Give Me a Crash Course In . . . the Fennelly commission

The Taoiseach will be relieved that the inquiry into the taping of phone calls at Garda stations has found he didn’t force Martin Callinan to retire as commissioner

Retired: the former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Retired: the former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

What is the commission, and what was it investigating? In March 2014 the Government established an inquiry into the taping of phone calls at Garda stations. The practice, which was decades old, came to light as part of the case Ian Bailey took against An Garda Síochána and the State over the investigation of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, in 1996.

What has this got to do with the retirement of the former Garda commissioner? When Taoiseach Enda Kenny was told of the taping, last March, by Attorney General Máire Whelan, he felt it was so serious that it warranted the establishment of a commission of investigation, headed by the former Supreme Court judge Nial Fennelly. The Taoiseach also ordered the secretary general of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell, to the home of Martin Callinan, the Garda commissioner, to convey the gravity of the situation.

What were Purcell’s instructions? Here’s where things get tricky. The Taoiseach has always insisted that he merely wanted Purcell to impress on Callinan how serious the situation was. Callinan felt he was being put under pressure to resign. The Taoiseach says that was never his intention. As well as examining the wider taping issue, the Fennelly commission was asked to examine the events surrounding Callinan’s retirement. In his interim report this week Mr Justice Fennelly found that the Taoiseach did “not intend to put pressure” on Callinan to retire but also said it was reasonable for Callinan to conclude that he should consider his position.

Hang on. Why can’t the Taoiseach sack the Garda commissioner? The rules stipulate that the Cabinet as a whole must agree to remove a commissioner from office. The Taoiseach of the day cannot do it on his own.

So is the Taoiseach in the clear? Technically, yes. The commission concluded that it was not the Taoiseach’s intention to make Callinan resign. But it also lays out substantial evidence from others who say Kenny had lost confidence in Callinan and that huge pressure was brought to bear on the commissioner to stand aside. It’s a bit like a revolver- and-a-bottle-of-whiskey scenario rather than a direct hit.

Did the Garda commissioner do anything wrong? On the taping issue, seemingly not. Callinan told the Attorney General’s office of the matter in November 2013. It also wrote to the Department of Justice two weeks before Máire Whelan told the Taoiseach about the taping. Callinan’s letter was not passed to the minister for justice at the time, Alan Shatter. Mr Justice Fennelly said the entire affair was “beset by serious information deficits and multiple failures of communication”.

So why did Callinan “choose to retire”? The taping issue was just one of a number of justice controversies to dog the Government in the months leading up to March 2014. There had already been allegations of bugging at the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and the ongoing issue of whistleblowers in the force. Callinan strayed into perilous territory when he described the whistleblowers as “disgusting”. In contrast, Leo Varadkar, who was minister for transport at the time, said they were “distinguished”, and politicians across the Dáil believed the commissioner’s position was becoming untenable. Matters were coming to a head.

Will the Taoiseach be relieved this weekend? So far he has managed to escape fairly unscathed. So yes.

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