The seven days that brought the Coalition close to breaking point
Kenny’s decisive action averted a crisis after Garda phone-taping revelations
‘It was not until Alan Shatter’s second outing in the Dáil on Wednesday when he apologised to the whistleblowers that Labour jiggers began to ease.’ Above, Shatter flanked by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan
The Coalition came close to breaking point on a couple of occasions over the past week. A real crisis was averted by the high-risk but decisive strategy adopted by Taoiseach Enda Kenny when he was given the astonishing information that phone calls in and out of Garda stations have been routinely recorded since the late 1980s. There are still a host of unanswered questions about the whole episode and real dangers for the long-term survival Coalition if the account of events provided by the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter unravels at any stage in the coming months.
For a brief period before and after last Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting it looked as if the Coalition parties were on a collision course that had some echoes of the 1994 controversy that saw the break-up of the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. In the end, a serious clash was averted and both parties are relatively happy with the outcome. Fine Gael Ministers are relieved that structures have been put in place to deal with the hydra-headed problem that emerged from the Justice system while Labour Ministers are happy that the Shatter apology has taken the sting out of the whistleblowers saga and more importantly, that the turn of events has forced a decision to establish a Garda Authority.
Last weekend it appeared the Coalition was in real trouble as the long-running controversy surrounding the Minister for Justice and the gardaí refused to go away. Ministers became increasingly frustrated with each other over the handling of the issue as it took fresh twists and turns. Leo Varadkar poured petrol on the flames when the Taoiseach was out of the country for St Patrick’s week by calling on the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan to withdraw his “disgusting” remark about the whistleblowers. The Varadkar intervention came at a stage when the controversy had faded from the front pages but his remarks promptly put it back there with a vengeance. That infuriated some of his Fine Gael colleagues, but it gave an opening to Labour Ministers who had been biting their lips with increasing frustration at the way Shatter and Callinan were refusing to back down and so were prolonging the controversy.
By last weekend, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was openly calling on the Commissioner to retract his remarks and suggesting that Shatter should correct the record of the Dail with regard to the whistleblowers. With the Cabinet due to discuss the issue on Tuesday there was no obvious way out of the political impasse, particularly given the stubborn refusal of Callinan and Shatter to climb down from their entrenched positions. The potential for an open confrontation between the two sides of the Coalition loomed as never before in the lifetime of this Government.
Then, last Sunday, Attorney General Máire Whelan gave the Taoiseach information that brought a new and utterly unexpected dimension into the affair. During a routine phone call she told Kenny that she needed to speak to him in person about an issue that had arisen as a result of a court action. The two met at 6pm on Sunday in Government Buildings and Whelan told Kenny that as a result of a civil action in the Sophie du Plantier case she had been made aware that recordings of phone conversations in and out of a large number of Garda stations had being going on for over two decades.
With this bombshell now on his desk the Taoiseach had a serious decision to make which would have a huge impact on his Government no matter what he did. For the next 24 hours he didn’t tell any of his Cabinet colleagues about the problem but conducted his own “verification” process in consultation with his most senior officials.
At some stage on Monday he clearly consulted the secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell because he was the official dispatched that evening to inform the Garda Commissioner of the Taoiseach’s concerns about the implications of the information. Callinan resigned the following morning.
It was only on Monday evening that Kenny told his Minister for Justice about the matter and not until shortly before the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning that he informed Gilmore. The Taoiseach then went into the Cabinet to tell his colleagues, who were only digesting the news of Callinan’s resignation, that in his view, the latest problem was potentially far more serious than anything that had emerged to date about the administration of justice.
Kenny sought the approval of his Cabinet for the establishment of a Commission of Investigation to look into the whole matter and after a thorough discussion they agreed. As part of the deal Labour Ministers insisted that the Government should commit itself to the establishment of a fully-fledged Garda Authority.
Since the formation of the Government this proposal had been bogged down in the Department of Justice, but it appears that on Tuesday Kenny sided with the Labour Ministers and insisted that it was time to press ahead with the Authority. Still, for a few hours after the Cabinet meeting Labour Ministers were reeling. They were shocked that Kenny had not informed Gilmore of the problem until just before the Cabinet meeting and were concerned that they were being bounced into something whose implications they couldn’t foresee. Their mood was not improved when details of a letter written by the Callinan to the Department of Justice on March 10th referring to the problem of recording at Garda stations was leaked to the media that evening. The question arose as to why Shatter had not received that letter and why it had taken until last weekend for the Attorney General to brief the Taoiseach on the subject.
