Saturday, February 18, 2017
The Maurice McCabe affair is our worst scandal yet
The realisation you live in a State in which people with huge power over you will go to such lengths sends a shiver down the spine
If the scale of a scandal is to be judged by the numbers of heads that roll because of it, the Maurice McCabe saga is already the biggest in the history of the State. It has consumed a Garda commissioner and a minister for justice. It will finish off a Taoiseach and ensure that the Tánaiste has little chance of succeeding him. It indirectly contributed to the resignation of a secretary general of the Department of Justice.
And it is a very long way from being over. The tumbrils are again clattering through the streets and if the guillotine is not yet descending, the tribunal of inquiry announced this week is surely the platform on which it will stand.
There has been nothing like this before. And there are two fundamental reasons why this scandal has become so uniquely destructive: fear and loathing.
The fear unleashed by what happened to McCabe and his family and to other whistleblowers has two apparently contradictory aspects. It is the fear of a State that seems at once dangerously overweening and, were the issues not so serious, almost comically hapless.
The McCabe story exposes power at its rawest and most naked: relentless, unashamed, unaccountable
We are confronted by a State that has two faces: one that will stop at nothing and one that can do nothing.
This first face of the State is terrifying – and the terror is deeply personal. If we leave aside the vast horror of child abuse in institutions and parishes (which never threatened a government), previous scandals of the modern era in Ireland have been mostly about money: politicians on the take, those in the know evading taxes, developers benefitting from a corrupted planning process, and a beef industry manipulating public support schemes.
The one big exception is the Blood Transfusion Service Board’s infection of hundreds of women with hepatitis C. It was a complex story, and most people didn’t follow it, but it did become highly personal when it came to focus on the State’s treatment of a single person: Brigid McCole. And when that happened it acquired an emotional charge. The spectacle of the State bullying a dying woman gave the story, for a while, a very high voltage.
The Maurice McCabe story is, in the strength of the emotional current it carries, much closer to McCole’s than it is to, say, Charles Haughey’s financial shenanigans. And this is part of what has made it so electric.
Few of us can imagine ourselves having secret offshore bank accounts or having Ben Dunne turn up at our door with huge cheques. But we can all imagine what it must be like to be wrongly accused of raping a child.
So Haughey being on the take made people angry – but McCabe being smeared makes people scared. (Even if, as Tusla has claimed, the abuse allegation against McCabe was inserted accidentally into his file, the campaign against him went far beyond that.)
There’s a horrible but vivid simplicity to the story: you don’t need to know the details of the malpractices that McCabe exposed within the Garda Siochana to feel a shiver go down your spine at the realisation that you live in a State in which people who have huge power over you will go to such lengths to render you unspeakable – a person portrayed as so vile that his words must not be heard.
The McCabe story exposes power at its rawest and most naked: relentless, unashamed, unaccountable. And the exercise of this power is all the more petrifying because in this case it is so capricious.
If you were writing this story as a thriller you would have McCabe stumbling upon something momentous, some dark secret that threatened so many powerful interests that he had to be crushed. But that’s not what happened.
The things that McCabe blew the whistle on were extremely serious, but they were not new: the culture they exposed was already obvious from the previous Garda scandal in Co Donegal.
The sky would not have fallen had the minister for justice and Garda commissioner at the time, Alan Shatter and Martin Callinan, simply said, “This respected sergeant has made some disturbing allegations. We will have them thoroughly and independently investigated, and whatever is wrong will be put right.”
Shatter and Callinan would have emerged with greatly enhanced reputations, and public confidence in the Garda would have been boosted. There is, then, something capricious about the development of an obsession with the crushing of McCabe. And capriciousness is frightening.
The viciousness of the campaign against McCabe is so disproportionate to the threat he posed to the State authorities that citizens have to wonder what the State would do were it genuinely threatened.
But then there is the other face of the State revealed in the continuing unfolding of this affair: the weakness and incompetence of its governmental culture. Gardaí notoriously once used the “blue flu” as an industrial weapon – but senior politicians seem to suffer from blue fever.
