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Tom Clonan: Ireland never rewards whistleblowers like Maurice McCabe and me - it punishes us

Ireland treats whistleblowers differently to most other countries – as I found out, writes Dr Tom Clontan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist,

INVESTIGATIVE REPORTERS HAVE over the past day revealed details of false allegations of child sexual abuse leveled at garda whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe. After initially being reported by Mick Clifford in the Irish Examiner, Thursday’s Prime Time report by Katie Hannon gave the Irish public a shocking and deeply disturbing insight into the torment and vilification endured by Irish whistleblowers.

It is impossible to imagine what Maurice McCabe and his family have suffered since he made the simple – but momentous – decision to blow the whistle on garda wrongdoing.

Maurice McCabe’s motivations, actions and findings have been comprehensively vindicated by a series of official enquiries and reports. There is no doubt as to Maurice McCabe’s probity and integrity. However, as is the case for anyone who speaks truth to power in Ireland, Sergeant McCabe has not been rewarded. Instead, he has been punished.

He has endured prolonged hostile scrutiny from sections within the political establishment, senior gardai and – I’m ashamed to say it – some journalists. While it may be impossible to fully comprehend the level of suffering endured by this man and his wife and children, it is all too easy to identify the toxic dynamic of whistleblower reprisal that operates in Ireland.

In other democracies, the social value of whistleblowing is widely recognised and rewarded. For example, in the United States, whistleblowers are often awarded financial incentives – sometimes multi-million dollar rewards – for calling a halt to unethical, illegal or dangerous practices in the workplace.

unnamed (2) Maurice McCabe Source: Laura Hutton/

Ireland, however, is different. In almost every case – whether the whistleblower is in An Garda Siochana, the Army, the HSE or the banking and financial services sector – the outcome of whistleblowing is inevitably whistleblower reprisal of the most appalling nature.

What happened to me

I have personal experience of whistleblower reprisal. As a young army officer and captain, between 1996 and 2000 I conducted a PhD study into the experiences of female soldiers, sailors and aircrew in the Irish Defence Forces. I was given formal written permission by the military authorities to conduct this research. Furthermore, I was instructed in writing by the general staff to comply with the regulations of the university and lodge the thesis to the library of Dublin City University, where it remains as a published document in the academic repository.

Unfortunately, like Sergeant Maurice McCabe in An Garda Síochána, I found evidence of widespread wrong-doing within our Defence Forces. I found evidence of explicitly discriminatory and illegal policies and practices within the Defence Forces as they applied to women. Some of these sexist policies and practices were in breach of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, EU law and Irish equality legislation. Indeed, some of the policies were in contravention of some of our Irish constitutional guarantees around equality. The senior officers who promulgated and implemented such policies were in breach of their solemn oath of allegiance to Bunreacht na hEireann.

My research also found evidence of shockingly high levels of bullying and harassment of female personnel within the Irish Defence Forces. There were extreme levels of sexual violence against women with female soldiers reporting experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault and allegations of rape.

Like Sergeant Maurice McCabe – an idealistic and committed garda – as a young officer, I was completely devoted to the Irish Defence Forces. The day I was commissioned as an officer was the proudest day of my young life.

Targeted character assassination

When I uncovered the systematic and systemic regime of misogyny and violence towards women within the Defence Forces, in my naivety I fully expected my superiors to act upon my findings and bring an end to this toxic and dysfunctional culture. However, this was not the case. Instead, I was promptly sent to Coventry by the majority of my former colleagues and friends.

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I was immediately isolated and my findings completely ignored. I retired from the Defence Forces in December 2000 to pursue an academic career. In the summer of 2001, when my research findings were reported in the national newspapers, I was fully introduced to whistleblower reprisal – Irish style.

Like Maurice McCabe, I was targeted in a sustained campaign of character assassination. Amongst other things, I was physically assaulted by a former colleague – in front of my infant children – in the city centre. I was subjected to months of constant abusive texts, phone calls and silent calls by former colleagues. I was threatened by staff officers at Defence Forces Headquarters with a campaign of ‘dirty tricks’. I was told that my research findings constituted a ‘threat to the reputation’ of the organisation. One senior officer – to whom I turned for advice and support – informed me that ‘when the reputation of the organisation is at stake, character assassination is a legitimate tactic’. He further warned me that when the organisation can’t go for the ball, they’ll go for the man.

Eventually however, at my behest, the then-Fianna Fail Minister for Defence, Michael Smith, launched an independent government enquiry into my research, called the Study Review Group. It reported in 2003 and fully vindicated my research findings, conclusions and recommendations. Thankfully, the Defence Forces are now a better place to work for both men and women and considered to be an example of best practice for equality, diversity and dignity by the international military.

The effects of a whispering campaign

Over the years, I still encounter the negative consequences of reprisal for being a whistleblower. For example, in 2008, I had to enlist the support of the NUJ when I was informed by officers at DFHQ that they ‘could not guarantee my physical safety’ if I attended a press conference in McKee Barracks. Over the years, I’ve had time to reflect on the ruptured friendships and the loss of my relationship with the organisation – an extension of my family. It is a traumatic, upsetting and bewildering experience. To this day, I still get phone calls from duty editors and producers who have received negative briefings about me. The whispering campaign endured by Maurice McCabe is all too familiar to me.

However, my experience pales into insignificance compared to that of Sergeant McCabe – and other brave Irish whistleblowers who have tried to the right thing in our dysfunctional and toxic polity. I often wonder how Ireland would have fared if there had been enough brave whistleblowers in our banking and financial services sector during the so-called Celtic Tiger. If they had been listened to, perhaps our children and grandchildren would not have been burdened with €85 billion in debt.

I would appeal to Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister Frances Fitzgerald to follow the example of a previous Minister for Defence in dealing with the concerns raised by Maurice McCabe’s case. A root and branch reform of An Garda Siochana is required – with at a minimum, the levels of oversight and governance that we expect of the PSNI. And I would appeal to all right-thinking Irish citizens: please cherish our whistleblowers. They embody the change that is required in order for Ireland to survive as a political, economic and social entity.

Read more from Tom:

‘In all our years attending Temple Street, I have never before seen so many sick children and parents’ > 

All signs suggest 2017 will bring more of these lone wolf terror attacks > 

About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist,

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