Pat Leahy: Resignations over McCabe affair prove accountability
If Irish system is as corrupt as critics claim, why have so many in power stepped down?
Sgt Maurice McCabe: The fact some forces in the State were so determined to destroy him shows how serious and substantial were his complaints, how threatening to power. Photograph: Alan Betson
The body count amassed by the Maurice McCabe affair is frankly astounding. The resignations of Frances Fitzgerald and the secretary general of the Department of Justice, Noel Waters can be added to the departures of Enda Kenny; Alan Shatter; Garda commissioners Martin Callinan and Nóirín O’Sullivan; the previous secretary general in justice, Brian Purcell; and the former Garda confidential recipient Oliver Connolly which all stemmed directly or indirectly from the McCabe affair. And it may not be finished yet. Irish politics has never seen anything like it.
When Sgt McCabe reported on the malpractice of gardaí, the force turned on him. When he went outside the force, there was an even greater backlash against him. Failures to deal with him and his case fairly and properly went right to the top, as we have seen.
Whistleblowers should be taken seriously. Not everything they say is subsequently borne out, of course. The Charleton tribunal’s damning verdict on the claims of another Garda whistleblower, Keith Harrison, demonstrates that it’s important to fairly test and thoroughly investigate their claims.
Not everything McCabe claimed was found to be true by the O’Higgins commission, either. But the fact that some forces in the State were so determined to destroy him shows how serious and substantial were his complaints, how threatening to power.
The McCabe affair shows something else too though. It shows us that, however imperfect and rickety it is, our political system does seek accountability. True, it often makes an unholy mess of the process, and sometimes that is deliberate. Powerful people can seek to undermine the efforts to enforce accountability. But the sheer number and calibre of the resignations over the McCabe affair is evident that there are rules and standards and there are penalties for violating them.
In other words, if our system was as irredeemably corrupt as some of its critics claim, why have so many powerful people been forced to resign from their jobs?
If our system didn’t strive for some sort of transparency and accountability, then nobody would have been forced to resign.
Or look at it another way – if the scandal occurred in a country without a free press, an independent parliament, a strong legal system that does not take orders from the government and a foundation of constitutional and civil rights, then Maurice McCabe would have got nowhere, and nobody in a powerful position would have paid the price.
Was McCabe badly failed by the State, its organs and officers? For sure he was. But is he on the way to being vindicated? It sure looks like it.
Now don’t get me wrong. Are there whistleblowers who have been ignored, blackguarded, crushed? Certainly. Not everyone is a strong as Maurice McCabe.
There are clearly yawning deficits in the processes we use to establish the truth in cases of official malfeasance. We establish tribunals and inquiry, but then we fund people to legally frustrate them. We make people swear oaths to tell the truth, but don’t punish them when they don’t. We ignore the reports of tribunals and inquiries when they are published. We often go through the motions of accountability, rather than seek to enforce it. We have a long way to go.
The way to protect individuals at risk of being wronged by the State is to make those institutions work like they are supposed to. The status of parliament as a place in which those in power must tell the truth has been eroded. The Dáil must assert itself.
It’s easy for the media to ignore stories that are difficult, dangerous, time-consuming, uncertain. We must do better. The courts are often way too expensive for ordinary citizens to vindicate their rights.
Record-keeping, which once partly defined the Civil Service, appears to have collapsed, undermining accountability, responsibility and clarity. One senior public servant told me this week that official procedures have not caught up with email, never mind text messages, Whatsapp and all the rest of it. Parts of our State remain unnecessarily secretive.
All of these failings contributed to and were illuminated by the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald.
But there was also another factor, too: the political mismanagement of the crisis from the Taoiseach’s office.
The faith of Fine Gael TDs in their Taoiseach has been rocked a bit by the events of the past fortnight. From an early stage in the affair, after the publication of the email, it was obvious that a resignation, or something not far short of it, was on the cards. That was not appreciated by the Taoiseach until the very end.
Instead he and his closest advisers chose to believe that they could face down Fianna Fáil and force Micheál Martin to back down. This was always unlikely; having backed down on previous controversies, Martin was unlikely to do so again. After the existence of the second and third emails to the former tánaiste, it became impossible for him to do so.
Yet the Taoiseach continued to insist that the impossible was entirely possible until the very last minute.
We could speculate on why this is so; and many have. To me it looks like a failure to identify a realistic end goal (where did Varadkar want to be at the end of the crisis?), an elevation of tactics over strategy, and an unwillingness to listen to contrary views and analysis – that is, if the Taoiseach is actually exposed to any contrary views.
It is very likely that Leo Varadkar will examine his own management of the mess, and learn from it. But for now, you’d have to hope that the Brexit negotiations are being handled with more aplomb than the omnishambles of the past fortnight.