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.