Government survives its biggest crisis in bombshell week reminiscent of Gubu era
Retirement of Garda commissioner stuns Cabinet as Shatter survives
Alan Shatter: When the time came for him to make his statement on penalty points that afternoon – where he would say sorry to the Garda whistleblowers – there would be no repeat of the morning’s pugnacious performance. He said sorry almost instantly.
The Government faced the most seismic week since it assumed power in 2011, with quickly evolving and bizarre developments drawing comparisons to the Gubu era. Here, we retrace the dramatic events.
For a usually affable man, Taoiseach Enda Kenny seemed uncharacteristically blunt on Sunday evening.
He was in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin for a meeting of the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which was being hosted by businessman Denis O’Brien.
He had already initially spoken to Attorney General Máire Whelan at about lunchtime, when she told him there was a matter he “should be made aware of” but which she was not prepared to discuss over the phone.
Kenny delivered a behind- closed-doors speech and briefly stopped when asked by journalists for a word.
“About what?” he replied, before asking in jest if the queries were about the UN millennium goals. After giving short responses – and very little information – to a few questions on the Garda controversy, he headed for the side door of the Shelbourne.
He stopped to speak to a group of people protesting outside about the presence of Rwandan president Paul Kagame at the UN meeting before getting into his car to head to Government Buildings, where Whelan would brief him on an issue that would turn out to be one of the biggest issues faced by the Government.
Also in Government Buildings was Martin Fraser, the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach. As well as Whelan, legal advice was given by a senior counsel, although it is unclear if this person was in Government Buildings on Sunday.
The four people – Kenny, Fraser, Whelan and the senior counsel – formed the core group which decided a course of action before Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.
Kenny and the Government Buildings team started on a “verification process” – and deciding what to do – on Monday, with Kenny also attending a few functions during the day.
Unaware at this stage of what was happening, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was in Croke Park announcing funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs for GAA grounds in London.
Gilmore was asked numerous questions by reporters about the Garda controversies.
He took the opportunity to outline his party’s three positions for the week ahead: Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan should withdraw the comments in which he called the actions of Garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson “disgusting”; Minister for Justice Alan Shatter should correct the Dáil record and apologise for his statement that the whistleblowers had not co-operated with internal Garda inquiries; and an independent Garda authority should be established to give civilian oversight to the force.
Asking for an apology from Shatter was new, and the initial indications that night from the Department of Justice were that Labour’s request was likely to be spurned.
Meanwhile, the team around the Taoiseach was forming a view about what was to be done. At 6pm Shatter was briefed by Kenny and Whelan about what was emerging about Garda recordings.
The Taoiseach decided to detail Brian Purcell, secretary general of the Department of Justice, to tell Callinan of the concerns at Government about these developments.
This meeting, at Callinan’s home, is understood to have taken place after Shatter’s briefing. Government sources claimed Shatter was aware of the meeting between his secretary general and Callinan.
Accounts of what was said have subsequently emerged, with Callinan’s camp letting it be known he was told he might not survive the next morning’s Cabinet meeting. It also let it be known Callinan told Purcell he would think overnight about what he had been told.
The day which would see the crisis reach its peak started with Ministers arriving at Leinster House and Government Buildings at about 8am for that morning’s Cabinet meeting.
One senior Fine Gael Minister spoken to by The Irish Times that morning assumed a form of words would be found to allow Callinan withdraw the “disgusting” comment to give Labour what it wanted.
Events would make the day much livelier.
Callinan, having slept on what he had been told the night before, decided to resign. The Department of Justice was informed, as was the Taoiseach.
Kenny and Gilmore have one-on-one meetings before Cabinet every week, usually in the Tánaiste’s office. This week’s was in the Taoiseach’s office, starting at about 9.15am and lasting 45 minutes, and it was here Gilmore was told Callinan was gone. He was also told for the first time about the recordings at Garda stations, and what course of action Kenny had decided.
Media organisations were also tipped off about Callinan’s decision, but nobody told Fine Gael or Labour Ministers. Each party’s Ministers have separate meetings in advance of full Cabinet meetings every week, to decide positions on issues before Government. Fine Gael and Labour Ministers were gathering but many were in the dark about what was going on.
One senior Minister was informed of Callinan’s resignation by a text message from a family member, after that family member had spotted the news on Twitter.
Another Minister said almost the entire Cabinet found out about Callinan’s resignation through the media.
