Geraldine Kennedy: Phone-tapping files a disappointing public record of historic events

State papers from 1983 include none from the Department of Justice

There is nothing really new in the telephone tapping files from 1983 released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule today. Yet, the State papers are interesting, if disappointing, in many different ways.

The National Archives seemed to form the judgment that these files would be the most interesting to journalists because they related to the most substantial political controversy of that year. They are the only files the archives staff put on both disk and USB.

It was the first year of the Garret FitzGerald/Dick Spring 1982-1987 coalition government following the three short-lived minority governments led by Charles Haughey and FitzGerald over the previous 18 months. It was the year in which the unlawful phone tapping of two journalists, Bruce Arnold, parliamentary correspondent and columnist in the Irish Independent, and myself was confirmed.

It was eerie for me going into the National Archives for the press previews of the papers before Christmas. I knew there could be no new disclosures nor hidden secrets in the files but I was going back 30 years to the most difficult time in my personal and professional life.


I was political correspondent of the first Sunday Tribune in 1982 when the phone tapping happened. I was a single woman. I lived in the Stable House inside the high walls of the Shackleton estate in the Strawberry Beds near Lucan, facing on to the river Liffey. There were big entry gates. The telephone was of the old thumping black heavy type that we all had in rural Ireland as the numbers went from village to district to region. I will never forget the number: 280006.

There were no mobile phones nor emails at that time. Google, Facebook , the world wide web and the iPad had not been invented. You met sources personally or you spoke to them privately on the phone. Thirty years on, as a parent of two young women in their early 20s, I appreciate that the phone-tapping scandal is ancient history. It is back in the mists of time with the
Arms Crisis and the second World War.

The formal confirmation of the telephone tapping was made by the new minister for justice, Michael Noonan, shortly after 8pm on Thursday, January 20th, 1983. He had just been elected to the Dáil three months earlier in the November 1982 general election.

He made three statements on behalf of the government. Statement No 1 (of three statements), as it is labelled in the State papers, announced: "The Commissioner, Garda Síochána, Mr Patrick McLaughlin, and the Deputy Commissioner in charge of the Security Section, Mr Joseph Ainsworth, have, separately, notified the Minister for Justice of their intention to retire from the Force with effect from 1st February, and this has been accepted by Government." They had made it clear, separately, to the minister that this was the right course of action in the aftermath of recent controversies, especially in relation to telephone tapping, the statement said.

Statement No 2 related to information supplied by Mr Ainsworth that he had received a call from the minister for justice, Seán Doherty, towards the end of October 1982, to supply a tape recorder to the then minister for finance, Ray MacSharry. It was used to record a conversation with Dr Martin O’Donoghue. Two copies of the transcript were taken by Mr Ainsworth to Mr Doherty. The statement said it related totally to party-political matters.

Statement No 3 was the longest statement. It ran to 13 pages, relating to the telephone tapping of Bruce Arnold and myself.

The impact of that statement can be gleaned from the fact that it was the lead story in The Irish Times, Irish Independent, Irish Press and the then Cork Examiner on the following morning.

"The institutions of the State were rocked last night with the resignations of . . ." wrote Michael Mills, political
correspondent of the Irish Press, later to become the
first ombudsman.

"The biggest political scandal since the Arms Crisis" wrote Chris Glennon, political correspondent of the Irish Independent.

"The Irish political and security scene was rocked to its foundations last night,"
wrote Liam O'Neill, political correspondent of the Cork Examiner.

For a person who had more interest than most in the events surrounding the official, but unlawful, telephone tapping , the files released today are a disappointing public record of these historic events.

There are six phone-tapping files in all: four from the Department of the Taoiseach and two from the attorney general’s office. There is no file from the Department of Justice, where all of the activities took place. When questioned about the absence of any files from the department, an official in the National Archives volunteered that the department said it had neither the manpower nor the time to supply them in time.

For all of that, there are cabinet minutes that are crucial to the historical record. But there are more newspaper reports and cuttings in the files than there are State papers. The attorney general's two files do not relate to the phone tapping per se, but to an investigation of a report in the Sunday Press at the time that unauthorised private tapping was taking place.

