What implications will the revelations on phone recording have for criminal cases and tribunals?

The Coalition has encountered its fair share of political storms but this is a category five hurricane

On Thursday Taoiseach Enda Kenny suggested there may be problems for tribunals of inquiry

On Thursday Taoiseach Enda Kenny suggested there may be problems for tribunals of inquiry

Sat, Mar 29, 2014, 01:00

The Coalition has encountered its fair share of political storms but this is undoubtedly a category five hurricane.

There is no understating the shock factor of the dramatic disclosure by the Taoiseach on Tuesday that recording of telephone calls in and out of Garda stations had been occurring on a routine basis for almost three decades in divisional headquarters of Garda stations. Since then scant information has emerged as to when the practice started or the rules or protocols that applied to it.

It is clear that its original purpose was legitimate – to record 999 emergency calls, bomb threats, as well as coded warnings from paramilitary organisations.

But it seems from early on the calls that were captured included many hundreds of routine calls to and from Garda stations, all of which were recorded and stored.

Does the recording and retention of those calls amount to an interception? If it does it means it is illegal unless specifically authorised by a warrant signed by the minister for justice (which is unlikely). Otherwise at least one of the parties must have been made aware and given consent that the calls were being recorded. And it is clear from the accounts that have been heard in the past week that most members of An Garda Síochána were unaware this system existed.

It seems the systems were not installed in a clandestine or highly secretive manner. It seems to have been one of those obscure operations within the force that nobody fully thought through.

Already trials have been adjourned pending this issue. Much will depend on how the recordings were handled. Yet it is clear that if recordings were made illegally, and they touched on criminal cases, and if the defence was not made aware of the existence of those recordings, there will be a serious question marks hanging over convictions already handed down.

There is another dimension. On Thursday Taoiseach Enda Kenny suggested there may be problems for tribunals of inquiry.

The two obvious tribunals of inquiry were the Morris inquiry into the activities of gardaí in Donegal and the Smithwick Tribunal into the killing of two senior RUC officers in the late 1980s. Were there recordings in existence that should have been handed over and were not?

The Government has defended the role of the Attorney General and other State institutions. But there has been no public disclosure of the quality of the information available and when it became available.

It seems that those who should have realised the gravity of the situation were very slow on the uptake.

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