McCabe story exposes how public institutions still really view whistleblowers

The Sergeant Maurice McCabe case has now accounted for the extraordinary haul of two Garda Commissioners (Chief Constables if you’re reading this in Britain), two Ministers of Justice and one Secretary-General (or Permanent Secretary).

McCabe reported the quashing of penalty points by senior gardaí in Cavan/Monaghan in 2007. When it landed with the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2013 his report concluded: “there is almost no overall management or coordination of the fines system”.

But what’s most disturbing about this story was the re-reporting of an old allegation (previously dismissed by the DPP in 2006) to the Garda which was passed to the child protection agency, who then by “error” conflated it with a more serious rape allegation.

The matter only came to a public head in February 2013, after McCabe brought a dossier to Micheal Martin who then read some of its controversial contents into the Dail record at Leaders Questions and then handed the dossier to Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

After Sean Guerin SC examined it, Callanan was pushed in March, followed by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter in May. An appeal by Shatter exonerated him, but only after he left the Dail: a likely factor in Leo backing Frances Fitzgerald as long as he did.

Then last year came revelations that Callanan’s successor Noirin O’Sullivan had decided on an aggressive against McCabe in the O’Higgins tribunal set up to formally investigate the allegations. She finally pulled out in September this year.

After Labour TD Alan Kelly’s series of Parliamentary Questions prompted Micheal Martin once again to raise it at Leader’s Questions, this time asking why when the late Minister of Justice had not taken any action when briefed that O’Sullivan’s counsel would go aggressive.

It’s likely Mrs Fitzgerald had fewer practical options open to her than her political opponents claim. But she was hampered by the way Shatter previously had muddied the line between politics and the department’s operational knowledge of Garda business.

Laying aside the politics of the whole affair, what the story reveals is the way the elite within that system treats whistleblowers.  In common with public administration in the UK, institutions are often prepared to go to extreme lengths to protect themselves.

Often politicians and political parties are reluctant to take them on, knowing very well that at any moment their considerable resources can be stacked against them when they get into power. Wallace, Kelly and Martin deserve praise in this regard.

It’s not simply a case of knowing where the bodies are buried, but also how when a government department, or local authority, is challenged, they can commit untold amounts of time, thought and resource to find ways to deal with the inquirer rather than the inquiry.

Even in the regular run of things, there is often a series of meetings and pre-meetings arranged in order to present a single piece of advice, often giving no clue of the tensions, divergences or contingencies covered in the final meeting with the politician themselves.

In this case, despite the notoriety of the story, An Garda Siochana was so determined to fight McCabe to the very end it maintained its aggressive, denying strategy even as both the Commissioner and the Minister lauded him as a public hero.

At the end of the day, Minister Fitzgerald lost her job simply because she took the official advice that there was no scope for her to act at face value. Her decision not to intervene was a political judgment, and she’s paid a political price.

More importantly, we’ve seen one of the most powerful institutions of the state red in tooth and claw.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty