A fortnight ago, I gave evidence at the Disclosures Tribunal. I spent almost four hours in the witness box in Dublin Castle over the course of two days. Most of what I said was the subject of a blackout by the establishment media, as I suspected it would be. For some time, I have been an outspoken critic of RTÉ and the Denis O’Brien media because of their close relationships with government and the Gardai which are so harmful to democracy and the public good.
In 2012, before Sergeant Maurice McCabe came to public prominence, I got a call one day at my office in the Irish Independent from his father. He asked if I would be willing to look at allegations his son was making about corruption in the force.
At the time, I was the newspaper’s Chief Features Writer and had been working on a number of cases of garda corruption, mostly unsolved murders. Mr McCabe explained this was why he had contacted me. My investigation into the 1985 death of Fr Niall Molloy had just led to the ‘re-opening’ of the case and my stories were generating interest among citizens who were having their own difficulties with the Gardai. Most of them were bereaved families who believed their loved ones’ deaths had been covered up by the force.
My questions to the Garda press office and the Department of Justice about these cases were routinely ignored and I had become a thorn in the side of Commissioner Martin Callinan and his headquarters in the Phoenix Park. I was increasingly alarmed at the depths Garda management seemed willing to go to cover up serious crimes to protect powerful individuals and deny citizens their right to justice and the truth. So when I heard that a serving member of the force had finally decided to speak out, I was intrigued and relieved, and agreed to meet Sergeant McCabe shortly afterwards.
Over the course of several weeks, I got to know him and his colleague John Wilson and found their testimonies solid and compelling. They were courageous, honest and driven by nothing but a desire to expose wrongdoing in the force and try to clean it up. All of their efforts to date had failed.
I began my own investigation into abuses of the penalty points system, focusing on a number of high-profile individuals who had had speeding fines quashed. One of them was Martin Callinan. By then, it had emerged that certain judges, state solicitors and crime reporters had had penalty points cleared. But now there was proof that the person with overall responsibility for implementing our road safety laws had also evaded them for his own personal gain.
At the time, Independent News and Media (INM) was undergoing a period of enormous transition as Denis O’Brien became the largest shareholder. Stephen Rae, former editor of the Garda Review, took over the reins at the Irish Independent. Almost overnight, a wave of fear seemed to sweep through the newsroom. The new regime was planning big changes and there was a strong sense that those of us involved in adversarial investigative journalism might be about to have our wings clipped.
It was in this period, I came into possession of a Garda PULSE document identifying a Martin Callinan as the recipient of speeding points that had been quashed. My source believed this to be the Garda Commissioner but knowing my lawyers at INM would not accept this as sufficient proof, I went to the address on the printout to make sure the information was correct.
I had a cordial conversation with Mrs Callinan which lasted no more than a few seconds. I told her who I was and asked her if the Garda Commissioner lived at the house. She said he did but that he was away. I jumped back into my waiting cab, looking forward to getting my story published. Little did I know it would lead to the end of my 17-year career at INM.
Shortly afterwards, I had a call from Stephen Rae’s then-deputy at the paper, Ian Mallon. He was very hostile and said the Commissioner was furious and had made a complaint of harassment against me.
In the days that followed, there was little appetite to publish my story about Callinan and I was subjected to a barrage of criticism and intimidation. I also learned that the then Managing Editor at the paper had been ordered down to Garda HQ over my story. One afternoon shortly afterwards, I was bluntly informed that my job was gone but that every effort would be made to make my departure as financially attractive as possible. When I said I would not be bought off, I was told I could stay on at the paper as long as I withdrew from the work I was doing on Garda corruption. I refused and was forced to take three legal actions against the company which resulted in a High Court apology from the company and compensation.
When the Disclosures Tribunal was established in 2017 to investigate an alleged smear campaign by Garda management against whistleblower Sergeant McCabe, I wrote to the chairman Justice Peter Charleton and offered myself as a witness. I believed my testimony would be of interest to it and the public, as it would help to reveal the incestuous links between INM and Garda HQ, and the lengths they were willing to go to to harm those backing up Maurice McCabe’s claims.
I have never been in any doubt that my support for his work led to the end of my career at the company. And as I told the Tribunal in early June, it is also my belief that the smear campaign against McCabe intensified after Callinan was exposed for having his points terminated.
