Callinan stands firm on smear campaign denial

Charleton Tribunal: Summary of week ending 25 May 2018

First published in the Sunday Independent

After three days of evidence from former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, there was one thing Mr Justice Peter Charleton couldn’t quite understand.

“I’m still puzzled as to how you chose David Taylor, because whatever way you look at it, it must be one of the worst mistakes of your life,” the judge observed. Martin Callinan could only ruefully agree. Taylor had seemed like a suitable candidate for press officer, “and the rest, as they say, is history”.

The tribunal is looking at allegations from Taylor that he was directed to run a smear campaign against whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, a claim Callinan denies. In his evidence, Callinan put forward the theory that Taylor was embittered after he was moved out of the press office by his successor Nóirín O’Sullivan. In his 2016 protected disclosure, Taylor alleged that O’Sullivan, then deputy commissioner, was aware of Callinan’s direction to smear McCabe. Callinan held the real objective was to “bring down” O’Sullivan, and he was collateral damage.

No journalists have confirmed they received negative briefings about McCabe from Taylor. Some say they received no briefings, others neither confirm or deny, citing journalistic privilege. Charleton has wondered aloud several times how far the right to protect sources extends when the alleged sources have waived that privilege, and a face-off seems inevitable.

Callinan was questioned about what he himself said on various occasions about Sgt McCabe. The first conversation took place in December 2013 in RTÉ. Crimeline planned a Christmas message from commissioner, and the producers wanted to address various controversies, including the Smithwick tribunal, rural station closures, and penalty points.

Philip Boucher-Hayes has told the tribunal that during the brief encounter with Callinan, the commissioner called Sgt McCabe “a troubled individual” who had “psychological issues and psychiatric issues”, and had done “horrific things, the worst kind of things”.

Callinan agreed Boucher-Hayes wanted to interview him on air about the various elephants in the room, but denied he badmouthed the sergeant. He felt he’s already held “a pretty extensive press conference” with the minister on the issues, and didn’t feel they were appropriate during a end of year message thanking people and appealing for help solving crimes. He told Boucher-Hayes he wasn’t going to comment on air, and the two “parted on good company, shook hands, and wished each other a Merry Christmas.” Callinan said he thought Boucher-Hayes, an experienced journalist, wouldn’t have let it go if he’d said what was reported. There would have been follow-ups. Asked why Boucher-Hayes would invent the conversation, Callinan could only repeat that he had not said the words attributed to him.

The following month, on Thursday 23 January, Callinan appeared before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Fine Gael TD John Deasy says he was told McCabe was not trustworthy by when he bumped into Callinan before the hearings. Callinan says Deasy took him up the wrong way. All he said was that that not all the allegations Sgt McCabe had made panned out following an internal garda inquiry. He didn’t say that McCabe was “not to be believed or trusted”.

Minutes after chatting with Deasy, Callinan met Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy. Again, Callinan says he only noted not all of McCabe’s allegations stood up to scrutiny. He never mentioned anything about a sexual allegations against the sergeant.

Callinan was at a loss to explain the discrepancy with McCarthy. There must have been “some kind of misunderstanding in relation to his interpretation of what was said on the day.” Callinan noted a newspaper story a few days earlier stated the whistleblower had been exonerated from any wrongdoing in an investigation into a missing computer, and perhaps the comptroller was mixing up that press report with the later conversation.

After the PAC hearing, committee chairman John McGuinness said Callinan described McGuinness as someone who “fiddles with children”. The following day, at a meeting in the carpark of hotel at Newlands Cross, Co Dublin, the commissioner went into more detail.

Callinan again denied the allegations. He was concerned that a serving Garda giving evidence inn public to PAC, as it would set a precedent, and there were also data protection issues to do with penalty points. And he’d never even heard the expression “kiddie fiddler” until he saw it in tribunal papers.

Callinan denied making any sexual allegations about McCabe. “If they had taken place,” Callinan told the chairman, “I would have expected that those allegations would have been laid at the feet of the Minister for Justice or the Taoiseach or both. And I also believe that they should have been brought to the O’Higgins Commission.”

McGuinness had produced a notebook to the tribunal, in which he’s made brief notes of what Callinan said after the meeting. Callinan said he was “not accusing him of fabricating a note”, but said that McGuinness in a radio interview had “indicated he didn’t make any note, either then or later.”