Some books have their genesis in the craziest places, but the origin of ‘A Force For Justice’ is pretty mundane.
I was at home one May evening in 2013, minding the kids when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognise. Answering these kind of calls is always a gamble. It could be somebody with a story, which might require patience, filtering, more patience, interjecting with a few questions, Job’s patience, and final realisation that the person on the other end of the line has a grievance but no story.
It could be somebody with a story, an average guy who just wants an issue investigated, and is offering a few facts that might lead to more. Or it could be one of those rare times when you just strike lucky with the bones of an exceptional story. Sometimes, of course, the call is just from a voice demanding to know whether you’re happy with your broadband.
On this occasion, the caller made himself known. He had some serious information about the ‘ticket fixing’ scandal that had been in the news. A few weeks previously the internal Garda report was published into how thousands of speeding tickets had been quashed. The general view was that there wasn’t a whole lot to see here, except a few disgruntled cops spreading manure.
The man on the line was persuasive. He maintained that there was a story that was largely being ignored. The real story was that a scandal was being covered up. It was not just, he asserted, about well-connected people getting speeding tickets fixed. It was about widespread abuse, right across the Garda.
That night in May 2013 changed it all. Against my better instincts, and probably to distract me from hyperactive kids, I told the voice at the end of the line to come to my home.
He arrived and we sat down. He opened a cardboard folder and showed me details of the real story behind the recently published internal Garda report. The abuse of the ticket-fixing was widespread and the proof was accessible.
This man kept me up half the night. My wife arrived home at some stage and inquired whether the kids had brushed their teeth before going to bed. “What kids?”, I replied. “Do you not realise that there are people out there having their speeding tickets fixed on the basis that they were returning home to stop ‘bees attacking livestock’,that they were ‘late for a swimming lesson’”. These were examples of the excuses inserted to sort out friends and acquaintances for their speeding tickets.
From there it was just a matter of following the story. That required perseverance, sleepless nights and not a little stress, the kind of stuff endured in most jobs.
Along the way, I met all sorts of people who left me with a lot of humility.
Mary Lynch is a taxi driver who was viciously assaulted in 2007 by a man who murdered another woman some nine months later. Her case was mishandled by the gardaí operating out of Bailieboro Co Cavan. She was denied her day in court, she believes, because she would have publicly criticised the shortcomings in the investigation.
Mary showed fortitude in dealing with what had befallen her. She was initially led to believe that Maurice McCabe was behind the mishandling. After meeting him, she realised the truth. Her case forms a chapter in ‘A Force For Justice’.
Many other people whom I interviewed for the book, including both serving and retired members of An Garda Síochána, wished to remain anonymous but felt compelled to tell what they knew about what McCabe had been subjected to.
There are three separate aspects to the Maurice McCabe story. In the first instance, there is the shoddy and incompetent work which left the victims of crime bereft. This strand also includes the corruption of the penalty-points system which saw favoured motorists let off scot free, arguably compromising efforts to bring safety to the roads.
The second strand concerns McCabe’s efforts to have these issues addressed. Time and again, he came up against the impenetrable blue wall behind which the force operates.
The most shocking strand is the efforts made to silence McCabe, to ostracise him from his colleagues and the institution that was his life. There were a number of attempts to boomerang blame for cock-ups back onto him. None of these succeeded.
An insight into the lengths that some appeared to be willing to go to target the whistleblower is evident in the chapter about the missing computer. This featured in the O’Higgins Commission, but was first reported in the Irish Examiner in 2014.
A computer seized from a priest, who was subsequently jailed for child abuse offences, went missing in Bailieboro station. McCabe had nothing to do with the investigation into the priest or the exhibits seized. Yet, when the vanished computer became an issue, a disciplinary process into McCabe was initiated.
Through his courage and with the help of a colleague who had sympathy for what was being done to him, he managed to clear his name.
The O’Higgins commission ruled that McCabe: “formed the view that there was a plot against him and other members of An Garda Síochána were out to blame him.
While there is no evidence of any concerted attempt to blame Sergeant McCabe it is understandable that he might connect the commencement of disciplinary proceedings with the complaints he had made a short time earlier and that he might feel aggrieved”.
Delving into the story was both challenging and rewarding. In the early days, there were times when I felt I was missing something. There was little take-up for the story elsewhere in the media. Rumours abounded about McCabe’s character. The spin machines, both in the force and among large swathes of the body politic, was working overtime against him.
Now and then I was riddled with doubt. The evidence was clear. McCabe’s character suggested a serious and genuine man. Yet, could everybody else be wrong?
One day in early 2014, I briefly found myself in the company of Conor Brady, the former editor of the Irish Times and former member and Chair of the Garda Ombudsman Commission. We barely knew each other, but in the course of a conversation about the Garda controversies he asked had I met McCabe.
“He’s an impressive guy”, Brady said. “A serious man who should be listened to”. Brady had encountered the sergeant through his former role in GSOC.
At that point I realised my doubts were unfounded. I was not crazy (well, not too crazy).
Everything did make sense.
Three days after that encounter, Brady went on the ‘This Week’ programme on RTÉ Radio and said much the same thing in public. To my mind, that was a crucial moment in the tide of public opinion turning in relation to McCabe.
Another crucial juncture in the Maurice McCabe story was his appearance at the Public Accounts Committee in 2014 where he outlined the corruption in the “squaring” of speeding tickets. For the first time in six years he felt that somebody was actually listening to what he was trying to expose.
The chair of the committee John McGuinness told me that he had been highly impressed by McCabe’s presentation to the committee behind closed doors.
“I got the impression that on one level he felt he was speaking for the ordinary guards in the country, the type of individuals we know and respect who want to do their best at the job”, McGuinness said.
There would be low points even after that vindication. Behind the closed doors of the O’Higgins commission in 2015 there was an alleged attempt to smear him. That episode will be examined by the Disclosures Tribunal currently sitting in Dublin Castle. There was the devastating impact of the errors in Tusla that had him falsely labelled as a child sex abuser. The detail of how that came about makes for chastening reading and was heard at the tribunal last July.
One element of the story that leaves a lasting impression is the account given by Lorraine McCabe of the years of stress and worry had on their growing family.
In particular, Lorraine remembers the negative stories that were peddled about Maurice.
“The run-up to any events that had a public dimension (eg First Holy Communion) was filled with dread in case another story would ‘hit the press’ and ruin the occasion. I have also had to constantly worry about the next item of publicity, to figure out how to shield our children from its effect and to worry about what they might have heard in the school yard.
Many times I have simply chosen to abandon plans and to stay at home rather than face the world in the wake of yet another story”, she recounts.
The Maurice McCabe story is about the perseverance of one man against some of the most powerful forces in state. It is about the interface of policing and politics. But it is also about a personal journey of that man and his family. They paid a high price for discommoding the centres of power.
Hopefully, ‘A Force For Justice’ does some justice to their story.
‘A Force For Justice – The Maurice McCabe Story’ by Michael Clifford is published by Hachette Books and is out now