Frances Fitzgerald acted appropriately at all times – Charleton

Former minister for justice exonerated by tribunal report

The Charleton Tribunal has fully accepted the evidence of former tánaiste and minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald about her knowledge of, and responses to, an alleged Garda strategy to undermine the reputation of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

The Tribunal report gives a clear exoneration to Ms Fitzgerald, who was forced to resign from the Government in November 2017 as a result of the political controversy surrounding her role.

It has also made the finding that her decision not to interfere when informed of the strategy “was not a lazy dodging of the issues but rather a considered response to the information”.

And it has concluded she had not, at any time, spoken with former Garda commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan about this matter.

The Tribunal has found she acted appropriately at all times, and had been the political victim of a furore that escalated from a misconception of the Garda strategy towards Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission two years earlier in 2015.

Media reports

A series of media reports in late 2017 disclosed that Ms Fitzgerald’s office had received a number of communications in 2015 about a Garda strategy in the O’Higgins Commission that questioned Mr McCabe’s motivations.

In the ensuing controversy, it was claimed Ms Fitzgerald was aware, or should have been aware, of an alleged aggressive strategy, during 2015, much earlier than she had said she was aware.

In his findings, Mr Justice Peter Charleton has referred to communications that would have reached the Minister in 2015 but also intimates that the nature of the strategy was exaggerated.

The report has honed in on particular on briefing prepared for Ms Fitzgerald in July 2015, in response to a query received from an RTÉ reporter John Burke asking had counsel for the Garda questioned Mr McCabe’s motivation at the O’Higgins Commission.

Mr Justice Charleton has stated: “A short note was sent to her in which her officials unfortunately translated the query from being one about motivation into whether the “Garda Commissioner . . . had instructed counsel to adopt an aggressive stance towards Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins commission.”

“It may have been from this that the myth of some kind of aggressive conduct towards Maurice McCabe before the O’Higgins Commission began to grow.”

He goes on to conclude there was no particular reason for the Minister to remember this.

“That would especially meet with the mindset that disposes of issues in a busy life and puts them behind as no longer requiring to be remembered or attended to. The tribunal accepts the Minister’s evidence.”

Inaccurate phrase

However, elsewhere, the Tribunal chairman has noted that the inaccurate phrase “aggressive stance” took on a life of its own.

“In November 2017, all that politicians, the public and the media had to go on were the leaked snippets of transcript; and subsequently, an email sent to the Department on 15 May 2015 regarding a row at the O’Higgins Commission was made public.

“This had somehow transmogrified over time into an allegation that Maurice McCabe had been maliciously accused before the O’Higgins Commission of multiple and false sexual assault offences with a view to damaging his credit-worthiness; that the Garda Commissioner had authorised this; that the Minister had been informed; and that the Minister had stood back and allowed it to happen.”

The chairman then describes the outcome of the controversy that resulted: “In the result, at a crucial juncture for Ireland in the Brexit negotiations, the Government of our country came close to falling and in the ultimate result Frances Fitzgerald resigned from office on 28 November 2017.”

The Tribunal has examined the correspondence that emerged when a row occurred in the O’Higgins Commission over the Garda Commissioner’s strategy. When a senior official wrote to the Minister’s secretary describing the issue, he used the phrase ‘for information’.

“It is probable that the Minister read this email at some stage on the Friday, using her mobile device,” the Tribunal has concluded. “ It was some days later, on 25 May 2015, that the matter came back noted as having been read by her. Her decision was not to interfere.”

Mr Justice Charleton recalled her evidence to the Tribunal in which she said it would be “completely inappropriate for me, as Minister to interfere, to have any political interference”.

“The day of political interference in something like that was well gone, as far as I was concerned.”

Asking was this wrong, the Tribunal accepts this evidence as an honest appraisal of the situation.”

“It was not a lazy dodging of the issues but rather a considered response to the information. The tribunal is satisfied that the Minister and the Garda Commissioner did not speak about the matter.”