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.

And former Fianna Fail chief whip John Curran is none too pleased that his political rival, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, swiped Egan from under his nose on his home patch.

Last month, Micheál Martin appointed Curran, who lost his seat at the last election, as his Dublin director of elections for the local elections. His main job is to bring new blood into the party in the city.

Before Frannie Fitz officially welcomed Kenny “Call me Kenneth” into the blue corner last Monday, media reports began surfacing about Fianna Fáil’s claim on the celebrity boxer. Curran’s friendship with the Clondalkin man was mentioned as FF appeared to in contention for his affections. However, Fianna Fáil never made any direct approach to the boxer.

Instead, Kenneth’s former manager Ken Bogle – one time Bertie stalwart and a leading light of his former Cumann – did his best to talk his erstwhile charge out of declaring for Fine Gael.

After a triumphant Fitzgerald introduced her new signing to the media , Bogle had to throw in the towel.


The spying game stays centre stage despite best efforts of some partisans
Well done to the Garda Commissioner.

He’s been up and down every tree in the Capel Street area and hasn’t found one member of his force with a glass pressed up against the wall.

Who cares if anyone else was eavesdropping?

And if that’s good enough for Alan Shatter and Enda Kenny, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

“I think the pigeon has come home to roost to a certain degree here,” declared Martin Callinan yesterday, as he joined forces with the Minister for Justice to assure the chairman of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission that they do not want to roast and eat him anymore.

Simon O’Brien, the GSOC chairman, has had a difficult week. He has a report which concludes it’s highly probable his organisation has fallen victim to a covert surveillance operation. The outside experts who reached this conclusion say an innocent explanation for what they uncovered is “remote to zero”. But they cannot be definitive about this.

That’s that so, says the Government, unable, for some inexplicable reason, to address the explosive question of who might have bugged the GSOC.

O’Brien got a grilling instead. He tried to explain the complex nature of modern electronic surveillance to a Dáil committee this week. It didn’t go well. Not least because many committee members, all on the Government side, seemed to think they know more about the spying game than O’Brien, a former London Met commander, and his expert consultants.

But when bosses of multinationals suspect industrial espionage, they don’t call the likes of Michelle Mulherin or Michael Healy-Rae.

Despite some partisan efforts to deflect the story away from the central issue of the surveillance, the politicians didn’t convince. The continuing focus on leaks and GSOC’s relationship with the Government and Garda, is intriguing.

The sense that the people in charge of running this country are paralysed until they see what is printed tomorrow in The Sunday Times is unsettling.


Go figure ‘remote to zero’
What does “remote to zero” mean to the likes of Enda Kenny and Alan Shatter? Here are some examples:

Example 1.

The Minister for Justice is very keen on running for the Dáil again. He engages market research experts to investigate his prospects in his redrawn constituency.

They conclude the chances of him losing his seat are “remote to zero”. So Shatter announces his retirement.
Example 2.
Kenny wakes up one morning to find he is Taoiseach. He engages a team of handlers to investigate how he can sustain his popularity. They conclude that if he shakes more hands then Bertie Ahern ever did, smiles, and never, ever, enters a TV studio to debate a political opponent, the chances of his popularity dipping are “remote to zero”. So Enda employs Terry Prone to teach him to be cranky, offers himself to TV3 for a live debate with Opposition leaders and a head-to-head with Vincent Browne.

Finally.

Alan and Enda and Martin walk into a pub after closing time. “Any chance of a drink?”

“Zero to remote, lads.”

“Great! A pint for me, a small dry sherry for Alan, and whatever the commissioner is having…”


Charlie’s man in Dingle
There were fond thoughts of the late Tom Fitzgerald in the Seanad on Wednesday.

Tom, who died last year, was a member of the Upper House for many years and was Charlie Haughey’s man on earth. Or at least he was Charlie’s man in Dingle and on the island of Inishvickillane.

Fianna Fáil’s Denis O’Donovan led the official expression of sympathy. Tom’s family – wife Bridie and children Michelle, Breandán and Tomás were present for the occasion along with, observed Denis, “what appears to be half of An Daingean”.

As it turned out, the formalities in the Seanad happened to coincide with the launch that evening of the Peaidi O Sé annual football challenge.

Fine Gael senator Paul Coghlan, paid warm tribute to his fellow Kerryman who did much “to put Dingle on the map” .

Coghlan recalled how Tom, a fine figure of a man in his day, played stand-in for movie star Robert Mitchum during the filming of the movie, Ryan’s Daughter.

He also mentioned how Tom Fitz, as he was known, looked after Inishvickillane for Haughey, keeping an eye on it when he wasn’t there.

He told the old story of how, when the former Taoiseach’s house was under construction on the island, that a terrible storm struck and Tom and the site workers were marooned for days. The builders, bored and thirsty, remembered putting in an underground cellar for CJH’s wine collection.

”The workmen decided it would be a shame to see it go to waste and laid into it as they had nothing else to pass the time in the evenings” said Paul.

When they finally got back to Dingle, they went into the local shop and bought replacements. Black Tower, Pedrotti and the like – only the good schtuff!

”I can only imagine what the Boss thought – I never heard,” sighed Paul.

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