In Britain, former MP Chris Huhne and his wife Vicky Pryce served a prison sentence following a scandal involving penalty points. In Ireland, the wealthy and connected have managed to escape sanction. Robert Mulhern tells the story of one garda who ‘blew the whistle’ on the matter.
JOHN WILSON awoke in the middle of the night. It was 4am and the still of the Cavan countryside was shattered by the sound of barking.
Wilson’s dog, Dean, pushed through the bedroom door and stood at the foot of the bed. John Wilson rose, pulled the curtain slightly and peered through the dark where rolling hills tumble into the deep of Loch Erne.
The dog was distressed. Wilson left the room, his dog leading him to the front door. He turned the handle slowly. It felt heavier somehow. He strained to look through the dark but there was only the thick fog of night between him and his brother’s farm and beyond the forest park.
Dean was still agitated, stood looking at the door. Outside now, Wilson looked at the handle; there was something tied to it.
He reached slowly back into the hallway and turned on the outside light. It revealed a dead rat hanging limply from the handle, tied by a piece of twine.
Shocked, Wilson stared at the rat for a couple of seconds. A feeling of dread began to rise from the pit of his stomach. He stepped off the porch, wondering all the while if he was being watched.
He lives in the back of nowhere, down a quiet gravelly country lane – off the kind of quiet winding road that you wouldn’t travel unless you knew where you were going.
Were there eyes out there watching him through the dark, spying his hands working quickly to untie the rat from the door handle? His mind raced, the symbolism fixing his focus to words like tout and snitch.
Beside the front door, there was a small bench. John Wilson, the ex-garda, the man who blew the whistle on the widespread practice of guards terminating penalty points, hid the rat in a bag of dog bedding beneath the bench so his family wouldn’t see it.
He took one last look around and closed the front door. Shaken by the discovery, his mind raced. Who had made a special journey in the dead of night to his home, where he lived with his wife and three children?
Who walked stealth-like up a lane shrouded in darkness and tied a rat to his front door, while he and his family slept? Was it just a sick joke? Or was it something more sinister?
It’s 10am in the car park of the Kilmore Hotel on the outskirts of Cavan Town. In the car park, the engine of a beaten up Skoda Saloon turns over, filling the cold air with exhaust fumes. The winter sun is slung low against a sharp blue sky; the countryside is beginning to thaw and breath. John Wilson emerges from the Skoda.
“How are ye ... sorry, yeah, was just watching Rumpole [of the Bailey] there while I was waiting for you.” He extends his arm to shake.
“Good to meet you. Do you want to get your stuff and come with me? Excuse the mess ... I call it my mobile skip,” he says referring to the car. “Take your time,” he chirps. “No rush.”
Wilson retired from the Gardaí last May. He had completed 30 years’ service before making the decision to retire from a job he “loved”.
For so long he was known as a garda. His profession was what defined him; the job gave his life crusade-like purpose, but now former colleagues ignore him and go out of their way to avoid him.
“I stopped in a service station for petrol a week or two back and two guards came in, they saw me and went to the other end of the shop until I was gone,” he says.
John Wilson is no longer a guard. He has joined a list that includes names like Tom Gilmartin, Joe McAnthony and Susan O’Keefe – people known as ‘whistleblowers’.
Wilson is a cop who “p***ed in the soup” flagged up malpractice in the force – a move which eventually forced him out. Wilson is a self-confessed outsider.
“I’ve known no other way,” he says. Wilson’s way has been to hoist red flags when he has come across injustice, inside the force as well as outside.
It’s funny. Some years back “some fellah” mocked up a picture of Garda John Wilson and stuck it to a pole on a by-road near the border.
There was text over the image that read: ‘Bearded scumbag ahead’. Wilson enjoyed the notoriety. Catching drink drivers was “his thing” and this was a tip-of-the-cap to the work he was doing. The poster was brought into the house and one of his sons took ownership of it; hung it on the wall of his room.
But how did John Wilson, a 50-year old married father-of-three, go from unpopular beat cop to persona non grata?
“We started to discover clusters,” he says. “Myself and the other man (the other whistle blower).
We started seeing the same names coming up again and again on Pulse (an Garda Síochána’s computer system) and we realised that certain people were being looked after – that people with connections in Irish society: judges, politicians, celebrities, were having their points quashed and that this was happening in every town in the country.”
Wilson, along with his colleague, brought a sample of their findings to an individual within the force called the Confidential Recipient, who was responsible for dealing with internal complaints.
“Months past and we heard nothing, he says. “Nothing. I wouldn’t blame Oliver Connolly (the Garda Confidential Recipient) for that. He’s a genuine guy, just a postman really.
"His job is to pass the complaint on to the Commissioner. But when nothing happened we decided to bring the information to an Independent TD, Clare Daly, and to use that old vernacular expression – that’s when the sh*t really hit the fan.”
John Wilson is stood at the back of an old derelict building in Blenacup, Co Cavan.
“I remember when I was a child and my uncle Johnny got elected to the Dáil,” he says. “I got a ladder and a bucket of black paint, and I wrote ‘Fianna Fáil’ on the wall. I think my fear of heights got the better of me before I could finish out all the letters.”
Wilson pauses and continues to look at the wall. It’s dusk now and in the distance, there’s the faint sound of dogs barking. “My fan club,” he smiles, breaking his gaze from the wall. “Oh, my uncle John was a great man. Would have done any party proud,” he says of a TD who went on to hold the office of Tánaiste.
