Miriam Lord: Golfgate trial lawyers come out swinging

Legal heavyweights out in force in Galway – although golf is not exactly their cup of tee

Donie Cassidy leaves Galway District Court in Co Galway after attending 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 leaves Galway District Court in Co Galway after attending 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

 

What did we learn from Day One of the Great Golfgate Trial?

We found out that lawyers – if the legal heavyweights who turned up in force for a district court case in Galway are anything to go by – have a rather sniffy attitude to golf. Not quite their cup of tee.

And that the Oireachtas Golf Society was a hitherto unrecognised major force in Irish political history until it hit the headlines last year due to the “Golfgate” furore.

We learned that the size of a gap in a partition is a moveable feast. It certainly was moveable at the particular feast under the spotlight in Judge Mary Fahy’s courtroom on Thursday.

We discovered that the annual President’s Prize dinner was not a “frivolous” event in 2020 and that the traditional presentation at the 19th hole after a convivial day on the links was anything but “a frolic”.

That this event was, in fact, “poignant”. This is because it was held in honour of a politician who was behind the much-underestimated Golfing Revival Era in Irish politics 50 years ago. The late Mark Killilea was a driving force in the resurrection of the Oireachtas Golf Society, which had fizzled out after it was founded by a TD called Major Somethingorother in 1929.

We heard that the then captain of the guard in Leinster House, an enthusiastic member of the society, had two breakfasts and one evening meal in the hotel which is now at the centre of this court case. And that a member of the Seanad and his wife left the dinner before the formalities commenced because “we’re not dessert people”.

And that guidelines issued with the “imprimatur of the State” and bearing the harp of Rialtas na hÉireann on printed communications may, or may not be, worthless.

Which brings us back to something else learned on Thursday: when push comes to shove, it’s all the media’s fault

We also learned on the opening day of the trial of politicians Noel Grealish and Donie Cassidy and hotel bosses John and James Sweeney for allegedly contravening the Covid emergency health act by holding a dinner indoors for over 50 people, that all of the witnesses called by the prosecution had nothing but praise for how the defendants managed the event.

Bending the rules

The story of the Oireachtas Golf Society’s now-infamous dinner hit the headlines late in 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, claims that politicians had been bending the strict rules painfully and dutifully observed by wider society caused uproar. But the lawyers acting for Grealish and Cassidy set out from the start to show how their clients acted with the utmost propriety at all times and their actions have been gravely misunderstood by the public.

Which brings us back to something else learned on Thursday: when push comes to shove, it’s all the media’s fault. In this case, according to Donie Cassidy’s lawyer Colm Smyth SC, for getting involved and then “public hysteria was whipped up and hysteria was whipped up”.

This, he said, led to “a lot of very good people” having “to resign from their positions”.

Near the end of the first day, Martin Brett, a Fine Gael councillor from Kilkenny who was at the golf outing and dinner in Connemara, said he didn’t even know how many people were at the function until he read it in the paper.

Galway East Independent TD Noel Grealish (55) leaves Galway District Court after attending 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
Galway East Independent TD Noel Grealish (55) leaves Galway District Court. Photograph: Andrew Downes/PA Wire

“Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers and the journal,” said Eoghan Cole BL, for the State.

“Oh, you’re dead right,” sighed Martin.

Barrister Cole was up against it. A lone ranger on the DPP’s side against the heavy guns hired by the defendants. The place was coming down with junior and senior counsel and instructing solicitors.

Smyth, for Donie Cassidy, made the most running on day one, with bracing interventions from Senator Michael McDowell SC (for former PD colleague and now independent TD Noel Grealish) and the country’s leading libation lawyers Constance Cassidy and Eddie Walsh (for James and John Sweeney, respectively).

Bewildering meander

There isn’t much you can tell those two about the licensing laws. When Constance, in the midst of a bewildering meander through statutory instruments and hospitality regulations, talked about “the consumption of intoxicating liquor”, you knew it wasn’t the first time she said those words.

Among the ranks of the BLs was junior counsel Willie Penrose, the former Labour TD. He is part of the Cassidy squad.

The panto, sadly, had to be cancelled so all the kiddies in Galway missed out on the fairy godmother saying: ‘You shall go to the (golf) ball!’

As for the journalists sent to cover this trial of the half-century (50 years a-fourballing, and all that), there was no room in the court building for them. Two were allowed inside to hear the proceedings, the rest given a video link to download and hope for the best.

Enter the hero of the hour: Fergal McGrath, brother of former TD Finian, who runs the Town Hall Theatre opposite the courthouse. Fergal made a room available to the hacks (which is more than the Courts Service could manage, despite this being a case of national interest which was flagged months ago).

Business for Fergal has been hugely impacted by Covid, but he has a tasty line-up of events coming in the new year. The panto, sadly, had to be cancelled so all the kiddies in Galway missed out on the fairy godmother saying: “You shall go to the (golf) ball!”

After a morning spent mostly in legal discussion, Colm Smyth got round to telling us of Donie Cassidy. A man who has never been before the courts in his life, has had a distinguished political career and is the owner of four hotels in Dublin, and that’s just for starters. “A lawmaker, not a lawbreaker.”

Donie, in Colm’s words, sounded like Santa. Before the event, “he checked the regulations. He checked the guidelines. He consulted with people.” Probably to make sure nobody would be naughty and everyone would be nice.

Former TD and senator Cassidy was president of the society. His co-defendant, TD Noel Grealish, was captain on the night.

No hand, act or putter

Michael McDowell said this was very important because his client’s position is that president Cassidy organised the do as it was his dinner. Noel Grealish, as captain, had some involvement in organising the first day of golf but “I just want to be 100 per cent clear” he had no hand, act or putter in organising the shindig on the second night.

Eddie and Constance, meanwhile, said that the “company” as opposed to the two Mr Sweeneys should have been charged.

Then Colm Smyth started talking about “potentially an unsavoury aspect” to the prosecution, without explaining entirely what he meant.

“Substantiate the unsavouryness,” challenged Eoghan Cole, for the State.

The witnesses so far are all people who attended the golf dinner.

They were blown away by the Covid prevention measures taken by management.

The mainly retired minor politicians who attended this dinner were “exceptionally impressed”. But then, they don’t get out as much as they used to. There would be no “intermingling” at this hooley in Connemara.

One of the guests recalled the rigid attention to the pandemic prevention rules on the night.

“A waiter said to me: table service only. You don’t move unless you go to the toilet.”

One of the lawyers pointed approvingly to “the liberality of sanitisers and so on”.

But did two separate rooms of people constitute a single event or multiple events? It’s a bit like St Patrick and the shamrock – three leaves on the one stem

There was some discussion as to whether they were separated by a “partition” or “a solid wall” but there was a definite division until the gap appeared at prize-giving.

It was seven to eight feet on either side of a pillar, according to one witness, and “probably the width of a person”, according to another.

But did two separate rooms of people attending the dinner constitute a single event or multiple events? It’s a bit like St Patrick and the shamrock – three leaves on the one stem. St Donie and the dinner – two rooms on the one feed.

Judge Fahy will have to decide.

She admitted she isn’t much into golf, with the course in Ballyconneely more “the Dublin fours”. Michael McDowell and Eddie Cassidy were similarly unmoved by the joys of the game.

The case continues.

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