Shortly after that story was published in April 2013, the repugnant rumours that McCabe was a paedophile started to surface. The ‘Miss D’ allegations emerged and a file was created by TUSLA – the child protection agency. In the same period, Garda management began to dig into the sergeant’s past to see if they could find anything potentially damaging about him.
Then in January 2014, Martin Callinan came before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and revealed his true feelings for the whistleblowers when he described their actions as “disgusting”.
For Callinan, it had become personal, as it had for INM’s crime reporter Paul Williams, who had by then been exposed as the recipient of several point terminations from his licence. Williams, under the editorship of his close associate Stephen Rae, began to actively pursue the Miss D case with the assistance of Garda management, pushing a ‘story‘ about how she felt her allegations against Sergeant McCabe had not been properly investigated – allegations which at that point had already been found to be baseless.
Williams also organised meetings between Miss D and Micheál Martin and Alan Shatter, and remarkably Miss D, whose garda father had been the subject of a disciplinary action by Maurice McCabe, was taken under the wing of the same firm of lawyers used by Paul Williams and INM at the tribunal – Fanning and Kelly Solicitors.
When I attempted to raise these connections last week, I was immediately reined in by Justice Charleton even though I believe the links between the Garda, INM, Miss D and her father should be central to his inquiry’s investigations. Given the vast amount of public money being pumped into the Disclosures Tribunal, I’m not convinced that either she or her family warrant the anonymity and protection they are granted by it.
This is just one reason why my confidence in the Disclosures Tribunal is depleted. There are many others. In the run-up to my appearance, I began to have reservations about being part of an inquiry which has at times descended into farce due largely to the contempt and disrespect shown towards it by some members of current and former Garda management coming before it.
Tall tales of missing mobile phones, laptops and damaged iPads belonging to Callinan and Nóirín O’Sullivan, which held information potentially critical to the Tribunal, have generated widespread cynicism towards the tribunal among the public, understandably.
Callinan’s farfetched denials that he did not brief a litany of witnesses against McCabe, including Deputy John McGuinness, Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy and broadcaster Philip Boucher Hayes (all of whom say he did), brought on another bout of raised eyebrows around the country as citizens started to ask what the point of it all was and why they were paying for it.
As I sat in Dublin Castle watching teams of lawyers quarrel ad nauseum over who said what to whom in newspaper kitchens and car parks, I found myself coming to the same conclusion. I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of ordinary Irish people at this stage believe Maurice McCabe was treated disgracefully by his bosses at Garda headquarters for trying to expose corruption in the force. Several years ago, McCabe and Wilson won ‘People of The Year’ awards, among other accolades, vindication if it were needed of the service they have done for the country and of the high esteem in which they are held across the island.
The public have become inured to the tsunami of Garda scandals that have emerged in the last decade leaving them in little doubt that a culture of corruption has infested the force from top to bottom. Many citizens have had their own personal experience of being burned at the hands of the Gardai. In their eyes, Sergeant McCabe is a hero, the underdog whistleblower who stood up against wrong, and in doing so, stood up for them.
There was overwhelming approval when Martin Callinan and Nóirín O’Sullivan resigned in disgrace. No matter how much they and their tribunal lawyers try to rewrite history now, their legacies are set in stone and they will be remembered as two of the most tarnished chiefs in the force whose tenures were marked by scandal after scandal. The real dilemma for the Disclosures Tribunal now is that the public have already made their minds up on the matter, rendering it almost obsolete.
When Justice Charleton’s final report is written, it may well establish what most people already believe to be the case – that Garda management set out to destroy Maurice McCabe. So then what? As we have seen time and again in Ireland, there are rarely consequences for those against whom adverse findings are made in state inquiries. The Morris Tribunal, established in 2002 to investigate allegations of malfeasance among some officers in Donegal and the framing of McBrearty family members for murder, uncovered breathtaking corruption by certain gardaí. Its final report recommended new standards to prevent future Garda scandals but the vast majority of these were never implemented by management. Fine Gael’s default position in government has been to establish an inquiry whenever a controversy arises. This has the effect of kicking the scandal of the day off-field, cooling public opprobrium, and relieving the cabinet of the headache of having to deal with it and fall out with whatever public officials are involved.
Invariably, these inquiries drag on for months, if not years, keeping their friends in the judiciary and the Law Library happy as the money rolls in and public interest conveniently wanes. It’s a clever strategy but one that is shamefully costly and rarely produces satisfactory results.
