however, the end of the matter.

Commission of Inquiry

Later last year, another Garda officer, David Taylor, previously head of the Garda press office, made a “protected disclosure” under whistleblowers’ protection laws. He alleged that there had been a concerted campaign by senior gardaí, including the present commissioner Nóirin O’Sullivan and her predecessor Callinan, to blacken McCabe’s name as a means of discrediting his allegations.

Callinan infamously described the whistleblowers’ actions as 'disgusting'

Shatter’s 2014 resignation had shocked his colleagues and Fitzgerald, his successor as Minister for Justice, is a naturally careful and cautious politician anyway. Her political threat monitor immediately went haywire. She knew Taylor’s claims were potentially explosive. Within days, she had passed the claims onto a retired High Court judge, Iarfhlaith O’Neill, asking him to report to her as soon as possible on their contents and the next appropriate steps.

O’Neill returned before Christmas with an unambiguous recommendation – the government should set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the alleged smear campaign against McCabe. On the face of it, this was extraordinary – an official, judge-led investigation into the actions of a serving Garda Commissioner.

On the other hand, it had the benefit of taking the issue off the agenda for the duration of the commission. Its work would be done in private. Whatever came out of it, would not come out for a year at least, possibly more. After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions, Fitzgerald brought the issue to cabinet last week, seeking her colleagues’ approval to set up a commission. They agreed. Neither the Taoiseach nor Zappone mentioned anything about Tusla. The issue seemed dealt with. It was, but only until the Prime Time broadcast and Zappone’s subsequent statements intervened.

Sullen and fearful

By this week’s cabinet meeting on Tuesday, just a week after the initial decision, the Government would have agreed anything to make the story go away. But that usually leads to making things worse, not better.

Despite the private misgivings of many cabinet ministers, the Government resolved to establish a tribunal of inquiry into the McCabe allegations. Zappone told her colleagues that she had would “learn lessons” from the episode.

But the Government was still all over the place. That evening, the Taoiseach dug an even deeper hole for himself, with a series of contradictory statements. Kenny corrected his earlier versions, telling the Dáil he had given “inaccurate information”: “mea culpa” he said, hand on his heart.

For three hours the Taoiseach and his Ministers sat taking questions, trying to explain themselves. They looked sullen, fearful, punch-drunk, almost.

Despite the private misgivings of many Cabinet Ministers, the Government resolved to establish a tribunal of inquiry into the McCabe allegations

Zappone made another significant intervention, revealing that the Taoiseach had assured her that the Tusla case would be covered by the original proposed commission of investigation approved by the cabinet a week earlier.

But if the Taoiseach – as he insisted – didn’t know anything about the case, how could he know it would be covered by the investigation? Kenny’s story was coming apart at the seams, and everyone could see it.

Katherine Zappone Minister for Children at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke
Katherine Zappone Minister for Children at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke

Wednesday was D-Day: the day the controversy would have to be resolved, one way or another. A Dáil motion of confidence would force everyone to say where they stood; the mood in Leinster House was febrile, a sort of horrified giddiness. The Independent Alliance, trying their best to place themselves at the centre of the drama, waited until an hour before the debate to march onto the plinth and declare that they had agreed to continue their support for the coalition. But at the same time, a five-minute walk away in the Fine Gael parliamentary party rooms, the political crisis was to reach its point of catharsis.

Support and then tolerance for Kenny had been slipping away from the Taoiseach since the general election last year. For months the middle ground of the parliamentary party, not the acknowledged dissidents, had been wondering what would trigger his departure.

Now Leo Varadkar gave them the answer. The party needed to prepare for an election, he told them. Then Simon Coveney got up, saying the same. Everyone there knew what it meant. Kenny’s days were numbered. It would be his head, after all.

Week of chaos

The Government staggered through the confidence motion in the Dáil later that evening, winning the division by 57 votes to 52, with the 44 Fianna Fáil TDs abstaining. But in truth, there were few in the chamber that evening who had much confidence in the Government after a week of chaos, contradiction and confusion. Even some of the members of the Government admitted privately that they did not have much confidence.

The next day, the Dáil debated the terms of reference of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the alleged smear campaign against McCabe – forgotten, almost, amid the political tumult of the week. A handful of TDs were present.

“It is sad that the chamber is empty,” complained the Green leader Eamon Ryan. “We do not have a single person in the press gallery at the crunch moment, that is, when we are considering the real terms of reference. It was packed all week for the theatre of the political but, when it comes down to us setting up the terms of reference, I would say we are not giving it due attention.”

“What’s new?” asked Fitzgerald.

A few hours earlier, the Taoiseach had been at the Dáil finance committee, a routine task, going through the spending estimates for his department. Concluding, the committee’s chairman John McGuinness paused. “I know these are difficult times,” he said, “and I wish you well.”

Kenny, for so long the great survivor, shrugged. “C’est la vie,” he said.