Garda whistleblower controversy had devastating effect, says Nóirín O’Sullivan

Former commissioner and Frances Fitzgerald speak about Disclosures Tribunal findings

The Garda whistleblower controversy had a “devastating” effect on Nóirín O’Sullivan and her family, the former Garda commissioner has said in her first interview since her decision to resign in November 2017.

People called to her home and abused her adult children, and armed gardaí were sent to the sittings of the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle such was the atmosphere created by allegations against her that have since been shown to be untrue.

In a separate interview, the former tánaiste and now MEP, Frances Fitzgerald, described as "harrowing" the experience of having to leave government because of a false allegation.

The publication of the fourth interim report of the Disclosures Tribunal in July of this year means that all of the allegations against the two women that were made during the controversy have been dismissed.

Ms O'Sullivan was accused of being privy to or involved in attempts to target or discredit Garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and Nicky Keogh after they made protected disclosures.

Ms Fitzgerald was accused of knowing about but failing to stop a plan by Ms O’Sullivan to use false allegations against Mr McCabe at the confidential hearings of a commission of inquiry that was investigating complaints made by Mr McCabe.

The Disclosures Tribunal found that the former head of the Garda Press Office, David Taylor, and the then Garda commissioner, Martin Callinan, had been involved in a campaign to smear Mr McCabe.

Ms O’Sullivan said there was a “bombardment” of untrue allegations about her made in the Dáil and reported in the media.

“The cumulative effect of it all is that it is dehumanising. That is the word I would use. It is dehumanising to be at the centre of this vortex, and feel that you are a political football, which I felt very deeply.

“It had a huge effect on my family, on my husband and my [adult] children, and on people who dared to be close to me or dared to be supportive in any way.

“I had people call to my home. I had people abusing my children. I had such horrible things happen. Even at the tribunal, for example, we had to, albeit quietly, have armed detectives there. Because there were people, you know. It attracts this. And if this is allowed to continue, then actually democracy begins to break down, and society begins to break down.”

She said she was supportive of the Oireachtas committee system but her experience of appearing before them as a witness had been that some members were solely focused on “looking for sensational headlines”.

Ms Fitzgerald said genuine issues had to be dealt with during the whistleblower controversy, but “you don’t try and right one injustice by creating others, and I think that is a fairly basic point in democracy”.

“There was an awful lot of rushing to judgment,” said Ms Fitzgerald, who is now a Fine Gael member of the European Parliament.

She argued in the Dáil that the proper way to deal with the allegations was to allow for due process, but the Dáil had not done that, even though it had already established a tribunal.

When the tribunal’s reports are taken together, she said, the consequences of rushing to judgment can be seen.

“A lot of what was taken as absolute truth, by the Dáil, by the media, turns out actually not to have been true.”

False allegations were made by Mr Taylor, against Ms O’Sullivan and her husband, James McGowan, who was at the time a detective inspector.

Ms O’Sullivan said she and her husband, who retired as a detective chief superintendent, had to end their Garda careers with a public assumption that they had failed to live up to the standards they had tried to live by.

They had to wait for a number of years for tribunal reports to be published that said, “well, this is not true,” the former commissioner said.

It was claimed in the Dáil that Ms O’Sullivan was party to, or had known about, the targeting of the whistleblowers, Mr McCabe and Garda Keogh.

All of these claims about Ms O’Sullivan have been dismissed in tribunal reports, with the report in July saying Garda Keogh’s claim was meant to be “extremely damaging” to the then commissioner and was made without any basis.

The false claims against Ms O’Sullivan and Ms Fitzgerald were aired in the Dáil, where politicians enjoy absolute privilege in terms of being sued.

In his tribunal report in July, Mr Justice Seán Ryan noted how false allegations made by Garda Keogh against a number of members of An Garda Síochána had been disclosed in the Oireachtas.

“The problem was that the allegations could not be answered by the persons accused in the forum in which they were raised,” he said.

Mr Taylor, who was removed as head of the Garda Press Office by Ms O’Sullivan following the resignation of her predecessor Mr Callinan, falsely alleged that she had known, as deputy commissioner, about a campaign to discredit Mr McCabe.

He also falsely claimed that Ms O’Sullivan’s husband was party to a conspiracy to cover up evidence of her knowledge of the smear campaign.

In a tribunal report in October 2018, the then tribunal chairman Mr Justice Peter Charleton dismissed the allegations and said Mr Taylor's "viciousness" towards Ms O'Sullivan arose because he was "suffused in bitterness" because she had moved him from the Garda Press Office.

Claims by Garda Keogh and another whistleblower Garda Keith Harrison that they had been targeted in the wake of making protected disclosures contributed to calls in the Dáil for Ms O'Sullivan's resignation on the basis that she was not protecting whistleblowers.

“The assumption was that I was targeting and discrediting whistleblowers, without a shred of evidence to support that,” she told The Irish Times.

In a tribunal report in November 2017, Mr Justice Charleton said Garda Harrison’s claims against Garda colleagues and the child and family agency, Túsla, were “entirely without any validity”.

In his report in July, Mr Justice Ryan, who replaced Mr Justice Charleton as tribunal chairman in late 2018, said that all of Garda Keogh’s claims about being targeted were unfounded.

Ms Fitzgerald said there were lessons to be learned by politicians and the media from the whistleblower era, which threw up serious matters that had to be investigated.

“How did the Dáil deal with them? How did the media deal with them.”

In her case the publication of a Department of Justice email in which she was informed of a dispute at the O’Higgins Commission, led to claims that she had known about, but done nothing to stop, an alleged attempt to discredit Mr McCabe at the commission’s confidential hearings, by using false allegations.

In the Disclosures Tribunal’s third interim report in October 2018, Mr Justice Charleton said that the transcripts of the commission hearings showed “nothing of the kind alleged” ever happened.

Leaked “snippets” of transcript, and the email that referred to a row at the commission, had “somehow transmogrified” into an allegation that Mr McCabe had been “maliciously accused” at the commission of false offences, and that Ms Fitzgerald had “stood back and let it happen”.

No one, never mind the Garda commissioner, had ever accused Mr McCabe of any crime at the commission, “or hinted at it, or attempted any innuendo about it”, the judge said.

He said Ms Fitzgerald had been correct to decide, in response to the email, that it was not for her to interfere with the commission hearings and that she should let the sole member of the commission, Mr Justice Kevin O’Higgins, “sort out” any dispute that might have arisen there.

A week before the proposed no-confidence vote in Ms Fitzgerald, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said in the Dáil that “it seems to me that there was a conspiracy to ruin this honourable man [Mr McCabe] and that members of An Garda Síochána and the tánaiste’s former department [justice] were part of this conspiracy.”

On the same day, the Fianna Fáil spokesman on justice, Jim O’Callaghan, said “the tánaiste was aware of the strategy of the Garda commissioner to attack and to try to personally destroy the reputation of Sgt Maurice McCabe.”

“What happened to me in the Dáil was completely connected with the idea that I knew there was a strategy to undermine the whistleblower,” Ms Fitzgerald said. “But there was no strategy, and I did not.”

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent