Upright garda who investigated bugging by his own force

Laurence Wren: 1922-2016

Laurence Wren at home in Castleknock, Dublin, in 2005, during his retirement. The former  Garda commissioner had a steely ethic about right and wrong. Photograph:  Alan Betson

Laurence Wren at home in Castleknock, Dublin, in 2005, during his retirement. The former Garda commissioner had a steely ethic about right and wrong. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Even with the passage of more than three decades, the events that propelled Laurence Wren to the highest position in the Garda Síochána have lost none of their capacity to shock as well as to fascinate.

To those who did not know him, Wren, who has died aged 93, might have come across as a slightly grey, ordinary man. He was anything but. If a single word can ever be used adequately to describe an individual, in the case of Larry Wren that word would be “upright”.

He was from Co Limerick and joined the Garda Síochána in 1943. Serving in Galway, Kerry and Cork, he rose through the ranks steadily, if unspectacularly, serving as a uniformed garda and as a detective. He attained senior rank, which brought him to Donegal as chief superintendent and later to Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park in Dublin.

By the time of the events that were to define his place in history, he was deputy commissioner with overall responsibility for crime. He might well have served out his time at that rank and retired to an unassuming life in Castleknock, where he lived happily with his wife, Maureen, with whom he had two daughters, Mary and Anne.

Robust challenge

He defied his commissioner, Patrick McLaughlin, in August 1982 by upholding an appeal against transfer made by a rural sergeant, Tom Tully. In this, he was supported by the assistant secretary in the Department of Justice, Liam Breathnach, and Michael Boyle, the representative of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors on the appeal board.

Boyle’s position was no surprise, but for Wren to be part of a unanimous overturning of a transfer order – made at the behest of minister for justice Seán Doherty – was unprecedented.

The challenge to the chief constable of the RUC, Jack Hermon, concerned an altogether more sinister incident: the arrest, in late September 1982, of a man in Northern Ireland by the RUC to prevent him giving evidence in a Co Cavan court case against a garda who was a brother-in-law of Doherty, thus causing the case to collapse.

It was, in essence, a conspiracy between two police forces, initiated by the minister for justice, to kidnap a man in one jurisdiction to pervert the course of justice in another.

Security meeting

Hermon reflected and later said something to Wren about eggs and omelettes, by way of justification for what had been done, and possibly exculpation. But Wren had made his point.

A lifetime’s detective experience and canniness was needed when Wren was asked by Michael Noonan, Doherty’s replacement as minister for justice, to investigate who in the Garda had been involved in 1982 in the illegal tapping of journalists’ telephones and who provided bugging equipment to one government minister so he could secretly tape-record another.

This investigation, which Wren undertook by stealth in January 1983, involved him seeking answers from his fellow deputy commissioner, Joe Ainsworth, and from McLaughlin, his senior officer, and reporting back to Noonan.

It was during this process of to-ing and fro-ing that rumours of the bugging emerged. Wren had almost nothing to go on, but, questioning Ainsworth, he disclosed the only information he had: that the tape had been transcribed in Garda HQ.

It was enough to convince Ainsworth that Wren knew more when, in fact, he knew nothing more at all. Ainsworth filled in the gaps, which was about 90 per cent of the story.

Media games

“Keep going; you’re doing fine,” he once said to me without revealing much, except that I was on the right track – which, under the circumstances, was actually saying a huge amount. He was a man of few words, but those spoken were important.

“He was very straight,” said a former colleague and friend yesterday. “You knew where you stood with him.”

In the wake of the telephone tapping and bugging affair that forced the resignations of McLaughlin and Ainsworth in January 1983, Wren was appointed Garda commissioner, a post he held until retirement in late 1987. He was no revolutionary in the discharge of his duties as head of the force, but a stickler for standards and for doing the job in the correct way.

Given what preceded him, that adherence to procedure and propriety was a substantial achievement. His main legacy as commissioner is that he steadied the ship.

In retirement, he devoted himself mainly to his family. He had a warm personality and a wry sense of humour. He gave a large amount of his time (and more, it is said) to helping the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

Others congratulated themselves on retirement as having done the State some service. Of Larry Wren, it may truly be said that he did the State considerable service in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

Peter Murtagh was co-author, along with Joe Joyce, of The Boss, first published in 1983 by Poolbeg Press. It detailed Mr Wren’s investigations.