Prosecutions over Oireachtas Golf Society dinner unfair, court told

Counsel for Donie Cassidy says ‘everybody jumped on the bandwagon’ and wrongly accused attendees of breaching rules

Donie Cassidy (75), arriving at court in Co Galway to attend a hearing where he is one of four people accused to have breached Covid restrictions by organising a golf society dinner. Photograph: Andrew Downes/PA Wire

Donie Cassidy (75), arriving at court in Co Galway to attend a hearing where he is one of four people accused to have breached Covid restrictions by organising a golf society dinner. Photograph: Andrew Downes/PA Wire

 

Two politicians and two hoteliers at the centre of a case over alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations during an Oireachtas Golf Society outing are being unfairly prosecuted, their legal teams have said.

Independent TD Noel Grealish, former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy, and hoteliers John and James Sweeney are before Galway District Court over the event at the Station House Hotel in Clifden on August 19th, 2020.

The men’s legal representatives said their clients had complied with the regulations at all times during the two-day outing.

Eoghan Cole BL, prosecuting, said it was the State’s case that an indoor event was organised and attended by more than 50 people on the date in question.

He said the four defendants had organised the event and did not take all reasonable steps to ensure the numbers present did not exceed those permitted at an indoor gathering at the time.

Independent TD Noel Grealish arriving at court in Co Galway to attend a hearing where he is one of four people accused to have breached Covid restrictions by organising a golf society dinner. Photograph: Andrew Downes/PA Wire
Independent TD Noel Grealish arriving at court in Co Galway to attend a hearing where he is one of four people accused to have breached Covid restrictions by organising a golf society dinner. Photograph: Andrew Downes/PA Wire

At the time of the alleged offence, Mr Cole said, the legislation provided that an event organiser was “a person who is engaged in publishing, arranging, organising or managing an event”. He said it was the State’s case that all four accused had organised the event.

Legal teams representing Mr Grealish, of Carnmore, Co Galway; Mr Cassidy, of the Square, Castlepollard, Co Westmeath; hotel owner John Sweeney; and his son James, general manager of the hotel, argued that their clients should not be facing criminal prosecution.

‘Not a law-breaker’

Colm Smyth SC, for Mr Cassidy, said his client was “a law-maker and not a law-breaker”. He said the guidelines issued to hotels at the time were implemented.

“Everybody jumped on the bandwagon that these people ignored the rules, saying the rules didn’t apply to them. That was certainly not the case,” he said.

“And the press assumed that what the Government decided the night before had meaning for this event, but it didn’t - not until 10 days later,” he said in reference to the Government’s decision to further restrict indoor gathering numbers in August 2020.

Mr Smyth said the 80 people invited to the golf society dinner were accommodated in two rooms. Referring to a copy of the guidelines handed into court, he said it permitted multiple gatherings provided distancing protocols were adhered to.

He said the function was organised as a mark of respect to the late Mark Killilea, a founding member or the society, and had not been a “frivolity”. He accused the media of “whipping up” hysteria and said “a lot of good people” had to resign from positions as a result of the outcry over the event.

John Sweeney (right) and his son James Sweeney arriving at court in Co Galway to attend a hearing where they’re two of four people accused to have breached Covid restrictions by organising a golf society dinner. Photograph: Andrew Downes/PA Wire
John Sweeney (right) and his son James Sweeney arriving at court in Co Galway to attend a hearing where they’re two of four people accused to have breached Covid restrictions by organising a golf society dinner. Photograph: Andrew Downes/PA Wire

Precautions

He said Mr Cassidy took all precautions by checking regulations and guidelines and engaging with people in the Irish Hotels Federation and the Department of Tourism.

“My client was informed one of the rooms would accommodate 45 people and the other room the balance of the 81 in attendance and that is what was in place on the night,” he said.

Mr Cassidy was satisfied, he said, that the room had been properly divided so as to make it two rooms, which the guidelines required.

Mr Cole said Mr Cassidy and Mr Grealish had invited 80 guests to one event and they had one dinner served by the same hotel staff in what was effectively one room.

“During the function the partition was altered for people to hear the speeches and there was no rigid separation. It was one event and not multiple gatherings,” he said.

Michael McDowell SC, for Mr Grealish, said the society outing was a two-day event. He said his client, as captain, was responsible for the first day, which did not involve a dinner.

He said the second day included the president’s dinner and that his client had not been involved in organising, arranging or publicising it. He said Mr Grealish stood-in as captain for the two-day outing at the behest of Mr Cassidy and that former Justice Pat McCartan was appointed captain for 2020 at the dinner.

Clarification needed

Edward Walsh SC, for John Sweeney, said the status of the guidelines needed to be clarified by the prosecution. He said his client was not the legal owner of the hotel’s licence and he did not organise or cause the event to be organised.

He said the Government introduced guidelines to aid the reopening the hotel sector and other businesses but now appeared to be resiling itself from those. He said the event was held in accordance with the guidelines introduced by the Government at the time.

Constance Cassidy SC, for James Sweeney, said her client and his father were directors of the company Western Railway Operations Ltd and were distinct persons in law from the company. She expressed dismay that her client rather than the company was being prosecuted.

The trial continues.