Geraldine Kennedy: Phone-tapping files a disappointing public record of historic events

State papers from 1983 include none from the Department of Justice

Bruce Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy, the journalists named in the telephone tapping affair, reading Government statements at a press conference in 1983. Photograph: The Irish Times

Bruce Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy, the journalists named in the telephone tapping affair, reading Government statements at a press conference in 1983. Photograph: The Irish Times

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 08:08

There is nothing really new in the telephone tapping files from 1983 released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule today. Yet, the State papers are interesting, if disappointing, in many different ways.

The National Archives seemed to form the judgment that these files would be the most interesting to journalists because they related to the most substantial political controversy of that year. They are the only files the archives staff put on both disk and USB.

It was the first year of the Garret FitzGerald/Dick Spring 1982-1987 coalition government following the three short-lived minority governments led by Charles Haughey and FitzGerald over the previous 18 months. It was the year in which the unlawful phone tapping of two journalists, Bruce Arnold, parliamentary correspondent and columnist in the Irish Independent, and myself was confirmed.

It was eerie for me going into the National Archives for the press previews of the papers before Christmas. I knew there could be no new disclosures nor hidden secrets in the files but I was going back 30 years to the most difficult time in my personal and professional life.

I was political correspondent of the first Sunday Tribune in 1982 when the phone tapping happened. I was a single woman. I lived in the Stable House inside the high walls of the Shackleton estate in the Strawberry Beds near Lucan, facing on to the river Liffey. There were big entry gates. The telephone was of the old thumping black heavy type that we all had in rural Ireland as the numbers went from village to district to region. I will never forget the number: 280006.

There were no mobile phones nor emails at that time. Google, Facebook , the world wide web and the iPad had not been invented. You met sources personally or you spoke to them privately on the phone. Thirty years on, as a parent of two young women in their early 20s, I appreciate that the phone-tapping scandal is ancient history. It is back in the mists of time with the
Arms Crisis and the second World War.

The formal confirmation of the telephone tapping was made by the new minister for justice, Michael Noonan, shortly after 8pm on Thursday, January 20th, 1983. He had just been elected to the Dáil three months earlier in the November 1982 general election.

He made three statements on behalf of the government. Statement No 1 (of three statements), as it is labelled in the State papers, announced: “The Commissioner, Garda Síochána, Mr Patrick McLaughlin, and the Deputy Commissioner in charge of the Security Section, Mr Joseph Ainsworth, have, separately, notified the Minister for Justice of their intention to retire from the Force with effect from 1st February, and this has been accepted by Government.” They had made it clear, separately, to the minister that this was the right course of action in the aftermath of recent controversies, especially in relation to telephone tapping, the statement said.

Statement No 2 related to information supplied by Mr Ainsworth that he had received a call from the minister for justice, Seán Doherty, towards the end of October 1982, to supply a tape recorder to the then minister for finance, Ray MacSharry. It was used to record a conversation with Dr Martin O’Donoghue. Two copies of the transcript were taken by Mr Ainsworth to Mr Doherty. The statement said it related totally to party-political matters.

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