John McGuinness T.D.

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Powers that be are turning their power against citizens

Saturday, March 01, 2014 – Irish Examiner

FIVE years ago, in my book, The House Always Wins, I said that a whistleblower’s charter would not be effective because the culture of the organisation being reported would crush the individual doing the reporting. Whistleblowing in this country is only for the brave, well-prepared and determined.

By John McGuinnessIt is naive and foolish to believe that State institutions controlled by reactionary cultures, dominated by public-service mandarins — too many of whom are committed to the status quo — will not do everything in their power to ensure that legislation to protect whistleblowers ends up as toothless, useless and risible.

That legislation is before the Dáil. It does not impress me. Unless it is substantially revised, it will not be fit for purpose. ‘Whistleblower’ in the Irish consciousness is a level only slightly above the hated ‘informer’. The people I have met, who are worried about their organisations and have spoken out, are concerned citizens of this State, a State that I believe has little concern for any of its citizens.

Individuals raise their concerns for a number of reasons, some self-serving. This clouds the issue. But it is easy to separate people who have personal agendas from people who have hard facts and an understanding of the risks they are taking with their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

They will have had difficult conversations with themselves about loyalty to the organisation, their responsibility to their country, and their own self-respect, but will have concluded that better a life standing with your back straight than one with your knees bent. That conclusion is usually only reached after they have tried and failed to have their concerns taken seriously by their superiors.

This trying and failing is a gentle version of the wet-blanket treatment that will follow: they are heard, heads nod, hands are laid on, promises are made, and they are encouraged to stay in-house on the matter, but nothing happens, except that they are marked.

It is when they go further that the full wet-blanket treatment begins.

Subtle changes take place: they sense levers being quietly pulled and nudges and winks being exchanged. Their workmates cool towards them.

They are now other — a threat to the system, individual — no longer part of the herd.

It is a lonely place for people used to being part of a team and to being members of an organisation that they believed cared for them. Their union representatives take a ‘can’t we leave it at that’ position, or become unavailable or unhelpful.

Some have nervous breakdowns, others go no further, and I don’t blame them. But some have the strength and determination to keep going.

Sgt Maurice McCabe and Una Halliday had the strength and determination. They, and others like them, are good citizens. But will the State protect them and, if it does not, will the Dáil ensure that it does?

The signs are not good.

Look at the disgraceful performance of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and senior members of his government, over the last few weeks, as they have spun, obfuscated and dissembled in an attempt to discredit a good man.

Halliday, the woman whose disclosures brought down the rotten edifice that was FÁS, is now out on sick leave from her employment in Solas, the organisation that replaced FÁS. Her family are concerned and shocked at the way she is being treated, and so am I.

Concerned citizens who do the State service need to know that, if the State doesn’t like the service, it has many ways of making you ill. Halliday is being subjected to the usual nudges, winks and lever-pulling: she is in a room on her own, has no phone, and is given no work. She is isolated and is now the subject of an internal investigation, which will discredit her if it can.

I have seen versions of this happen in the OPW and in the HSE. Usually, you can’t put your finger on exactly what is happening, so its existence can be plausibly denied by management, to use a current description

The next move might be an independent conflict-resolution company, whose impartiality, with all due respect to them, the individual has every right to be concerned about, given that they are chosen and paid for by the State, for whom they do a great deal of work.

But it’s an impressive title, which can be used by senior managers and ministers to bat off questions, if you don’t know the reality.

I have seen this process in operation. I watched one individual being so wrapped up in solicitous and sensitive questioning, note-taking and reminders that “this, of course, with due respect to you, could be interpreted differently,” that he had the nervous breakdown the reported mistreatment should have caused him.

McCabe, Halliday, and others whose testimonies have, and will in the future, contribute to making Ireland a nicer country to live in, deserve better than that.

Any action taken against them by their organisations should be presumed as vengeful and an attempt at constructive dismissal, unless it has been discussed with, and approved by, the ombudsman. They must be given the benefit of every doubt and senior managers in their organisations should be told that.

They are entitled to State protection and, if this is not forthcoming, the Dáil should intervene immediately and ruthlessly, asserting its independence and its right to hold public servants to account. We live in a democracy, although there are times you would not believe that.

Such is my concern, that I am asking anyone reading this article, who feels that McCabe and Halligan should be protected, to email the Taoiseach at enda.kenny@oireachtas.ie, or telephone his office on 01-6183000, expressing that view, because it is unlikely that government backbenchers will do anything other that what they are told — that being how politicians represent our people now.

The treatment of concerned citizens who lay their livelihood, their happiness and that of their families on the line in doing the State some service, has become, for me, a measure of how this State now operates, and how it casually disregards the standards it so forcefully demands of its citizens.

The State is without compassion and is self-serving, inefficient and, at its highest levels, often arrogant, dismissive and overpaid. It is of little consolation that its veneration of the status quo, and its ruthless methods of dealing with opposition and new ideas, are the hallmarks of a failing culture well on its way to implosion, as is amply demonstrated by the fact that at the bottom of nearly all current scandals will be found State incompetence, malpractice and abuse of power. Remarkably, this tottering, failing culture can still rely on the institutionalised politicians, who are in the majority in Leinster House, to protect it, read its scripts, take the blame for its many mistakes and behave like nodding dogs in the back window of a car — amiable, decorative, slightly amusing, and useless.

The Dáil is becoming a joke. Our people, desperate for courageous, visionary leadership, no longer believe in politics and mistrust politicians.

* John McGuinness, TD, is chairman of the Public Accounts Committee

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