The brinkmanship displayed by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in recent weeks over the Garda whistleblower controversy has weakened the Taoiseach’s position to the point where a general election in the new year seems inevitable. Leo Varadkar took office among the usual optimism, coupled with bewildering international acclaim from the foreign media that seemed fascinated by the fact he is Ireland’s first openly gay head of government. Yet in his first major test he has delivered a disappointing performance. His style of leadership seems to reward loyalty over competence, and this is worrying.
While the political drama has been mesmerizing, the fall from grace of Frances Fitzgerald, who was effectively pressured to resign from her position as Tánaiste, highlights severe weaknesses in the ship of the Irish state. At the heart of the case is the abominable treatment of former Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Here was an honorable man who did the right thing by calling out Garda corruption and malfeasance. His reward for doing his civic duty was to be ostracized, intimidated, and made a victim of a horrendous smear campaign. He was set upon by the management of the police, politicians, and many more. Senior figures even sought to trump up unfounded accusations of child abuse and pedophilia, an outrageous accusation and arguably the worst label that could be applied to anyone. Murderers are almost treated more leniently in the public mind than abusers of children.
That McCabe drew so much ire from so many people in the establishment is a sign of a sickness that runs through many institutions, through the media, and may go all the way to the top of government. Gemma O’Doherty, an investigative reporter at the Irish Independent, found herself looking for a new job after she tried to get to the root of the story about her paper’s editor having penalty points conveniently wiped from his driving license. Martin Callinan, the Garda commissioner at the time, became defensive and seemed more offended by the fact that McCabe was making the allegations than the substance of the allegations themselves. Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister at the time, took an equally adversarial approach, going as far as to use Dáil privilege to make an unfounded claim (later withdrawn) that McCabe had refused to cooperate with the Garda internal investigation into the penalty points scandal, when in fact McCabe had not even been approached by the investigators.
For her part, Frances Fitzgerald and her Fine Gael colleagues have defended her actions saying that she did nothing wrong in connection to her email dealings. Fitzgerald claimed no knowledge of any deliberate smear campaign against McCabe until it became public, a claim contradicted by the fact that as far back as May 2015 she received an email indicating that the smear campaign did exist and was deliberately orchestrated. Her initial defense was to claim that she did not remember receiving any such email, then she changed the emphasis to say that she was unable to do anything about it.
Politicians have now taken to bickering over the legal technicalities of whether she was legally allowed intervene or how she could forget reading such an important email. All of this misses the core point. The smear campaign was a vile, nasty, and contemptible response to McCabe’s allegations. The correct response would have been to express deep concern at the possibility of such corruption, to promise to get to the bottom of it, to thank the whistleblowers for doing their civic duty, and to hold them up as role models that the rest of the state should aspire to. However it would seem that whistleblowers in Ireland, in whatever sector they expose wrongdoing, are still treated abysmally and can face personal ruin as their reward for doing the right thing, and they can even make an enemy of the government.
The Protected Disclosures Act of 2014, known popularly as the whistleblower act, does provide some good protections. In theory employees of any organization can report wrongdoing internally where any retaliation by management would be illegal, or can report to the media if there is reasonable expectation that reporting wrongdoing by other means will result in retaliation.
If a court finds that you were unfairly dismissed you will generally be entitled to two years’ pay as compensation, but the act allows for 5 years’ pay in compensation if you were fired as a result of making a protected disclosure. Legislation like this is all well and good, but going through the courts to seek redress is no simple business for the average citizen.
So far the Garda whistleblower controversy has claimed the jobs of one justice minister, two Garda Commissioners, one journalist, one former justice minister and Taniste, and has come perilously close to claiming the scalp of the Taoiseach himself. Where will it end? It is too early to say, but there is a real chance that more heads will have to roll in high places. This is because of a culture of circling the wagons. A culture of valuing loyalty over competence. A culture that resembles the school playground attitude to the dreaded “snitch” who betrays his friends by passing information to the teachers.
Ireland’s institutions must do better than this. They need to stop seeing whistleblowers as inconvenient tattle-tales and start seeing them as the helpful and brave citizens they are. In short, the institutional culture of the state needs to grow up.