The Charleton Tribunal has cost the public more than €1.5m since it was established in March 2017. Legal fees alone have soared above €170,000 per month at times. Anyone who takes the time to read the daily transcripts of the hearing which are published online each night will see how much time is wasted by lawyers for the Gardai in particular, as they quibble over trivial points in an attempt to discredit witnesses defending Maurice McCabe. I was subjected to several of these pointless inquisitions last week. At one stage, barristers representing Callinan and O’Sullivan accused me of reposting a derogatory Facebook post about Nóirín O’Sullivan which was written by somebody else. I knew I hadn’t done so but despite my protestations, their lengthy and wasteful interrogation went on, turning into something of a pantomime. They brought their laptop up to Judge Charleton’s bench and managed to get him on board. He then proceeded to accuse me in the wrong. It finally emerged they were all mistaken and their desperate attempts to discredit me backfired when they discovered I had actually been tagged on the page by someone else, an action which had nothing to do with me.
The Charleton Tribunal will trundle on for many more months before reaching its final conclusion. There were at least 20 journalists present in Dublin Castle while I was giving evidence last week but they averted their eyes and ears for the duration. They failed to report most of the key planks of my testimony including my claims about Paul Williams and his connections with and support for Miss D.
I stated that because of their close links to the Phoenix Park, his boss Stephen Rae had come into possession of Garda files including the controversial Fr Molloy file. Critically, the media also failed to report my allegations about the Anglo Tapes, and their publication by Rae and Williams in the period surrounding my removal from INM in 2013.
It is my belief that a deal was done between INM and the Gardai to publish the tapes, not in the public interest but in order to sink the Anglo trial – arguably the most important court case in the history of the state because of the bank’s role in bankrupting the country.
Putting such key state evidence into the public domain before the trial could have prejudiced it by contaminating the minds of potential jurors, and thus helped to clear the bank’s Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick, a close associate of Denis O’Brien, one of Anglo’s biggest borrowers. Rae and INM were subsequently found in contempt of court for publishing the tapes, incurring a substantial fine.
How Rae and Williams actually came into possession of the tapes is obvious to most. Given their reliance on the Phoenix Park for crime exclusives and other favours including speeding point terminations, they certainly would not have dared to publish them without the nod from Garda HQ. After the tapes were released and the job was done, Stephen Rae landed a big promotion becoming ‘Editor In Chief’ at INM, a new role created especially for him which gave him command of the company’s three biggest titles: the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent and Evening Herald.
I got caught in the crossfire for embarrasing Callinan and had to be stopped in my tracks. When a journalist is silenced in the course of her work, it would usually be a source of concern to the media at large but the reaction to my removal from INM after almost two decades was one of indifference from my profession. Ironically, the British press came to my support. The Guardian newspaper ran several articles on my dismissal and actually challenged Stephen Rae about this own penalty points being quashed. This would never have happened here.
Since then, most of my journalism has been subjected to a mainstream blackout. In some more sinister instances, it has been distorted and maligned. This is particularly true of my documentary on the Mary Boyle cover-up. There was always huge fear among the establishment that the truth about Ireland’s youngest missing person would ever get out, for reasons explained in my YouTube film.
For some time now, I have spoken out about the cosy cartel that exists in this country between the press, power and the police because it is so dangerous for democracy. Day after day, the Denis O’Brien media and the state broadcaster churn out stories of limited relevance to the public, ignoring massive scandals that in other countries would bring governments down. Press freedom and the ability of the media to hold power to account is more compromised in Ireland today than at any other time in history due to these toxic connections between government and editors. Reporters are terrified to do their jobs, to expose corruption in public office and to keep asking the hard questions until they get answers. They see what happened to me and have become lapdogs instead of watchdogs. And then we wonder why so much chaos persists in the Gardai, our hospitals, housing and other public services. If we had a robust independent media, the country would undoubtedly be in much better shape and not about to repeat the catastrophic errors of the Celtic Tiger.
As for the Charleton Tribunal, it will trundle along for many more months before reaching its final conclusion. Whatever that may be, the chances of anybody going to prison or losing their pension is inconceivable. This is Ireland, after all. As for the root and branch reform of the Gardai that is so desperately needed, it will not happen while Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil are in power. Too many of their secrets are buried in the vaults of the Phoenix Park.