Three disclosures
There are three new disclosures about telephone tapping in the files.

The first is the copy of the draft government minute for January 19th, 1983, entitled “Removal of Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner from Office”. The minister for justice was authorised to inform Patrick McLaughlin and Thomas Joseph Ainsworth “that the Government have lost confidence in them as Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner, respectively, in the Garda Síochána; that, on that account, the Government propose to consider removing them from those offices; that any representations they would wish to make in reference to their proposed removals from office should be made within such reasonable time as the Minister may decide, for consideration by the Government; and that, alternatively, they would be allowed to retire or resign from those posts, as appropriate”.

The second is a draft of a government minute on the same day, signed off personally cabinet secretary by Dermot Nally. The minister for justice was authorised to inform Mr McLaughlin and Mr Ainsworth “that if the interviews which the Minister was to have with them developed on lines that suggested to him that it would be necessary or appropriate to do so, he should (1) indicate to them that a situation might develop where their continuance in office could come into question and (2) invite them to make any comments that they might wish to make in that context”.

The third is a letter from Mr McLaughlin on January 20th, 1983, before Michael Noonan’s public statement, stating that “the gardaí had no information at any time that either Bruce Arnold or Geraldine Kennedy had any connection with criminal or subversive activities or with persons so involved; that the requests for warrants to intercept their conversations on their respective telephone lines were not initiated from within the Force; and such requests were, in fact, prompted by the then Minister for Justice, Mr Seán Doherty”.

The main point of Mr McLaughlin’s letter was that his decision to retire from February 1st, 1983, did not mean he was in any way culpable in the controversy about telephone tapping “beyond signing the application for a postal warrant for Bruce Arnold”.

The State papers clarify any confusion created by Mr Ainsworth in his interview with Conor Brady in The Irish Times on March 23rd, 1984, and
in response to an interview with Jim Kirby, head of the security section of the Department of Justice in The Irish Times on October 10, 2012.
He did not resign or retire voluntarily.

What is missing from the files is any record of the meetings between Mr Noonan and Mr McLaughlin and Mr Ainsworth. There are no copies of the warrants. There are no opinions from the attorney general. Yet Bruce Arnold and I were asked, on the grounds of privacy and natural justice, to give our permission for the transcripts to be read in the government investigation of the telephone tapping. There could not be copies of the transcripts because they are protected by High Court order. It is a sorry fact that Jim Kirby's Gubu Diary, published in The Irish Times last year, revealed more information about the telephone tapping than the National Archives.

What could not be in the files is the atmosphere of the time. The year 1982 was given by Conor Cruise O'Brien the acronym Gubu: grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. There was a climate of political fear under Haughey's government. Politicians would talk to you on the phone only, because they were followed if they met you.

I received threats as a journalist. There was a broken bottle with a message on the windscreen of my car outside the Trocadero restaurant in central Dublin one night. “We know where you are. We will get you.”

The owner of the Sunday Tribune, Hugh McLaughlin, was asked by Haughey to trace my calls.

Eventually, I took the precaution to ask George Colley, the senior Fianna Fáil adversary of Mr Haughey, if he would come to see where I lived. He did. I told him that if I ever went missing to search the river Liffey and if I were
found there I hadn't gone voluntarily, because I
didn't swim.

On the confirmation of the phone tapping, the deputy Garda commissioner who was to be appointed as the new commissioner, Laurence Wren, offered me Garda protection. He insisted that I take it. Garda cars accompanied me from my home to my workplace, Dáil Éireann, the seat of democracy, for about 10 days until the phone tapping controversy died down.

And finally, to illustrate the atmosphere, PJ Mara, spokesman for Haughey, told me not to attend the Fianna Fáil ardfheis in February 1983 , because he could not guarantee my security. I had to attend because I was a political correspondent and Fianna Fáil was a political party in the Dáil.

Geraldine Kennedy, who was political correspondent of the Sunday Tribune at the time of the telephone tapping, was editor of The Irish Times from 2002 to 2011