Questions remain on who knew what of Garda bugging

Chain of events surrounding this week’s revelations still unclear

Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter and former garda commissioner Martin Callinan: what exactly did they know about secretive recording? Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter and former garda commissioner Martin Callinan: what exactly did they know about secretive recording? Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Thu, Mar 27, 2014, 01:00

The Government insists it moved as quickly as possible to seek a commission of inquiry into the Garda bugging affair but questions remain as to the exact chain of events.

In focus right now are Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, Attorney General Máire Whelan, Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell and former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. What precisely did they know about the secretive recording system? When? And what did they do about it?

The roots of the debacle stretch right back to an effort in the 1980s to track bomb threats phoned to Garda stations at the height of the Troubles in the North. The questions this raises are as numerous as they are profound.

In the frame more immediately, however, is Mr Kenny’s declaration that he did not learn of the matter and its wider implications until he met Ms Whelan on Sunday evening. This followed a phone call that morning from the Taoiseach to Ms Whelan. He said such calls are a matter of routine in advance of a Cabinet meeting, but there was more. “She indicated that there was another matter that I should be made aware of and that she was not prepared to talk to me about the matter on the telephone,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil. In his own account, this was the first Mr Kenny knew of the matter.

Mr Shatter’s assertion is that he knew nothing of it until Monday evening. The Minister did not see a letter on the matter from Mr Callinan until lunchtime the next day, three hours after Mr Callinan unexpectedly resigned. No less than 16 days had passed since Mr Callinan had written to Mr Purcell, the letter dated March 10th and including a request that it be shown to the Minister.

The first Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore heard of the issue was when Mr Kenny told him on Tuesday morning before the Cabinet meeting.

Although the response was indeed rapid, two events last year help set the scene. These are: Mr Callinan’s termination of the recording scheme in November; and litigation arising from the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

Also relevant are sustained attacks on Mr Shatter over his response to an assortment of Garda controversies, and similar pressure on Mr Callinan. The Government has dismissed Opposition claims it is using the bugging affair as a foil to shield Mr Shatter from the fallout of Mr Callinan’s exit.

We do not know the exact reason for Mr Callinan’s decision to scrap the recording system. In the backdrop, however, is a wrongful arrest action taken by Ian Bailey against the Garda and State in relation to the Toscan du Plantier case.

The Garda recordings ceased on November 27th, 2013. Two days earlier, the High Court was told that new material involving about 16,000 records, some of them electronic, had emerged in the course of the Bailey action. Senior counsel Paul O’Higgins told the court fresh and unexpected material had come up in relation to matters such as phone traffic. At that time, the court told the State to produce the material by March 25th, Tuesday of this week.

Mr Callinan’s letter to Mr Purcell of March 10th states he consulted Ms Whelan’s office on November 11th and established a working group to report on the issue. There was also consultation with the Attorney General.

This triggered Opposition claims Ms Whelan knew of the bugging affair for three months before the Government’s emergency intervention.

Still, Mr Shatter told the Dáil “that she had no knowledge at that time of the circumstances surrounding the making of tapes, the legal background to their being made, the contents of such tapes, or the number of such tapes”.

The Government argues Ms Whelan could not act before the full extent of the recordings and the issues raised became known, and that this was not clarified until the weekend.

“She is bound to have all of the facts at her disposal before she can make a judgment,” said Mr Kenny.

“When I was informed on Sunday of the potential gravity of this situation, was I to come in here this week and pretend I was not informed about it formally by the Attorney General?”

Although Mr Shatter did not receive Mr Callinan’s letter of March 10th for more than a fortnight, there was no lack of activity within his department. There was a follow-up meeting with Mr Callinan on March 11th involving officials from the department and Ms Whelan’s office.

The Minister was not apparently alerted to the issue before he left for St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Mexico on March 15th, nor when he returned on March 21st. While Mr Shatter was away, his department considered issues raised in Mr Callinan’s letter in the context of discussions on a court case.

Then there is the matter of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) statement last June which referred directly to the recording of calls at Waterford Garda station.

“This was not a report to me or my department but a press release by GSOC and there was no indication or suggestion of any nationwide system of recording in Garda stations,” Mr Shatter said.

“The simple truth is GSOC did not furnish the report mentioned to me and I am advised that they did not furnish it to my departmental officials nor bring it to the department’s attention.”

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