Coalition in power two years when Smyth row erupted

 

IN OCTOBER 1994, Fianna Fáil and Labour had been in coalition for almost two years when a major controversy arose that would eventually lead to the collapse of the government.

When the vacancy arose for the president of the High Court, then taoiseach Albert Reynolds pushed for attorney general Harry Whelehan to be appointed, notwithstanding the objections of Labour and of its then leader, tánaiste Dick Spring.

It emerged there had been a seven-month delay at the attorney general’s office in handling the extradition warrant for notorious paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth. Smyth, who had been living in the South, was wanted in the North on charges of sexually abusing children. He was extradited to the North in June 1994.

As pressure had mounted on the Fianna Fáil-Labour administration, Mr Reynolds defended Mr Whelehan’s role in the affair, saying that he was not to blame for the delay in extradition, as he had not known of the details.

As new information emerged, and after Labour threatened to leave Government, Mr Reynolds partially withdrew his defence, implying Mr Whelehan was aware of the reasons behind the delay. Some weeks later, Fianna Fáil said the party’s leadership had made an unsuccessful effort to ask Mr Whelehan not to accept the position just prior to his appointment.

“I also regret my decision to proceed with the appointment against the expressed opposition of the Labour Party,” Mr Reynolds told the Dáil several days later.

The climbdown was not sufficient to save the government. Mr Whelehan had already been appointed to the High Court. Mr Spring accused Mr Reynolds of being aware of the full facts of the delay at the time he defended Mr Whelehan’s role in the Dáil. Mr Whelehan, in an unprecedented move, resigned from judicial office as a result of the controversy.

Mr Reynolds subsequently stepped down as leader of Fianna Fáil and was replaced by Bertie Ahern. During November and early December of 1994, it seemed likely that Ahern and Spring would form a new coalition between Fianna Fáil and Labour.

Throughout the crisis, Fianna Fáil had insisted one reason for the delay was that the Smyth case was the first of its kind coming under new 1987 legislation.

However, it then emerged that a similar case involving the extradition of a monk, the Duggan case, had been dealt with in 1992. It was also disclosed that Reynolds and other Fianna Fáil members of government were aware of the Duggan case at the time of the Whelehan appointment.

With Labour describing it as “one more misleading piece of information”, the negotiations between both parties were abandoned amid much recrimination.

Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left formed a rainbow coalition for the remaining 2½ years of the term, with John Bruton as taoiseach.