Maurice McCabe affair: Fledgling Ministers make it clear this is a Garda mess, for gardaí to clear up

Pressure mounts on Nóirín O’Sullivan to explain ‘credibility’ tactic against whistleblower

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan: Facing questions about the exact nature of her instructions to her barrister. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Government politicians shake their heads with a mixture of disbelief and apprehension. The new Government is hardly formed. Ministers are still meeting their civil servants, who are seeking – naturally – to impress on their new masters that their most important job is to fight at Cabinet for resources for their department.

Amid all this, Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s fledgling administration finds itself drawn into yet another controversy about policing, answering questions about yet another Garda commissioner.

This time, though, the Coalition has taken clear steps to insulate itself from any further fallout. Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has made clear her wish for Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan to clarify reasons for the apparent contradiction between her early instructions to her counsel at the O'Higgins commission to attack the credibility and motivation of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, and her later public statements of support for him.

Fitzgerald has expressed this wish in the Dáil several times in recent days. Her views were echoed by several Ministers and by the Taoiseach.



Independent Ministers of State

John Halligan

and Seán Canney came out yesterday to add their voices to the requests for clarification from the Commissioner.

Privately, Ministers express growing concern about the silence from Garda headquarters. Their view is clear, though: this is a Garda mess. It is up to the force to clear it up.

And now Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the Commissioner should give further information as soon as possible.

Dáil statements on the O'Higgins commission report are scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday of next week. The Taoiseach will doubtless be asked about the controversy in the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon. On Thursday, the commissioner is also likely to be questioned at a meeting of the Policing Authority.

Unaware of plans

Political sources in Government and Opposition say that whatever further information the Commissioner can supply, she will have to have presented it by Monday or Tuesday at the latest. The Garda Press Office said last night it was unaware of any plans for a statement from the Commissioner.

So what is the clarification that everyone is looking for? What further information is asked of her?

The pages of the O’Higgins report are full of alarming and at times shocking descriptions of poor policing, Garda incompetence and, at times, clear wrongdoing. Investigations not pursued. Information not shared. Victims abandoned. And, in some instances, gardaí apparently attempting to cover up their failures after Sgt McCabe made his complaints.

But it is not these issues that have led to growing pressure on the Commissioner. Rather the Commissioner’s problem centres on an issue which is not actually part of the report at all.

Transcripts of the proceedings of the O'Higgins commission leaked to the Irish Examiner show that O'Sullivan's counsel told the judge that his clear instructions were to attack the credibility, integrity and motivation of McCabe. Counsel emphasised that these were his instructions from the Commissioner, and further said that the evidence would show why. O'Higgins characterised this as an accusation of "malice".

Some time later, the barrister, Colm Smyth, said his earlier position – questioning McCabe's integrity – was a mistake by him and he amended it. But he still questioned McCabe's "credibility and motivation".

The Commissioner is facing questions about the exact nature of her instructions to her barrister. But also why the counsel made such a mistake.

Reports suggested that the accusation of malice against McCabe rested on an admission by him at a meeting with senior gardaí that he was motivated in his complaints by ill-will towards another senior officer. But McCabe had secretly recorded the meeting; and the recording contradicted the account of McCabe’s alleged confession.

False admission

As Micheál Martin asked in the Dáil: what would have happened if McCabe had not recorded the conversation? He might also have asked: why did a false admission of malice find itself in the account of a meeting?

Did this prompt the Commissioner’s instructions to her lawyer? And if so, what did she do about it? Asked about this in the Dáil, Fitzgerald confirmed she had raised this point with the Commissioner.

"This was one point I discussed with the Commissioner when I met her and, of course, whether An Garda Síochána would look at the commission's report with a view to seeing whether there were implications for discipline," said Fitzgerald.

“The Commissioner informed me that the Garda would be looking at it from this perspective and with this lens and that it would be followed through by it.”

The Minister and the Commissioner are said to have a good relationship, but a businesslike one. They do not chat on the phone, or send texts in the way that Alan Shatter and Martin Callinan did. With the Commissioner facing renewed pressure in the coming days, their relationship is likely to be tested further.