Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has defended the Garda's decision to carry out a criminal investigation into the so-called Golfgate affair, though the courts have since ruled no crimes were committed as the event did not breach Covid-19 restrictions.
"We policed to the (Covid) regulations as we police to the law," Mr Harris said of the Garda being responsible for enforcing some of the more stringent public health regulations at times over the last two years.
When it was put to him by James O'Connor TD (FF) that the decision to commence a criminal investigation into the Oireachtas Golf Society social event in Co Galway in August, 2020, was made by a Garda inspector in the Galway region, Mr Harris was unapologetic.
"But that's what we are charged with by the Garda Síochána Act to do," he said. "We are charged in legislation to both prevent and detect crime if we find it."
Mr O'Connor then told the commissioner the alleged crimes in the case of Golfgate event were subsequently found not to be crimes, to which Mr Harris replied: "Well, the act of investigation is to find evidence. A file was obviously completed. It was completed to the satisfaction of the Director of Public Prosecutions because a prosecution was mounted."
At the time of the Golfgate controversy it emerged that the then European commissioner for trade, Phil Hogan, had been stopped in his car by gardaí in Co Kildare while on the way to the Oireachtas Golf Society outing and social gathering in Clifden.
Mr Hogan was stopped on suspicion of using his phone while behind the wheel. A Garda member spoke to him before using their discretion and not taking the matter any further.
Mr Harris informed Minister for Justice Helen McEntee about the incident and she told Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Mr Harris passed on the information under Section 41 of the Garda Síochána Act. It provides for a commissioner to bring various matters to the attention of the Government of the day.
At Thursday's Public Accounts Committee meeting Mr O'Connor said he believed the golfing event was unwise, even though in broke no rules. He asked Mr Harris if he thought his passing on the information had "contributed to the resignation of" Mr Hogan from his position as European commissioner. Mr Harris said he had "no comment in respect of that".
‘Huge public concern’
Mr O’Connor said the Golfgate case had had “a huge impact” on people with “very, very public profiles in terms of their careers” which, he claimed, was now “an issue of huge public concern”.
He questioned Mr Harris about how the information was passed on, specifically if it was in writing, and about whether he, Mr Harris, wrote to Ms McEntee or the secretary general of the department.
When asked by Mr O’Connor about what “merited” him contacting the Department of Justice about Mr Hogan, Mr Harris said the communications provided for under Section 41 were confidential.
However, he said he “viewed the matter and I regarded that it met the requirements of Section 41 in terms of a report to the Minister”. He also confirmed there was written communication and that letters at the time had gone to both Ms McEntee and the secretary general.
At the time, the Oireachtas Golf Society event was presented in the media as a breach of Covid-19 regulations during a period when many family gatherings, including funerals, were restricted. However, in the subsequent District Court case, Judge Mary Fahy found no breaches had taken place at the hotel where the golf event was held.
The judge concluded gatherings of 50 were permitted at the time. She found two such gatherings, which were properly separated, had taken place at the golfing event, which she said complied with the regulations at the time.
She dismissed the charges against Independent TD Noel Grealish and former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy, along with hoteliers John Sweeney and James Sweeney. They were before the courts as it was alleged they had organised an event in breach of restrictions at the time.