Fintan O’Toole: The only thanks for whistleblowers is abuse
Political damage of McCabe saga rooted in instinct to punish troublemakers
Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe Garda at the Charleton tribunal. Photograph: Alan Betson
The only thanks you’ll get is abuse. It’s the warning that rings in the heads of troublesome people. It is a highly effective adage for those in power: no harm for the stirrers to know what’s in store for them if they don’t keep their heads down. And it seems that its potency in Irish culture is worth maintaining at almost any cost.
Objectively, the repeated political damage inflicted by the Maurice McCabe saga is inexplicable. Even a two-year-old child learns that if she puts her hand on the fire she will get burned. Yet the smell of scorched flesh has lingered over this story, year after year. Next month it will be 10 years since, as Michael Clifford details in his superb book A Force for Justice, McCabe sat down and began to write what would turn out to the most politically fatal words in recent Irish history: “I list a number of issues that need to be addressed at Bailieboro Garda station . . . ”
What has happened since is the Irish version of Edward Lorenz’s famously provocative summation of chaos theory: does the flap of a butterfly’s wings over Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? We know the answer: a sergeant in Bailieboro throwing down his cap in frustration has caused repeated tornados in the Phoenix Park, Leinster House and Government Buildings. Two ministers have resigned under pressure, as have two Garda commissioners and two secretaries-general of the Department of Justice. Two taoisigh have been gravely damaged – Enda Kenny never really got his mojo back after his mishandling of the McCabe affair, and the shine has very quickly gone off Leo Varadkar. And we can by no means be sure that this microclimate does not have more Code Red storms to throw at the Establishment.
But why? McCabe’s initial allegations were serious but they were not politically explosive. This is not like a movie thriller where a local cop stumbles on a vast conspiracy involving the Deep State. Nor did McCabe set out to be a celebrity or a martyr – he was just a decent man trying to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. The complaints could have been dealt with by Garda middle management at a regional level. If Clifford’s book were a thriller, it would not be a very good one – the stretch between the cause and the consequences is just too great to be credible.
It is easy enough to understand why McCabe was victimised. Closed systems – and there has been none more closed than the Garda – don’t like troublemakers acting above their station. McCabe’s insistence that bad and sloppy police work should be stopped and punished was uppity. It showed up the mediocrity of management within the force. But what is not easy to understand is how, after the whole affair reached what seemed an astonishing conclusion in 2014 with the resignations of Martin Callinan, Alan Shatter and Brian Purcell, the punishment of McCabe was not at all concluded. If anything it got worse, with the decision to attack his character at the O’Higgins inquiry in May 2015 and the resurrection of false and outrageous allegations of child sexual abuse against him in December 2015. And a politician as experienced and capable as Frances Fitzgerald put her hand to the fire and got burned.
What is it about the McCabe saga that made the Garda leadership, the Department of Justice and such a senior politician walk repeatedly into the minefield? Why did people who got to the top because they have an instinct for power and self-preservation lose that instinct when it came to McCabe? All I can think of is that ominous mantra: the only thanks you’ll get is abuse. There is some powerful impulse in our culture that its truth must be upheld. The ants in our institutional colonies are driven to preserve its life even at the cost of their own.
And we must remember that it works. Ireland’s scandals have left us with some of the best whistleblower protection legislation in the world, introduced by Brendan Howlin in 2014. But think about the huge and continuing scandal of the systematic and unlawful removal of tracker mortgages from bank customers. It is vast, affecting more than 30,000 people. It was operated across almost the entire banking system. Somebody in each bank had to give the orders – but there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of decent ordinary bank officials who followed those orders. They saw what was going on, they listened to victims crying on the phone.
And how many of them turned whistleblower? So far as I know, not one. And can you really blame them? On the one side, there is legislation. On the other there is the story of Maurice McCabe and what his wife Lorraine describes in Clifford’s book as the “profound and very destructive effect on me, my children, my marriage and our life as a family”. On the one side there is official reassurance, on the other side the most vivid demonstration of the vindictive lengths to which institutional Ireland will go? How would you weigh the thanks of your fellow citizens against the abuse that goes with it?