The very sight of a blue uniform, especially one with gold braid on its epaulets, seems to induce in Ministers who otherwise have a very high opinion of themselves, a fervour of self-abasement. They don’t just love a man or woman in uniform: they cringe.
One of the strangest aspects of the McCabe affair, indeed, is the way the instinct that is usually so paramount for politicians – self-preservation – has been so badly blunted. It would have seemed obvious after the bloodletting of the first phase of this scandal, in 2014, that the very name “Maurice McCabe” would have produced a flight-or-fight response in ministerial offices: either keep away from this issue or be sure that you are seen to be fighting for truth and justice.
Instead we have seen, especially from Enda Kenny and Frances Fitzgerald, a kind of mental and political paralysis that can be explained only by the blue fever: the Garda Commissioner is she who must not be confronted.
And this, too, is scary. Citizens are looking at a scandal that makes them feel very unsafe, and then they see a Government that is at best hopeless and at worst embarrassing.
The democratic power that is supposed to be protecting us from a police force that may in some large respects have gone rogue is a torn-up tissue of contradictions, evasions, posturing and downright lies.
Fear, indeed, is the catalyst for a reaction that has doomed Kenny. When people were not afraid, his habitual spinning of fictional yarns could be written off as harmless spoofing.
But when fear enters the equation, harmless spoofing begins to look like harmful lying. Once his blather and bluffing were transformed by public anxiety into barefaced mendacity, the Taoiseach had passed a point of no return.
And with the fear there is the loathing. It was – and how very ironic it now seems – Martin Callinan who introduced disgust into the story when he notoriously called McCabe and his fellow Garda whistleblower John Wilson disgusting. What an emotional boomerang that was.
Disgust, a visceral loathing that precedes and supersedes rational thought, was hurled at the whistleblowers. But it has come back on those who first deployed it. The substance with which McCabe was smeared – the horrific false accusation of violating a six-year old child – is nauseating, revolting, obnoxious. It makes the gorge rise. This is not throwing mud. It is an attempt to coat a man with loathsome slime.
The problem with manufacturing such a foul concoction is that, if it does not stick to its target, it hangs around. What was conjured up in those allegations must be subjected to cold, rational analysis.
This has gone beyond dirty tricks and into a realm where the State itself feels dirty.
But it is much more primal than that. A deep sense of revulsion has been introduced to this story, and all the explanations in the world won’t make it go away. A line was crossed by some powerful State actors, and they cannot simply skip back over to the other side.
Terror and taboo
It is this combination of fear and loathing that makes this scandal so potent and so destructive. These are two of the most powerful and primitive emotions: they make this story not a police procedural or even a good-cop-bad-cop conflict. It is more like an ancient Greek drama of terror and taboo in which some deep sickness seems to be ravaging the State.
This has gone beyond dirty tricks and into a realm where the State itself feels dirty. That kind of drama calls for a powerful expiation, a cleansing that is not just political but also moral.
And it’s hard to see the mere establishment of a tribunal of inquiry as that kind of cleansing act. We know from too many examples that these tribunals have functioned as a kind of ritual in which the State takes its sins and sends them off to some stuffy purgatory at Dublin Castle, where lawyers poke them with pitchforks for a few thousand euro a day.
But fear and loathing are not banished by such rituals. Their emotional charge is too potent.
The fear can be dealt with only by the establishment of robust democratic control over those arms of the State – in this case the Garda and Tusla, the child and family agency – that are given great powers in the belief that they will use those powers to protect and not to harm.
The loathing can be salved only by a thorough cleaning-out and punishment of the people who felt they had no boundaries, that they need stop at nothing in their desire to punish anyone with the temerity to question their power.
Heads will continue to roll, but the way we do these things is that they roll off into pretty baskets lined with plush pensions and legal impunity. That’s not adequate to banish the spectres that have been summoned up by such an extraordinary amalgamation of viciousness and folly.
Fintan O Toole