After his meeting with Kenny, Gilmore “threw his head around the door” to his own Ministers and told them they would be briefed on a serious matter at the Cabinet meeting, which started close to 10.45am.
Fine Gael Ministers had a very short meeting, with news of the death of their colleague Nicky McFadden also filtering through.
Kenny briefed the Cabinet on what the Attorney General had told him and what he believed the Government should do. Ministers afterwards said they had struggled to grasp the amount of information given to them.
There was initially some concern within Labour about whether they were being bounced into something they weren’t quite sure about, but concluded the issues were serious. The Tánaiste also spoke to Whelan during the week. But Labour also seized the chance to get agreement on an independent Garda authority to give the force civilian oversight.
After the previous Garda controversies this year – which led to inquiries into the alleged bugging of the Garda Ombudsman and the dossier from Sgt McCabe – Labour decided to resurrect its policy of setting up an independent authority to oversee An Garda Síochána.
It had expected to be in a position to properly push for it when the various reports are published in the coming weeks, but took its chance this week.
Kenny’s proposals on what to do regarding the Garda recordings, such as establishing a commission of investigation, were contained in a draft statement he brought to Cabinet. Shatter left the Cabinet room with Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin to polish the statement which was later released.
On the issue of the recordings, one Minister said: “There was no mention of suspects and lawyers. The problem seems to be garda-to-garda calls, a bit like the Anglo tapes.”
One Minister ominously described the situation as “bad, bad”.
The Cabinet meeting ended about 1.45pm and the subsequent statement laid out what had been decided. Ministers, TDs and the wider political system began to digest what was going on but the tension at Government was about to jump up a notch rather than die off.
As the afternoon wore on, a number of issues emerged through the media that arguably constituted the greatest threat to Shatter’s position so far, had he not been able to provide explanations.
Firstly, it became apparent that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission had issued a report last year which mentioned the recording of calls at Waterford station, and said “the Garda Commissioner may wish to re-evaluate his practice regarding the recording of such calls and the consents required”. Serious questions were now being asked across Government about whether Shatter knew about this and didn’t tell anyone.
And then the letter sent by Callinan to the Department of Justice on March 10th outlining recording systems became public knowledge via RTÉ News.
More questions were asked, with panicked communications along the ministerial corridor in Leinster House, and the Taoiseach and Shatter insisted they knew nothing of it until that day.
Those at the top of Labour have always insisted they are not in the business of calling for heads, but “this would have been a different ball game”.
Sources on both sides of Government said this was the high – or low – point of the week’s drama.
However, following assurances, “there was a clear sign about where we were going”.
Shatter would outline a sequence of events in the Dáil the following day, and it was also made known to him by Kenny’s office “what was required” to set the record straight about McCabe and Wilson.
Tensions needed to be eased but there were some differences about when Labour was told what Shatter would do. Labour sources say they had a fair idea on Tuesday night, while those in Fine Gael say the junior Coalition partner wasn’t told until the following morning. Labour imposed a radio silence on its Ministers, with many of them still in the dark until Shatter had done his bit in the Dáil.
By the time Shatter gave the first of his statements in the morning, those at the top of both parties were aware of what he was going to do: outline a chain of events regarding his knowledge of the Garda recordings and do the decent thing by the whistleblowers.
The first statement was typical Shatter, and he took swipes at the Opposition and media. Some in Labour – such as Ruairí Quinn and Joan Burton – wondered if he would follow through on what was expected in the second. Others just rolled their eyes.
However, Shatter’s chain of events on who knew what and when about the recordings is now the account against which any further revelations will be measured.
Feelings also varied within Labour about how the controversy had been handled, with little information seeping out of Gilmore’s office.
“Some people are focused on the smooth running of Government, some people are trying not to get creamed at elections,” said one party source.
Any fears were allayed somewhat when, during Leaders’ Questions, Kenny prepared the ground for Shatter’s apology by hinting the Minister for Justice would do what was expected.
When the time came for Shatter to make his statement on the Garda Inspectorate report on penalty points that afternoon – where he would say sorry to McCabe and Wilson – there would be no repeat of the morning’s pugnacious performance.
Shatter made his way into the chamber, stopping to chat with Kenny before taking his seat, flanked by the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.
He said sorry almost instantly. One senior Government source said that was intentional: “People weren’t going to sit around waiting for it. The atmosphere in the Dáil changed almost immediately.”
Crisis over, for now.