Commissioner faces a choice
The Government will meet next Tuesday to revise the terms of reference for a fifth inquiry into the actions of senior gardaí as they responded to disclosures by whistleblowers concerning improper, even corrupt, behaviour within the force. This time, the main focus will be on an alleged campaign of intimidation against whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe rather than on his now proven claims of systemic wrongdoing. The findings are likely to have far-reaching consequences for Garda management and politicians and for the prospect of creating a modern, strictly accountable police force.
Unfounded allegations of child sexual abuse involving Sgt McCabe; how those reports came about and the role of Tusla, the Child and Family Protection Agency, in giving the Garda such information are now likely to be investigated by Mr Justice Peter Charleton. So will allegations that this material was given to politicians and journalists at the behest of or by Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and her predecessor Martin Callinan.
The word “sordid” does not do justice to the treatment Sgt McCabe has endured over many years because of his determination to uphold the law and expose wrongdoing. Mr Callinan threatened legal action against an Oireachtas committee in 2014 when it attempted to hear evidence from Sgt McCabe and a colleague regarding penalty points abuses. He later described their behaviour, in breaking ranks with 10,000 of their colleagues, as “disgusting”. At the same time, he formally recognised a need for transparency.
Tusla has apologised to Sgt McCabe for supplying false allegations against him to the Garda and for not immediately correcting the record. Some extenuating circumstances exist. The allegation of child abuse came from an outside source, before Tusla was formally established, and the organisation was occupied in integrating a number of agencies. Management is still attempting to establish how “errors” regarding the case came about. The strange conjunction of events, whereby a high-profile figure who was challenging a culture of omerta within the Garda should find himself at the wrong end of such an error, requires investigation. Questions also need to be answered about who briefed senior counsel for the Garda Síochána in an effort to discredit Sgt McCabe before an inquiry led by Mr Justice Kevin O’Higgins.
Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is likely to broaden the inquiry’s terms of reference in response to Opposition demands. But she and Taoiseach Enda Kenny appear determined to retain Ms O’Sullivan as commissioner for now. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also believes it would not be appropriate to ask her to step aside. While the political centre holds, Ms O’Sullivan has a decision to make: can she defend herself effectively before the commission of investigation while continuing to fulfil the role of Garda Commissioner?