Coalition faces further questions after Shatter apologises to whistleblowers
Opposition leaders keep up call on Shatter to resign over handling of Garda matters
Pressure on the Coalition has eased after the apology in the Dáil by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to the two Garda whistleblowers.
However, there is still concern in both Government parties over when Mr Shatter and Attorney General Máire Whelan first became aware of the widespread recording of phone calls to and from Garda stations and why the Cabinet had not been informed earlier.
Mr Shatter yesterday withdrew his earlier assertion in the Dáil that Garda whistleblowers Sgt Maurice McCabe and former garda John Wilson had failed to co-operate with an investigation into the penalty points system.
“It was never my intention to mislead the House and I believe it is appropriate that I apologise to both and withdraw the statements made,” he said.
“I am aware that the whistleblowers and others have issues with some remarks I made outside this House. It was not my intention to misrepresent any matter connected with this issue. I apologise for any offence that may have been caused by any other remarks made by me,” said Mr Shatter.
Sgt McCabe last night said he was glad the record of the Dáil had been corrected. Mr Wilson also welcomed the move, saying it was “a long time coming”.
In a separate speech earlier in the day, Mr Shatter gave an explanation as to why a letter sent earlier this month by former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, outlining the scale of phone taping, failed to reach him until Monday afternoon.
He said his department received other correspondence about recordings but insisted he was not aware of the wider practice until he was briefed by officials on Monday evening.
TDs in both Coalition parties, particularly Labour, expressed some anxiety about why it had taken two weeks for officials at the department to inform the Minister.
Version of events
Labour TDs last night asked the party leadership if they could believe Mr Shatter’s version of events.
In response, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore told his TDs that he had sought reassurances from Mr Shatter that his version of events as outlined to the Dáil was correct. Mr Gilmore told his TDs he believed this was the case, with a senior source saying: “If the guy said it’s true, you have to believe him.”
It was also stressed that Labour Ministers fully trusted Mr Shatter, and believed the issue of recordings at Garda stations was of genuine significance.
The role of the Attorney General was raised by a number of deputies and Senators.
There was some speculation that Ms Whelan’s role was highlighted to help protect the position of Mr Shatter, since Labour would not push for his resignation if Fine Gael could demand the same of the Attorney General.
Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin told RTÉ’s Six-One News that Mr Shatter “absolutely has my full confidence, that of the Labour Party, and indeed every member of the Government”.
However, Opposition leaders called on Mr Shatter to resign over his handling of the issue as well as other recent Garda controversies.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday strongly rejected the claim by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that he had effectively “sacked” Mr Callinan.
Speaking during Leaders Questions, Mr Martin said that Mr Kenny’s decision to send secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell to Garda Headquarters to meet Mr Callinan had forced the issue.
“He essentially sacked him”, claimed Mr Martin but, in fraught exchanges between the leaders in the Dáil, Mr Kenny rejected the claim.
“This is the first time Deputy Martin has accused me of being a liar in here and of using some perception of authority to remove people from office. I deplore what he is suggesting absolutely.”
Government sources said Mr Purcell had been asked to convey two messages to Mr Callinan, the first in relation to the steps that would need to be taken to deal with the situation, and the second to convey to him the gravity of the situation.
There were also questions about why the Attorney General had not informed the Cabinet about the issue earlier than last weekend.
Mr Shatter confirmed in the Dáil yesterday that the Attorney General first learned of the practice last November but said “I am advised that she had no knowledge at that time of the circumstances surrounding the making of tapes, the legal background to their being made, the contents of such tapes, or the number of such tapes”.
Senior Government sources said last night she did not brief the Cabinet last November because the information supplied to her was “tentative”.
Mr Howlin, when asked on RTÉ why it took almost six months before she briefed the Cabinet or Taoiseach, said that Ms Whelan was certainly unaware of the scale and implications last November.
He said there was “no red flag flashing” at the time.
The Government has said that the terms of reference for the Commission of Inquiry into the tapings may not be ready until next month.
Sources said that the terms of reference would probably include a mandate to ascertain how many stations were involved in the practice, when it was introduced, whether it was subject to any rules or procedures or internal regulations.
There will also be detailed terms that will allow inquiry into the content of recordings, and the identify of those who were the subject of recordings, including the possibility that privileged conversations between solicitors and clients were recorded.
Privately, senior Government politicians raised concerns that recordings which should have been disclosed under the discovery process in the past may not have been disclosed.
The Taoiseach indicated to the Dáil that the Commission of Inquiry would be chaired by a judicial figure at Supreme Court level.