(Originally published at Irishleftreview.org in February 2014)
The saga of the cancellation of penalty points and garda whistleblowing continues to be played out in the Irish public sphere. The latest chapters have been the appearance of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), and his subsequent behaviour there to questioning from the various public representatives in the committee His answers and their tone in front of the committee has since come under much scrutiny, along with his opposition to one of the whistleblowers appearing in front of the same committee in the following week. Said whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe, did appear before the committee earlier this week, but in a private session behind closed doors. He has since stated that he hopes that the transcript of his appearance before the committee is made public, but the PAC has “received legal opinion strongly advising against publishing the transcript”. Most of the media coverage has focused on the above two incidents; both Commissioner Callinan’s and Sgt McCabe’s appearance in front of the PAC. Even though there has been some comment on Callinan’s attitude towards the PAC, none of it has linked this attitude to Irish politics more generally. His behaviour is simply a reflection of the decades of contemptuousness amongst the powerful in Irish society towards any accountability. We don’t need to dig too far into Irish history to in order to uncover such examples. In fact, another of the whistleblowers, Garda John Wilson, made this very point recently.
In an interview for the Documentary on One show for RTÉ Radio One, Wilson went into detail about his career in the gardaí. This included incidents involving less than ethical, or even legal, behaviour on both his part, and the part of his colleagues. In one incident early in his career, he was contacted by “a very prominent politician”, who asked Wilson to “take care of” a case involving a woman that Wilson was in the process of prosecuting for not wearing a seatbelt and/or having no tax paid on her car. The woman in question was an acquaintance of the politician. Wilson acquiesced to the request, and stated in the interview that such behaviour “was expected of me”. He also made the point that his colleagues at his workplace knew in advance what the content of the phone call was, implying that such events were common or at the very least, not unexpected. Similarly, there is the case of Patrick McParland in 1997. On September 13th of that year, McParland, who owned Dromad’s Carrickdale Hotel, was arrested on suspicion of drink driving and brought to Dundalk garda station. Apparently being “well liked” in Dromad, he asked that the gardaí in Dundalk inform their associates in Dromad garda station. Sgt James Cunningham of Dromad heard about the arrest and drove to Dundalk. There he informed the arresting garda, Eric McGovern, that McParland was “good to the gardaí at Dromad”, and that, “you don’t realise who you’ve arrested”. McGovern, apparently ignoring this, set about getting the doctor on call to come to Dundalk garda station from Slane in order to procure a blood or urine sample from McParland in order to determine the amount of alcohol in his system. Undeterred, Cunningham went to see Superintendent Michael Staunton, explaining the situation and adding that McParland was “a good friend of the gardaí”.
What happened next is disputed. McParland claimed that he suggested setting up a roadblock in order to “intercept the doctor on his way to Dundalk”, with Staunton replying, “That’s the thing to do”. Staunton’s account differs, claiming that he told Cunningham “there was nothing he could do”. Regardless, Cunningham intercepted Dr. Harpel Gujral, telling him that his services were no longer needed, “it was a very sensitive matter and this had been given the okay at top level”. The doctor was also told to turn off his mobile phone, apparently so that he would be unable to take any phone calls from Dundalk inquiring as to his whereabouts. As the doctor was driving home, Cunningham drove alongside him and signalled him to stop. Again he told the doctor to go home, but added that he should phone Dundalk to let them know “that his car had broken down”. By now, three hours had passed since the arrest of McParland, and a sample must be taken from a suspected drink driver within three hours. Dr. Gujral, unhappy with the chain events, contacted his local garda station as soon as he got back to Slane and informed Sgt John Clarke of what had taken place. Clarke immediately drove the doctor to Dundalk where the doctor procured a urine sample from McParland. Cunningham was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice, and under oath testified that he had the authorisation of the Superintendent to set up the road block to intercept the doctor, and was “just following orders”. The Superintendent, also under oath, denied this. Cunningham was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison, all of which was suspended given the fact that he was a twenty-five year veteran of the gardaí. McParland was found guilty of drink driving, disqualified from driving for a year, and fined £150.
On the surface this seems like a vindication of accountability within the gardaí. However, the above accounts demonstrate the fact that there has to be some form of culture within the gardaí that makes the above behaviour acceptable, or not unexpected. That a garda could walk into a station not his own, and try to pervert the course of justice in order to help out a supposed “friend of the gardaí” is shocking, but not unsurprising. The same applies to John Wilson and the favour that was asked of him by a “very prominent politician”. Lack of accountability at the top drips down through the layers of the political classes and reaches those who are supposed to be in the service of the Irish public. Remember Pat Rabbitte’s comments on lying to the Irish people during the general election campaign of 2011? “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?” was his comment on broken election promises. What exactly is the difference between this and Callinan’s comments to the PAC that its investigation is “extraordinarily unfair”? Both men imply, and in Callinan’s case explicitly state, that accountability is dealt with internally, and that decisions which effect the general public are not to come under the purview of public debate. Callinan is only concerned with “protect[ing] the force”, and that internal guidelines are adhered to in order to ensure his “control and authority over the force”; his words, not mine.
It is in the nature of the powerful to defend their power, even, or in some cases especially, if it goes against the public interest. This simple maxim has been understood for centuries, yet we continue to see it being played out in the Irish context. There is nothing unique in our experience of it, but given the relative size of the country compared to others, it is brought all the closer to each and every one of us. Defence Minster Alan Shatter while being briefed about the penalty points scheme by Callinan last year, in the wake of the revelations currently being investigated, was informed by Callinan that fellow TD Mick Wallace had penalty points wiped from his licence. Of course Shatter revealed this as it was “a matter of public importance”. Then there is the case of Clare Daly ending up in a jail cell for a few hours after being arrested on suspicion of drink driving. She was later found to have been 33% under the legal limit. Added to this is the fact that a large number of gardaí accessed the PULSE system in reference to her arrest, and details of the arrest seem to have been leaked to the media with great speed. Just coincidentally, of course, both Daly and Wallace happen to be two of the TDs who have been investigating garda corruption during their tenure in the Dáil. The same type of coincidence that involves a rat being tied to the front door of John Wilson’s house. Fiat justitia ruat caelum, as the saying goes. Indeed.