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Saturday, May 10, 2014

The price of justice


JUST as the Taoiseach was rising in the Dáil to announce the resignation of the minister for justice, the man at the heart of Alan Shatter’s troubles was at a completely different gathering. Sergeant Maurice McCabe was attending a meeting to deal with what he alleges is ongoing bullying he is suffering as a result of blowing the whistle on malpractice in the force.
Shatter’s resignation is in response to the contents of the report into a dossier of allegations made by McCabe, due to be published on Friday. The sergeant, who battled in the wilderness for five years to have his concerns addressed, has been vindicated. Along the way, he met hostility at every turn within the force. Not once did the minister move to protect somebody who was pointing out serious shortcomings in policing. If anything, Shatter aligned himself with Garda management who attempted to paint McCabe as a malcontent.
Yet, even at this remove, with McCabe’s allegations apparently vindicated, the sergeant is having to deal with ongoing bullying. That, probably more than anything, illustrates the roles of Shatter and the former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, in failing to properly deal with unpalatable truths.
How could Shatter’s judgment have been so poor? How could one so talented act with such a paucity of intelligence? How could a reformer blow up his career by siding with the force determined to ensure that things remained as they were? The reality is Shatter backed the wrong horse. At every turn, he sided with the management. He could have turned to his cabinet minister Pat Rabbitte, who had met McCabe and subsequently spoke glowingly of his character. He could have asked Fine Gael party chairman Charlie Flanagan, who also spoke highly of McCabe. Both could have told him that this was a man to take seriously. Former Garda Ombudsman Conor Brady described McCabe as a “a fine man, a man of integrity”, and one whom Brady himself “would be influenced by what he had to say”.
Instead, Shatter took his lead from Garda management, and all his actions thereafter were driven by that decision.
His decision to align himself with management may be rooted in the relationship he had developed with Mr Callinan. In the conversation McCabe taped between himself and the confidential recipient, Oliver Connolly, the latter man referenced the “bond” between Shatter and Callinan.
Connolly traced it to the visits of US President Barack Obama and the Queen in the months after Shatter came to office. Both men would have been toast if there had been a major security issue.
In such a cauldron, men often find common cause, and a connection lingers long after the event.
There were other matters. The austerity cutbacks hit the gardaí hard. Morale among the members plummeted. Through it all, Callinan held the line. When 140 rural Garda stations were closed, Shatter repeatedly referenced the decision as coming from the commissioner. Callinan took the political heat for the minster.
When the annual conference of the Garda Representative Association were less than hospitable to Shatter, Callinan made his displeasure known.
Then, when this turbulent cop came along with his array of allegations, it was time for Shatter to do right by the commissioner. If Sergeant McCabe was regarded as a malcontent, acting in a “disgusting” manner by Garda management, then that was good enough for Shatter.
In January 2012, when McCabe complained about 12 cases, Shatter had notice of the complaint. He passed it onto the commissioner, who passed it back within weeks, claiming there was nothing to it.
When McCabe and John Wilson brought their concerns on penalty points malpractice to public representatives, Shatter was disdainful. Again, he stood with the Garda management which was dismissive of the allegations. When the heat came on to have the matter investigated, Shatter referred it back to the force for a comfy internal investigation.
On publication of that report in May 2013, Shatter publicly questioned the bona fides of the whistleblowers. He then went on RTÉ’s Prime Time and revealed personal data about Mick Wallace, who had championed the whistleblowers. The data referred to a cursory road traffic incident in which gardaí allowed Wallace off with a warning.
Subsequently, Shatter revealed that he had obtained the information from the commissioner, the pair of them thick as thieves, lashing out against the turbulent cops and their supporters.
That incident culminated last Tuesday with the Data Commissioner ruling that Shatter had broke the law.
The minister’s character then came into play. He has long shown signs of supreme self confidence, and a tendency to regard opponents with a withering condescension. He couldn’t help himself.
On October 1, 2013, he told the Dáil that the whistleblowers hadn’t co-operated with the internal Garda report. This was a slur on their characters, and in time would become an albatross around the minister’s hard neck.
McCabe refused to lie down. He brought his allegations to the Public Accounts Committee, effectively defying the minister. Shatter tried to head him off by referring the matter to GSOC, but it didn’t wash. Instead, McCabe’s anonymity was lost, and he was no longer somebody who could be portrayed as a malcontent, but a real officer, who had interacted with the likes of Rabbitte, Flanagan and Brady.
The transcript from the taped conversation was dragged into the public domain through Shatter’s old nemesis, Wallace. Time to get rid of the confidential recipient, Oliver Connolly, who was unceremoniously dumped.
Then, with the heat coming on, Callinan was next man overboard. It is now widely accepted that Callinan was shafted for political expediency, principally to save Shatter’s bacon.
In the end, the Taoiseach was forced to refer McCabe’s original allegations to an independent inquiry. For the first time since the sergeant raised the issues they were being examined by an outside body. The imminent publication of that report has been the final straw for the minister.
It didn’t have to be like this. Even after his initial decision to align himself with Callinan and management, Shatter could have pulled back. That was when his supreme confidence haunted him. Humility, or even self doubt, were alien concepts to this politician.
He could have been a very good minister for justice. In areas such as the law business, child protection matters, family law, sentencing, he was both a breath of fresh air and a font of progressive ideas. But policing is at the heart of the justice portfolio, and his judgment over the past two years was nothing short of brutal.
A minister for justice, Garda commissioner and the man who was the confidential recipient have now all resigned over the manner in which they dealt with a whistleblower. How could one man, so lowly in the hierarchy of power, be responsible for all that? Simply by being right, and exercising stubborn persistence in pursuit of vindication.

When he came out of the meeting on his allegations of bullying yesterday, McCabe was told the news about the minister. They were agog in the upper echelons of power, a career gone, a ministerial scalp, a great story. Down at ground level, the man who started it all is still dodging the bullets. The more some things change, the more others still require addressing.

By Michael Clifford