Reforms fast-tracked as Government comes to grips with phone recording revalations
New information brought to the attention of Enda Kenny at the weekend
Enda Kenny: he told the Dáil he had been made aware of the problem by Attorney General Máire Whelan at 6pm on Sunday
The dramatic developments yesterday in the long-running controversy surrounding the Garda confirmed the adage that the only thing certain about politics is that the unexpected always happens.
The much-anticipated row at Cabinet over the manner in which Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has handled the Garda whistleblower controversy was suddenly overtaken by revelations that go to the heart of the administration of justice.
First came the resignation of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, which was certainly a surprise, but the real shock was the announcement after the Cabinet meeting that the Government had been informed of “a new and very serious issue relating to An Garda Síochána” which necessitated the establishment of a commission of investigation.
Politicians have often claimed over the years that new information is about to rock the foundations of the State but on this occasion it appears that something on this scale may actually have emerged.
The appalling vista facing Ministers is that a number of convictions obtained against individuals over the past two and a half decades could be unsafe as a result of the taping of phone calls in and out of a large number Garda stations.
The information has the capacity to change the relationship between the Government and the Garda as as well having the potential to totally undermine the confidence of the public in the force.
At the Cabinet meeting the political wrangling that preoccupied Ministers in recent days was put to one side as they tried to come to grips with what exactly the new information brought to the attention of Taoiseach Enda Kenny last weekend actually amounts to.
While some suspicious minds in Leinster House couldn’t help jumping to the conclusion that it was a smokescreen to obscure the embarrassing row which has engulfed the Coalition the reaction of Ministers afterwards made it clear something fundamentally important involving the Garda had emerged.
The seriousness of the latest development can be deduced from the fact that the Government has opted to have it examined by a commission of investigation, a far more powerful type of inquiry than anything established to deal with claims about the handling of whistleblower claims.
Kenny told the Dáil yesterday afternoon that he had been made aware of the problem by Attorney General Máire Whelan at 6pm on Sunday and that he and his colleagues have been working furiously since then to get on top of the situation.
An action currently before the courts led to the discovery that phone conversations in a number of Garda stations around the country have been taped as far back as the 1980s.
This is separate from the disclosure in another court case in Waterford in the middle of last year that phone conversations in a Garda station were being taped. As a result of a Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission investigation into this it appears Mr Callinan ordered the practice to be discontinued last November.
Implications for court cases
Kenny told the Dáil the widespread taping of phone conversations in Garda stations could have implications not only for some current cases before the courts but also for cases already heard.
There was no information yesterday about why the practice of taping phone conversations began or who had authorised it. Nor was there any information about who was aware of the practice and how it had operated.
A Government spokesman said later that all of these questions and more would be dealt with by the commission of inquiry but added that the issues involved were “extremely grave” and contained “many worrying aspects”.
As well as dealing with the revelations about the recording of phone calls, the Cabinet also took a number of decisions designed to improve the governance of the Garda.
Afterwards it gave a commitment to an extensive programme of reform, including the passing of the Government legislation to protect whistleblowers and to extend freedom of information.
Committing itself to the reform of Garda oversight and accountability, it also decided to establish an independent Garda authority that would be accountable to the Oireachtas.
Those reforms would have attracted a lot of attention in the normal course of events but were overshadowed by the phone-taping disclosures, which have the potential to do enormous damage.