‘NÍ hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb’ is an old proverb, which rightly claims that the day of the storm is not the day to repair the thatch roof, and hence the reason I do not believe that the leadership of the Fine Gael party is an appropriate issue for discussion this week, contrary to what some of my colleagues have said on national radio in recent days.
There have been acres of coverage about the political ramifications of the events of the past week since the explosive prime time programme aired on RTÉ last Thursday night. However much of the ‘he said, she said’ debate is merely a sideshow to the very serious and substantive revelations that have emerged in the past week.
At the heart of the whistle-blower controversy is a claim that people in very senior positions in Irish life have colluded to smear the reputation of a serving member of An Garda Síochána who had made a number of complaints about misconduct by fellow members of the force. Coupled with this situation, it has now emerged that Tusla, the State agency tasked with guarding the welfare of children and dealing with allegations of sexual abuse has inadvertently copied details of one very serious file and pasted these details into the file of Sgt Maurice McCabe, one of the most high-profile Garda whistle-blowers since the foundation of the State.
There are two possible explanations for this extraordinary turn of events – either there was collusion between someone within An Garda Síochána and Tusla, or as the agency has stated that a clerical error by a member of staff at the agency led to the very serious allegation of sexual abuse being added to Sgt McCabe’s file. I am not sure which particular possibility gives me greater cause for concern.
When the political dust settles and the collateral damage is assessed in the aftermath of recent events a disturbing realisation will dawn as people recognise that a file containing allegations of a most heinous crime were placed in an innocent man’s file, the same file was passed around and discussed by numerous persons some with very senior posts of responsibility and, for a period of over 18 months, no one realised that a catastrophic error had occurred tainting for ever the character of a completely innocent person.
This raises very serious questions for the management of Tusla. Chief among these questions is whether there are other files within the agency containing clerical errors with the potential to destroy the lives and reputations of completely innocent people.
There also is an enormous question mark over the agency’s ability to assure a nervous public if it has the necessary skills and systems in place to adequately look after the welfare of our children particularly noting its responsibilities to some of the most at risk and vulnerable children in the state.
That is why I, as chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs have requested that the CEO of Tusla appear before our committee next Wednesday morning at 10.30am to answer these and other questions arising from the events of the past week.
At the request of the McCabe family, the Government has now agreed to initiate a Tribunal of Enquiry into the entire matter of the treatment of Garda whistle-blowers within An Garda Síochána and other State agencies, including the HSE and Tusla. Previously, it had been agreed that a Commission of Investigation would be held, which would have concluded its work much quicker and delivered its verdict within months.
The difference between a Commission of Investigation and a Tribunal is that the latter would be held in public. I have some reservations about establishing a Tribunal when you consider some Tribunals in the past such as the Mahon Tribunal which ran for over 15 years and cost up to €300 million – with the biggest winners being members of the legal profession – many of whom no longer needed to play the weekly lotto as a result of their participation in that tribunal.
I respect the McCabes’ wishes to have the inquiry held in public and note the public appetite to grant the wishes of Sgt Maurice McCabe, however, I – as one of the nine members of the Dáil Business Committee (the committee which sets the business of the Dail each week) – have asked that the Government examine the possibility of continuing with the Commission of Investigation, but explore the possibility of holding it in public, which as I understand it is at the discretion of the presiding judge.
This would ensure a less-costly and much more expeditious enquiry but at the same time complying with the wishes of the McCabe family to have their case heard in public.
•Jim Daly is Fine Gael TD for Cork South West and chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children & Youth Affairs and a member of the Dáil Business Committee.