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Tom Clonan on the Maurice McCabe email 'I suffered a similar campaign of character assassination'
Ethical action and moral courage are what we ought to expect and require of our elected representatives, writes Tom Clonan.

EDMUND BURKE, IRISH politician and philosopher, died in July 1797. However, his words on ethics in Irish politics and public life are as relevant today as they were 220 years ago: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In the current political crisis – which threatens to collapse the government and trigger a general election – the focus is on what one woman, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, did or did not do in July 2015, in relation to a legal strategy designed to further damage, vilify and destroy Garda whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

Much publicised enquiries and investigations

While Frances Fitzgerald was Minister for Justice from May 2014 to June 2017, she was aware of countless enquiries and investigations into Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. These enquiries included several Garda investigations, both administrative and disciplinary, the Fennelly Commision of Enquiry, the O’Higgins Commission of Enquiry, Judge Iarflaith O’Neill’s Report and the report by Senior Counsel, Sean Guerin.

These much publicised enquiries and investigations confirmed the truth of Maurice McCabe’s allegations of grave wrongdoing within An Garda Síochána.

These enquiries and investigations also confirmed Maurice McCabe’s integrity and demonstrated him to be a man of the utmost moral probity – a man motivated solely by a desire to tell the truth about a toxic culture within Ireland’s police force. Maurice McCabe, as a public servant, simply wished to do the State some service.

As a consequence, in a textbook case of what Transparency International (Ireland) refer to as “Whistleblower Reprisal”, Maurice McCabe was subjected to eight years of sustained character assassination and targeted bullying and harassment from members of An Garda Síochána and other State agencies.

I suffered a similar campaign

As an army officer and whistleblower who revealed shockingly high levels of sexual violence against female soldiers within the Irish Defence Forces, I suffered a similar, sustained campaign of character assassination, vilification and false rumours designed to undermine my personal and professional integrity.

To this day, I still suffer the negative effects of this campaign, on a personal, social and professional level. However, I was lucky. I survived.

In Maurice McCabe’s case however, powerful forces at the highest level of Irish society, were determined that he be completely destroyed. The whistleblower reprisal and strategy of character assassination culminated in false allegations of rape and child sexual abuse. Such false accusations are unspeakable.

They were designed to not only to destroy Maurice McCabe – but to also destroy his marriage and his family. Such a campaign is the very expression of evil. Sadly, a surprisingly large number of public officials, politicians and journalists were prepared to collaborate with and extend the negative narratives around Maurice McCabe.

The now infamous email

It is in this context that Frances Fitzgerald, as Minister for Justice received the now infamous email on 15 May 2015, alerting her and her political advisors to the legal strategy adopted by then Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan to raise “a serious criminal complaint against Sergeant McCabe” (which he has always denied).

The email goes further to explain that the case “had been submitted to the DPP, who directed no prosecution”. At the time of receipt of this email, the case of Maurice McCabe was well known to the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and indeed the entire nation.

Any email regarding the treatment of Maurice McCabe in July 2015 would have had the status of a very large red flag.

On receipt of this email Frances Fitzgerald and her political advisors were faced with a decision. An ethical dilemma. It was and remains a very simple, clear, ethical question. What should I do when made aware of an attempt by way of an adversarial legal strategy to further damage the reputation of a good man who has been irrefutably shown to have spoken truth to power?

The answer to this question is very simple. All ethical models, from Aristotle and Plato, to Emmanuel Kant – even to basic Christian teaching – tell us in such circumstances, to act.

We ought to expect ethical action and moral courage

Frances Fitzgerald should have acted publicly to bring an end to such a strategy. Ethical action and moral courage are what we ought to expect and require of our elected representatives. As Edmund Burke observed, so eloquently, failure to act in such compelling circumstances, allows evil to triumph.

In the last few days, the narrative around Frances Fitzgerald’s actions has been almost devoid of ethical scrutiny. Her actions or lack of action has been summarised in almost exclusively legal terms by those who would seek to defend her.

The unanimous line adopted by Fine Gael politicians and reinforced by a number of political correspondents – who ought to know better – is that Frances Fitzgerald had no “legal role” in the matter of Maurice McCabe’s ongoing and unethical hostile scrutiny by the Garda Commissioner’s legal team.

Fitzgerald’s defenders argue that she was acting on “legal advice” as if invoking the notion that “legal advice” is binding or compulsory to the exclusion of common sense, decency and the moral imperative to do the right thing.

What is legal can often be harmful and wrong

Legal advice is just that. Advice. Clients – in this case, the Minister for Justice or the Garda Commissioner – instruct their legal teams. Not the other way around.

Legal advice is not a moral arbiter. What is legal can often be harmful and wrong. This is why we place such faith in our elected representatives and ministers. We expect them to act in the interests of the people. To do so – is to expect them to act morally, ethically – the essence of political correctness and leadership.

In this case, Frances Fitzgerald’s inaction – to come to the aid of a good man, Maurice McCabe – can at best be explained by moral-legalism. The invocation of legal constraints as a barrier to doing the right thing is commonly referred to in the literature on ethical probity as a refuge for those who are morally compromised.

The invocation of such a legal defence for inaction has the moral equivalence of the infamous assertion, ‘I was only following orders’. In ethical terms, such a defence rings hollow and shows a lack of leadership, judgment and moral courage.

The McCabe’s suffering

In February of this year, Maurice and Lorraine McCabe – in a rare joint statement – spoke publicly of their suffering:

We have endured eight years of suffering, private nightmare, public defamation and State vilification arising solely out from the determination of Maurice to ensure that an Garda Síochána adheres to decent and appropriate standards of policing in its dealings with the Irish people.

Following Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s apology to the McCabes – they asked very explicitly for one simple thing, the truth:

We are entitled to the truth, today. Justice can follow in its wake. We wish to make it clear that we are definitely not agreeable to that entitlement being wholly postponed so that another commission of enquiry can conduct a secret investigation behind closed doors.

Throughout this crisis, the McCabe family have made their position clear – the desire for all concerned, especially politicians, to state the truth “immediately” about what they knew about the false allegations spread about Maurice.

This affair is not just about an email

It is telling, that in the current crisis, Frances Fitzgerald’s defenders in An Taoiseach and others in the Fine Gael party, are resistant to this request. They have couched their response to the emerging information about Frances Fitzgerald’s actions or lack thereof in almost exclusively moral legal terms – an empty defence.

They have also demanded that the matter be dealt with exclusively by the commission of enquiry – contrary to the explicit demands of the McCabe family. And contrary to opposition politicians demand that ministers such as Frances Fitzgerald and Charlie Flanagan be held accountable in Dáil Éireann.

This affair is not about a simple email. It is about the sacred social contract between government and the people. It is about trust and ethics in office. The no-confidence motion in Frances Fitzgerald reflects a broader lack confidence in our policing and the administration of justice in the Irish Republic.

If – as a mature EU state, we cannot have this ethical expectation in relation to Justice – we cannot trust such a polity to negotiate on our behalf in vital Brexit negotiations.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

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