Charleton tribunal: week ending 13 April 2018

Article for Sunday Independent of 15 April 2018

Tomorrow morning, Disclosures tribunal chairman Peter Charleton plans to visit Kildare Street. The Supreme Court judge will inspect Leinster House 2000, a new building completed in 2001. First stop will be the Coffee Dock, a popular breaktime spot for everyone working in the complex. From the checkout till, it’s perhaps a 30 second walk downstairs to a public waiting area and to CR1, committee room one, where the public accounts committee (PAC) meets.

Former garda commissioner Martin Callinan gave evidence there on 23 January 2014, attracting controversy using the word “disgusting” in relation to whistleblowers. The conversations Callinan had as he travelled from the Coffee Dock to CR1 formed the core of Charleton tribunal hearings for the last week.

John Deasy (Fine Gael) was in the Coffee Dock when deputy commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan spotted him, and introduced him to the commissioner. Callinan says they chatted about what he would say to PAC. Deasy admitted he didn’t remember much, but one thing stuck in his mind.

“Maurice McCabe was not to be believed or trusted with anything,” Deasy told the tribunal.

“My own grandfather was a garda sergeant,” Deasy explained. “If a serving Commissioner said something about my grandfather in those terms I would definitely think of it as being utterly derogatory.”

Callinan says he cautioned Deasy to “be aware of the correctness of the information being imparted” by Sgt Maurice McCabe, and to keep in mind inaccuracies highlighted in an internal garda inquiry. Deasy rejected this, saying he would remember this kind of “legalese”.

Minutes later, downstairs, Callinan ran into Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy. The public servant had prepared a penalty points report after receiving files from McCabe, the starting point for the PAC hearings. Callinan approached him and spoke about McCabe. “He was not to be trusted, he had questions to answer, and there were sexual offence allegations against him,” McCarthy recalled.

McCarthy’s initial reaction was surprise. He had never identified the source on penalty points cancellations. Anyway, he told the commissioner, they had carried out their own independent investigation into the files.

“The only thing I could think of was the instance where a whistleblower was alleged to be involved in the disappearance of a computer,” McCarthy said. (An inquiry later cleared McCabe of any involvement in this case.)

Callinan’s barrister put it to him that it was he, not the commissioner, who mentioned sexual abuse rumours. McCarthy was clear though. The information came from the commissioner. The tribunal has previously heard the DPP directed no prosecution against McCabe following a 2006 Garda investigation, saying that there was no evidence any crime was committed.

After the PAC hearing, Callinan stood among a group of other senior officers as chairman John McGuinness approached. The Fianna Fáil TD remembered Callinan describing a 1983 incident where Garda John Wilson saw a horse mistreated on Grafton Street, “pulled the knacker off the horse”, and rode it to the nearest garda station. (In a later aside, Judge Charleton noted the incident apparently led to Garda Wilson being awarded the nickname Jockey Wilson.) “And the other fella fiddles with kids. They’re the kinds of fucking headbangers I’m dealing with,” Callinan continued.

“It was obvious to me that it was directed at me,” McGuinness told the tribunal. The committee room was noisy, so he couldn’t say for certain if anyone else heard what Callinan said above the hubbub. Former garda press officer Supt David Taylor has made a statement to the tribunal confirming he heard the commissioner call McCabe a “kiddie fiddler”. Callinan denies making the statement.

The follow day, Callinan asked McGuinness for a meeting. The two agreed to meet in the Bewley’s hotel at Newland’s Cross, Dublin. When McGuinness got there, Callinan got into his car. This time, Callinan went into more detail. McCabe was not to be trusted, he warned. PAC would make a grave error of judgement if they trusted him. “He suggested there was evidence he had sexually abused his family,” McGuinness remembered.

McGuinness was astonished. The day before, Callinan had given evidence for five hours without a break, a stressful experience, and he thought the off-hand comment afterwards might have been due to that. But this time, Callinan was measured. The TD was told there was a file on McCabe. He was left with the impression the sergeant might soon be charged.

On the way home, still troubled, McGuinness pulled over. He grabbed a constituency notebook, and jotted down a few brief notes about what Callinan had told him. Over the weekend, he decided to confront McCabe, and found the sergeant’s denials credible. He believed McCabe. “I had to made a judgement call, and I’m glad I did, that I ignored the information from Commissioner Callinan,” he said.

McGuinness later spoke to Micheál Martin about McCabe, thanking the party leader for raising whistleblower issues on the Dáil floor. Martin, Pat Rabbitte and Eoghan Murphy are scheduled to give evidence next week.

Meanwhile, back at Garda HQ, Andrew McLindon was dealing with the fallout from the “disgusting” remark. A civilian, although he held a position equal in rank to a chief superintendent, McLindon was an experienced PR professional, but still new to the job. Garda culture meant the commissioner was more inclined to listen to uniformed officers than a civilian, McLindon said, that was something he just had to deal with.

McLindon proposed anRTÉ interview with Sean O’Rourke. It would give the commissioner a chance to row back what he had said. Callinan considered the proposal, but eventually ruled it out. The tribunal also heard that prior to his PAC appearance Callinan had ruled out putting a section in his opening comments acknowledging whistleblowers for highlighting the issues they publicised, a proposal supported by McLindon and Nóirín O’Sullivan.

Eventually, a press release clarified what Callinan found disgusting was that breaches of the Data Protection Act, leaking of personal information. This criticism was also raised by Gerald Kean when he appeared on the Marian Finucane programme the Sunday after the PAC meeting. The celebrity solicitor confirmed at the tribunal that he spoke several times with Callinan before his radio appearance.