Shatter’s first outing in the Dáil on Wednesday morning only raised more fears in Labour as he outlined how the letter had not been given to him until the day before. He also provided detail about the AG’s knowledge of the problem and disposed of the impression given in the reporting of Callinan’s letter that she knew about the matter last November. Shatter said officials in AGs office were made aware in November of Garda phone recordings in a particular case, but the scale of the problem was not made known to her at that time.
It was not until Shatter’s second outing in the Dáil on Wednesday when he apologised to the whistleblowers that Labour jiggers began to ease. On reflection party TDs were also reassured by the fact that the AG is a Labour appointee and so they should have nothing to fear from the Taoiseach’s decision to take action following her advice. The AG, who is highly regarded by both parties in the Coalition, in accordance with proper procedure had not informed Labour Ministers of the problem in advance of the Cabinet. S he was unable to attend the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday for important family reasons which for a time added to the puzzlement in Labour ranks.
When Labour nerves began to calm on Wednesday afternoon, party TDs began to look on the positive implications of the week’s events for real reform of the gardaí and the Justice system. Fine Gael Ministers also relaxed as they assessed the full implications. “Last Sunday morning Enda had a serious problem. Callinan was refusing to withdraw his ‘disgusting’ comment, Shatter was refusing to apologise and Gilmore was looking for both things to happen. This emergency changed the picture in one fell swoop,” said a Fine Gael TD.
Some Fianna Fail TDs couldn’t resist the belief that the entire episode was contrived by Kenny to get himself out of a political hole. Politically convenient though the emergence of the issue may have been for the Taoiseach, it is far-fetched to believe he would throw the whole legal system into chaos for short-term political advantage. The other side of the coin is that if Kenny had decided to ignore the information given to him by the AG or even sweep it under the carpet for the time being, he would not only have been failing in his duty but would have been putting his office at risk. It is one of the maxims of politics that what really destroys careers is not the mistakes that inevitably occur but attempts to cover them up.
Any attempt by Kenny to bury the information he was given last Sunday would inevitably have rebounded, particularly as it was going to emerge in a court case one way or another. Meeting it head-on was the only way to proceed regardless of the consequences.
The other point is that the Commission of Investigation will establish the nature and scale of the practice of recording phone calls at Garda stations. If the Taoiseach has misrepresented the situation then his political credibility will suffer.
There are some similarities between the events of the past week and those of November 1994 in the sense that they both involved a Taoiseach acting on his own initiative in consultation with an Attorney General. However, the differences between the two events are actually more striking. In 1994 Albert Reynolds as taoiseach forced the appointment of the AG, Harry Whelehan, as president of the High Court through a Cabinet meeting, against the wishes of the Coalition partners. Reynolds and Labour leader Dick Spring were already on bad terms and Spring had made it quite clear that the appointment would be a deal breaker. When he followed through on his threat and led his Ministers out of government, Reynolds then went into political contortions to try to get him back, but only succeeded in making things much worse.
In this case Kenny played it by the book and took a firm initiative following advice from the AG. While he didn’t inform Gilmore until he had decided on his strategy, the good working relations between the two men meant his Tánaiste felt able to trust Kenny, even if he was taken aback to be presented with a fait accompli . Some of the other Labour Minister were initially more suspicious than Gilmore, but their fears abated, particularly once Shatter had made his apology. They still find it difficult to understand why Shatter was not shown the Commissioner’s letter of March 10th until last Tuesday morning and if that account does not stand up the Minister’s position will become untenable.
For the moment, though, the political temperature in Government this weekend is healthier than it was seven days ago. Fianna Fail has put down a motion of no confidence in Shatter for debate next week, but these motions often mark the end of a controversy rather adding to it. It will inevitably return in the coming months as the Commission of Investigation is established and the reports of the various inquiries are published. The Coalition will need to do a better job of handling the issue next time it surfaces if it wants to survive its full term.
Stephen Collins is Political Editor