A shambles in government political communications

Opinion: Are department and the Cabinet support systems able to deal with a crisis?

‘It is  disturbing the contents of correspondence of such importance from the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan (above) was not brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice, until after he returned from Mexico.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

‘It is disturbing the contents of correspondence of such importance from the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan (above) was not brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice, until after he returned from Mexico.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Mar 29, 2014, 00:01

It is difficult for us now to appreciate the practical challenges faced by ministers in previous decades when trying to communicate with each other and with their departments at times of crisis. Jack Lynch, for example, had to confront the early events of the Troubles when telephone communications were rudimentary and when the Office of the Taoiseach had a very small staff. On occasions, for instance, when he had to be contacted urgently on a Friday evening, civil servants had to phone some Garda station along his route to Cork, and ask the local sergeant to wave down his car.

Now, however, we live in an era of mobile telephones and personal devices when multinational companies can do the most sensitive international business across borders and oceans from encrypted laptops in Dublin. We live also in a time when the Taoiseach’s department is large relative to that of other prime ministerial offices and where he has advisers and staff at his disposal. We would expect that sensitive legal and political issues can be instantly brought to the attention of senior politicians.

There are many things about this week’s revelation which are shocking in terms of how An Garda Síochána operates; but this week’s events also raise significant concerns about whether Government departments and the Cabinet support systems are fit for purpose in dealing with a crisis.

It is frightening something like the recording of telephone calls in and out of Garda stations, with its obvious implications, was being dealt with at senior levels in the Department of Justice and the Office of the Attorney General but was not elevated to the attention of Ministers.

It is also disturbing the contents of correspondence of such importance from the Garda Commissioner was not brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice, until after he returned from Mexico.

If the implications of the taping of telephone calls at Garda stations is as potentially catastrophic as the Government appears anxious to suggest, then both the timing and manner in which the Government put these revelations into the public domain was entirely inappropriate.


Communications strategy
One would have thought that even if the significance of this issue was only first communicated to the Taoiseach on Sunday evening, he would have immediately begun to frame a strategy. One would have thought all hands would have been on deck at Government Buildings and the Department of Justice all day Monday and that the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Attorney General and the Minister for Justice, together with key advisers would have been preparing an appropriate chronology of calibrated announcements to the Dáil and to the media on Tuesday.

Such a careful and co-ordinated approach would not only have been in the Government’s own political interest but in the interest of the justice system, where hundreds of criminal court cases now risk being stalled. It is curious that, instead, the efforts of the Taoiseach and senior officials in the Department of Justice on Monday were focused primarily on procuring the resignation of the Garda Commissioner not, it seems, arising from the telephone recordings controversy, but because of deep political divisions on whether or not he should apologise for his calling the behaviour of whistleblowers “disgusting”.


Absurd sequence
The situation which unfolded on Tuesday was absurd. The day began with the surprise resignation of Martin Callinan while Cabinet gathered. Ministers then heard at Cabinet for the first time about the telephone recordings at Garda stations. The Government then issued a vague one-page statement about a commission of inquiry.

Instead of having the Dáil agenda cleared so Alan Shatter could make a statement about the commissioner’s resignation and the telephone issue, the same man was in the Dáil answering questions as Minister for Defence.

In the Special Criminal Court on Thursday and again at Tralee Circuit Court yesterday, senior Garda personnel gave details about stations where calls were recorded and the type and extent of recordings involved. There seems to be no reason why these could not have been given to the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesday evening, senior Ministers, except the Minister for Justice, went on news and current affairs programmes to say how serious the revelations were, to restate the confidence they had in Shatter and to emphasise how Callinan had resigned of his own volition. This week saw the biggest shambles in government political communications since the dying days of the last government. It contrasts with Kenny’s election night promise to be upfront with people.

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