“He’d treat a pauper the same as a king; treat everybody the same; everybody equally. The thing about the penalty points is that everyone in Ireland is not being treated equally.
"I’ve seen the list of terminations and there wouldn’t be too many builders on there, people on the dole, people who do not have connections in the guards and the vast majority of people don’t. If everyone could get it done, then it wouldn’t be a problem.
"But everyone can’t. It’s the ‘who you know culture.’ You know it wouldn’t happen in England. Look what happened with Chris Huhne when it was discovered his wife took points for him? They both ended up in jail. It wouldn’t happen here.”
Wilson turns and wanders down the grassy slope towards the road. “We’ll go back to the house this way,” he says and begins to explain the fallout from the information revealed under privilege in the Dáil by Clare Daly.
He explains that the reason he went to an Independent TD was because of his Fianna Fáil connections and “I wanted to keep things separate”.
In the fallout, Judge Mary Devins was named in the Dáil by opposition TD Clare Daly, despite warnings from the Speaker that it could be defamatory, as being among those who benefitted from a penalty points quashing.
By this stage Wilson believed the cover of he and his colleague had been blown. They were known within the force as the two people “who turned Turk” on the guards.
He felt the cold wind of change. “I believe that there was more concern about who was leaking the information, not what was contained in the information,” he says.
“It was like being in Siberia. I went into the canteen in work one morning. There were three guards there and two of them got up and walked out. The last one stood up and said ‘People in glass houses...’ and walked out.”
What did he mean?
“He meant I was in the glass house too.”
Wilson says he never terminated points for anyone. But was this not at odds with a 30-year career?
“I used my discretion many times in my career,” he says. “Listen, if I stop you and I feel you have been driving recklessly, it’s at that point I use my discretion. I can weigh it up on the spot and give you a warning or decide that the offence warrants a summons. That’s discretion.
"But if a guard issues someone with a ticket then no other guard has the right to come along and terminate it at a later date. It undermines the guy who wrote the ticket.”
After the information leaked to Clare Daly was revealed, garda authorities launched an enquiry now known as the O’Mahony Report. It was labelled a whitewash in some quarters and Wilson and his colleague were rubbished.
“I’ve no faith in guards investigating guards,” he says. “But I’ve no faith in postmen investigating postmen either.” However, in October a report conducted by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, vindicated Wilson and his colleague, (who continues to work as a garda).
Wilson is the frontman, he says, because he made the decision to retire from the force. He was no longer allowed to complete some of the most basic checks required to complete his duties and says he was left with no alternative but to resign.
Later he went public, appearing on morning talk shows like Today with Pat Kenny.
His voice breaks with emotion and he fights back the tears.
“I was upset...very upset. The job I loved, the career I loved and this was how it was going to end.” He swallows hard. “My position had become untenable.”
Darkness has fallen on Blenacup and he slows his step on the road.
“I haven’t always been a great husband,” he says. “That’s one of my sins; I’ve taken things for granted. I’ve brought my work home and my family have had to listen to it; live it. I’m an obsessive type of person and if I get something between my teeth I won’t let go.
"I have concerns about my health; I’m aware of the consequences. But this is something we have to see through to the end now. It is at all costs; it is a fight to the death.”
John Wilson doesn’t claim to be a morally superior person. During the course of this interview he reflects on moments in his long career when he behaved in a manner not befitting the uniform.
But Wilson is an open book happy to disclose an occasion when he punched a joy-rider in the face, while on another occasion he was involved in trumping up ‘bag-snatching charges’ on a serial criminal when he was stationed in Kilmainham, Dublin.
This was something he says he was “expected to do” and felt “pressurised to do”. He admits his failings and his role in these ‘failings’.
He believes however that he always sought justice and justice for him is for everybody not just the elite in Irish society. He is willing to go out on a cold for that belief; to suffer the consequences so that everyone can be treated the same.
It might make you hated, scorned, a pariah. But he is adamant that it doesn’t make him a rat.
The Garda Press Office declined to comment.
The Garda who Limped will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on Saturday, 18th January at 2pm.
How John Wilson blew the whistle on penalty points
- A penalty points system has been in operation in Ireland since 2002.
- In 2011, Garda John Wilson and a colleague whose anonymity is still protected flagged-up what they perceived as ‘irregularities’ in relation to penalty points through an internal complaints conduit. In December 2012, using this information, an Irish judge was named under privilege in the Dail by independent TD Clare Daly, as one of a number of high profile people that included politicians, celebrities and journalists, who had benefitted from penalty point terminations.
- On May 15th an internal Garda report into the allegations led by assistant commissioner John O’Mahoney concluded there was no such widespread quashing and largely rubbished the whistle-blowers’ allegations.
- On October 1 last, the Comptroller and Auditor General issued a report which found that one in five motorists avoided penalty points because their cases were not pursued. The report also found that, for 2011 and 2012, 2,900 cases were terminated in relation to around 700 vehicles, with three or more cases terminated each.
- Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and the unnamed whistleblower are scheduled to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on January 23rd. The PAC acts as the Dáil’s money-spending watchdog. Previously, the Garda Commissioner asked for the return of a box of evidence that a Garda whistleblower handed to chair of the committee, John McGuinness.
- The box of evidence is believed to contain previously undisclosed information about the alleged widespread quashing of penalty points and subsequent loss of revenue to the State.