Miriam Lord’s Week

The day the Big Black Phone rang

Kenneth Egan is welcomed outside Government Buildings by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald. Fine Gael beat Fianna Fáil to the punch in signing Olympic medallist Egan..

Kenneth Egan is welcomed outside Government Buildings by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald. Fine Gael beat Fianna Fáil to the punch in signing Olympic medallist Egan..

Sat, Feb 15, 2014, 01:01

IN the shadowy world of compromised telephony, eternal vigilance is the watchword.

The need for secure lines of communication has always been paramount in the corridors of power.

This week, we were contacted by a mole.

This was a talking mole, a former Big Noise in the Department of Transport who retired to spend more time enjoying the wind in the willows.

He brought startling news of the 1990s technological wonder known to top brass in Transport’s Kildare Street headquarters as “The Big Black Phone.”

It was in the minister’s office on the third floor, pride of place in the top left hand corner of the desk: a heavy, square, black thing with the receiver resting in a cradle on top.

The thing was, this mysterious apparatus had no dial on it. No numbered buttons to press – its façade was blank.

Incoming calls only.

There were two other telephones on the desk. These were the ones used by the Minister for Transport. The other was a highly sensitive important phone which could not be tapped because the signal was scrambled.

Some officials referred to it as “The Carlsberg Complaint Department Phone” because it never rang.

”In all my years, I never heard a sound out of it and I never saw a minister using it. Nobody knew if it had a number and you’d probably be shot if you found out” recalls our mole.

Then one day, around the turn of the millennium, it rang. “I’ll never forget it. Mary O’Rourke was minister at the time and about eight of us were sitting around the conference table having a discussion. Then, out of the blue, the scrambler phone rang. There was a stunned silence. We all looked at each other.

“The Minister got up and walked the few steps to her desk. We watched – nobody said a word - wondering what sort of grave national crisis it was.

“She picked up the phone.

‘Hello?’

There was a pause. We waited.

“ ‘No. No. There’s no-one of that name here. What? What’s the name again?’ ”

“Another pause.”

“ ‘No. I think you have the wrong number. There’s no Peggy here. That’s quite alright. No problem at all. OK. Bye. Bye now.’ ”

Mammy O’Rourke replaced the receiver. The discussion resumed. And that was it.

The day The Big Black Phone rang.

We must ask Leo if it’s still there.

”There was a pause. We waited.

”’No. No. There’s no-one of that name here. What? What’s the name again?

”Another pause.

”No. I think you have the wrong number. There’s no Peggy here. That’s quite alright. No problem at all. OK. Bye. Bye now.’”

Mammy O’Rourke replaced the receiver. The discussion resumed. And that was it.

The day The Big Black Phone rang.

We must ask Leo if it’s still there.


Fine Gael box clever with Kenny
‘Call me Kenneth’ Egan on ticketIn the race to secure Olympic boxing silver medallist Kenneth Egan for a local election ticket, Fianna Fail cudda been contenders.

But they would have had to glove up first.

When it first emerged that the popular young boxer was about to sign for Fine Gael in Clondalkin, local Fianna Fáil strategists were caught flat-footed by the news.

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