Mick Clifford on the ratcheting of Martin Callinan

Sour smell of scandal lingers as Shatter squirms free of chopping block

The smell that these Garda scandals have been giving off has turned sour. Alan Shatter and Enda Kenny must answer all the tough questions more than satisfactorily, writes Michael Clifford

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Alan Shatter: The justice minister finally said sorry to the whistleblowers. ‘I believe it is appropriate that I apologise to both and withdraw the statements made.’ Picture: RTÉ

THERE, that wasn’t too hard now, was it? The Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, stood up in the Dáil yesterday at 4.20pm and apologised for blackguarding the two garda whistleblowers. It would be difficult to believe that he meant a word of it, but issuing empty platitudes was a small price to pay for holding onto his job. Now that he’s got over that little personal crisis, we can all turn to what is emerging as a really serious question.
Did Enda Kenny fire the Garda commissioner in order to save Shatter’s bacon? These controversies which have been raging for over two months are finding a rhythm. Some new nugget of information comes to light, sending everybody into a tizzie. Then Shatter comes into one of the forums of the Oireachtas and patiently explains to the mere mortals how they’ve all got it wrong and how he has acted with probity and efficiency at every turn.

So it was yesterday, except in this phase of the controversies, he was required to make two speeches instead of one in a single day.

The apology to the whistleblowers was important because he retracted an attack made under privilege on the two men concerned, Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former garda John Wilson. On October 1, Shatter had told the Dáil the men did not co-operate with an internal garda inquiry into the penalty points controversy. The statement portrayed the pair as individuals who would complain about the system but then refrain from helping sort it out.

This issue was first reported in the Irish Examiner in early January. Since it mushroomed as a contentious point in the last month, Shatter’s party and cabinet colleagues backed up his position. A number of them, most prominently the party chairman Charlie Flanagan, pushed the notion that Shatter had been correct in his use of words. The two men weren’t interviewed by the O’Mahoney investigation; therefore, they didn’t co-operate, Charlie and the naysayers kept repeating. The reality was that O’Mahoney never contacted the men, a standard procedure in any police inquiry since Robert Peel first donned a uniform.

All of this palaver was merely politics at play. What matter the reputation of two men who had done service by pointing out malpractice? The main thing was to back up their colleague Shatter, whether he was right or wrong.

The speech delivered yesterday afternoon changed all that. Under mounting pressure, the source of which had spread to his cabinet colleagues, Shatter finally admitted he had got it wrong and had misled the House. Now all those minions who came out to bat for Shatter look more than a little silly, to put it at its mildest.

“I want to say very clearly that, having examined the facts and further considered the matter, I believe more should have been done during the course of the O’Mahoney investigation to obtain information from and ascertain the views and experiences of the whistleblowers,” he said.

“I therefore wish to correct the record of this House that the whistleblowers ‘did not co-operate with the Garda investigation that took place’. I acknowledge that this statement was incorrect… and I believe it is appropriate that I apologise to both and withdraw the statements made.”

Did he mean a word of it? Unlikely. The apology had to be dragged out of him. On a number of previous occasions, he had refused to budge from his position. It would appear that he was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, to the point of repentance on pain of losing his job if he refused.

A far bigger issue now emerging is whether the Garda commissioner paid the price for Shatter to keep his job. On Tuesday, it initially appeared that Martin Callinan had fallen on his sword rather than issue his own mea culpa over the hostility he had directed towards the whistleblowers. This explanation portrayed him as a proud, possibly arrogant, man who was unwilling to admit that he had been wrong all along about the motives and actions of two officers in his force.

Hours after his resignation, it looked like he went rather than face into a fresh scandal, this one involving a long-standing practice of tape recording phone calls in a whole raft of Garda stations.

However, as the facts tumbled out, it began to look like Callinan was taking on the role of fall guy. The practice of tape recording stretched back 30 years to a time when the former commissioner was a rank-and-file member. He had been responsible for discontinuing it last November. At the time, he contacted the attorney general about the issue, thus ensuring the legal adviser to the Government was fully informed.

As a result of a pending case — now known to be the legal action being taken by Ian Bailey and Jules Thomas — new material had come to light. Again, Callinan can’t be held responsible for how the Bailey case has been handled.

He wrote to the Department of Justice about this matter on March 10, indicating that it should be brought to Shatter’s attention. This was not done until last Monday, a fortnight after the letter was dispatched by courier.

Why were no red flags raised as far back as November? Why did it take 14 days for Shatter to see a letter that was couriered to his office? These questions need to be answered satisfactorily, but no culpability lies with Callinan.

Yet, when the matter was brought to Enda Kenny’s attention, he had, within 24 hours, dispatched the secretary general of the Department of Justice to meet Callinan personally to express the Taoiseach’s concern.

In the Dáil yesterday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin interpreted this envoy as a floating P45. “You essentially sacked him [Callinan],” Martin said. “You sent a senior civil servant out to the commissioner the day before a cabinet meeting.”

It’s difficult to see any other interpretation. In the circumstances that pertained, there was no requirement for words or direction. The message was conveyed by the mere presence of the secretary general on Callinan’s doorstep.

Kenny rejected this suggestion with great umbrage, but what else could he do? Admit it? The smell that these Garda scandals have been giving off has taken a sour turn. Callinan’s hostility and conduct towards the whistleblowers was such that he may well have deserved to lose his job. He most certainly didn’t deserve to lose it over the phone-recording issue that the Government appears to have blown into a major scandal.

Shatter took a similar line to Callinan on the whistleblowers. His lily-livered apology has come too late, but he seems to have escaped the chop for now. He’s a lucky boy that Kenny thinks so highly of him that the Taoiseach was willing to have Callinan “retired” in order to save Shatter’s bacon. Only problem is, Kenny has now thrown himself right into the vortex of these scandals.