Catherine Cleary: The day Bertie called to explain the Sheedy affair was not a story

In the 'Story Times' episode of The Women's Podcast journalists including Catherine Cleary, Kitty Holland, Olivia O'Leary and Anne Harris recount the stories of their careers

 

Anne Ryan was bringing her children home from a swim twenty years ago when a car dropped out of the sky and killed her at the Glenview Roundabout in Tallaght. In 1997 the driver of the speeding car, a young architect called Philip Sheedy, was jailed for four years. Just over a year later he was released.

Sheedy’s early release led to the resignation of two judges. I was the security correspondent of The Sunday Tribune and my editor Matt Cooper felt the story went beyond the walls of the Four Courts. I found out that it did. After a lot of digging the breakthrough phonecall made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I hung up, walked into Matt’s office, closed the door and told him the news.

A judicial scandal had just become a political one because we now knew that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had asked about regular day release for Sheedy. The architect had been working for the publican Joe Burke. Joe Burke was a close associate of Bertie Ahern.

I put the story to the Government press officer. The Taoiseach rang me directly. “It’s Bertie here,” he said, all ah-sure charm. He set about trying to explain that if I really understood how politics worked I would understand there was no story. His silky tone had turned to barbed wire by the end of the phonecall. For months afterwards my password for The Sunday Tribune computer system was “itsbertiehere” all one word.

For a few hours it looked as if the government might fall. In the end the PDs didn’t pull the plug. Then the waters of consensus closed over the story. The political experts agreed with Bertie. This was just politics, vaguely embarrassing but nothing to see here. It would be several years, and a triumphant election for Fianna Fail under Bertie, before the dig out payments emerged.

The Sunday Tribune is gone now along with the kind of news budgets that allowed journalists to keep prodding a story until it yielded more of its secrets.

There were other less proud moments. “Do you not think I know that,” a woman said to me quietly through gritted teeth as I stood on her doorstep. I had presented her with my polished nugget of research like the golden key to an interview with her as the mother of a murdered young woman. “It would have been your daughter’s birthday this week,” I had said. “Do you not think I know that?” she asked slowly and deliberately, every word dripping hot into the pit of my stomach. I turned away. She closed her door.

Women journalists are often sent to doorstep the families of victims. We play our roles, as experts sent to do a job. The scoop of my career taught me how important it was to keep asking uncomfortable questions of powerful people. The moment of which I am least proud taught me when to apologise and leave. Because sometimes the stories we are looking for are not ours to tell.

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