Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The vilest smear of all

When I was a young reporter on a provincial newspaper in the 1990s, rumours began to circulate about a local politician among journalists, political representatives, and Gardai across the West of Ireland.

The whispers would surface occasionally at local authority meetings, press launches, or court hearings, spreading quickly from one media outlet to another in the small bubble which was the local media at the time.                                                                                
Brave whistleblower Maurice McCabe

The rumours were of a sexual nature and involved underage victims.

If they weren’t true, they were appalling slurs against a man who had a high profile in both sport and politics in the West of Ireland.

Until the day he died, I never heard any concrete evidence of wrong-doing against the man.

As far as I was aware, he was never questioned or charged in relation to the activities which were so well-known among journalists and politicians in one part of Ireland.

In those days, my role as a newspaper journalist involved regular phone contact with virtually every politician across the region.

I had no way of knowing whether the rumours about this particular man were true or not, but I heard them repeated so often that they clearly coloured my dealings with him.

I’d call him whenever I had to, I’d exchange pleasantries with him on the phone, but the unfounded allegations I had heard – with absolutely no substance to back them up – would hover in the back of my mind.

After his death, one of his party colleagues spoke to me with disarming honesty. He said that his friend was aware of the rumours for many years and that they had driven him to alcohol abuse and a very lonely life in his latter years.

So, in recent weeks, it was hard to imagine the kind of anguish the family of Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe was going through. This was a man whose only ‘crime’ was to be an honest policeman.

When he discovered that colleagues were bending the rules, abusing the Pulse system to allow high-profile people such as journalists to evade penalty points, he did what could only be described as the right thing.

A system of justice is discredited in the eyes of the people if justice is not served equally, but Sgt McCabe could hardly have imagined what was in store for him when he began to raise his concerns.

Maurice McCabe did Ireland a huge favour by stepping forward and daring to expose wrong-doing and the abuse of power.

As a result, he was falsely accused of raping a six year old child.

The accusations were not made public, but hidden away in a Tusla (child protection agency) file and spread as rumours among sections of the Gardai and media in Dublin.

Expressing solidarity with Sgt McCabe at
Shannon Airport last week
They were only unearthed after the wrong details were “copied and pasted” into the wrong Tusla file.

If that wasn’t malicious, it was a level of ineptitude which was unthinkable in a country which is still reeling from clerical sex abuse allegations which were covered up for decades.

Sgt McCabe was the subject of the worst smear anyone could face.

Those who instigated the smear knew full well that the rumours would spread when they shared them with Garda colleagues or crime correspondents in the media.

The implication was clear. How could you take the claims of a whistleblower seriously if you had heard the rumours?

Ireland is a small country and people love a bit of gossip, just as journalists and politicians thrived on the “inside information” we had – apparently without any substance – about our political friend in Galway in the 1990s.

For the ‘crime’ of telling the truth about corruption in our police force, Sgt McCabe was portrayed as a vile person who could not be trusted by some senior Gardai.

It is nothing short of frightening that a man whose only concern was bringing  the truth to light was vilified and branded as a sex abuser.

Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, who subsequently resigned from his job, branded his allegations as “disgusting”.

Imagine how difficult it was for Sgt McCabe to carry out his duties when the head of his own police force showed such vehement opposition to his brave attempts to expose corruption.

And yet that was nothing compared to the allegations circulating in the background. He would have known nothing of them at the time.

You can imagine the informal briefings which are so central to Irish political life. “Did you hear the rumour about so-and-so?” “Don’t trust so-and-so. Sure, have you not heard about the file . . . “

Sgt Maurice McCabe: an honest whistleblower who
was the subject of malicious (and false) smears

All Maurice McCabe wanted was truth and justice – instead, he was the victim of a truly appalling smear by those who wield power in Irish society.

But for a mistake by a member of staff at the child protection agency, who contacted him in error about the “wrong” file, he might never have known about the vicious rumours circulating behind his back.

He was being punished for breaking the unwritten rules of Irish life.

This, after all, is the country in which you ring a politician in a bid to move up the lengthy waiting list for a local authority house.

It’s the land in which a TD or Senator will pressurise a surgeon to move you up the waiting list if you urgently need surgery and the waiting lists last for months or even years.

It’s the country where the right connections will allow you to evade penalty points if you know the right Garda and you are in a position of power.

Bending the rules is part of our heritage.

Perhaps it goes back to our colonial days. With a wink and a nudge, Irish people learned how to work their way around inconvenient or “tricky” laws. Sure, they weren’t our laws.

They were imposed by the British after all. We had a grudging admiration for law-breakers under the British Empire and we exported that rebellious spirit to the US and Australia.

But there’s a huge difference between opposing unjust laws and smearing a good policeman who only wanted to do his job.

Over a decade has passed since McCabe first raised concerns about corruption in the Gardai and it’s impossible to imagine the anguish he has gone through since then.

The realisation that some people – with the right connections –  have been able to act as they please while evading the consequences should make us all fearful for Irish democracy.

There are too many coincidences in the Maurice McCabe case to suggest anything other than a deliberate and malicious campaign to discredit and disgrace a good man.

If a Garda whose only crime is to expose corruption can be maliciously and falsely branded as a sex abuser, what does that say about power and democracy in 21st century Ireland?

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and content writer, based in Galway, Ireland. You can check out his Facebook page here

Check out Ciaran's website: http://ciarantierney.com/

Find Ciaran on Twitter, @ciarantierney

A blog post about media ownership in Ireland, from July 2016  http://ciarantierney.blogspot.ie/2016/07/the-silence-is-deafening.html