Miriam Lord: And just like that, Golfgate is brought to a swift and sudden end

In just under four minutes Judge Mary Fahy dismissed 18 months of absolute madness

Is that it?

Eighteen months of “Golfgate” madness dismissed in four minutes by a no-nonsense judge in a Galway courtroom.

Donie Cassidy, Noel Grealish and hoteliers John and James Sweeney must have been as surprised as everyone else at the speed with which the verdict was produced. As day three of holding forth in never-ending circles around the banqueting tables of a golf society dinner drew to a close, most observers expected proceedings to spill over into another day.

Senator Michael McDowell SC had just completed an excruciatingly long closing argument (at one point we noted two people asleep in his vicinity) explaining why his client, TD Noel Grealish, had absolutely no case to answer.

There were three other senior counsel ready and waiting to do the same.

And then suddenly, after months and months of fury and fulmination and acres of newsprint and countless hours of angry back-and-forth across the airwaves, Judge Mary Fahy dismissed the case against Grealish in a few pithy sentences.

“Absolutely no evidence to show he was one of the organisers” of the infamous Golfgate dinner in Connemara. “This is a criminal prosecution. I have a reasonable doubt.”

It’s a pity judges don’t bang gavels in Irish courts because this would have been the perfect time for some legal percussion. Perhaps they’ll have a gavel in the movie.

“So I have to dismiss the charges.”

But she wasn’t finished yet.

There would be no impassioned closing addresses from Colm Smyth, Eddie Walsh and Constance Cassidy, and all three of them imported at considerable expense from the Inner Bar in Dublin. There would be no grand stand to make on behalf of their clients, because Mary Fahy was in no mood to hang around. She had heard enough.

“We have to admit – anyone listening to the case – that the evidence was most impressive,” she declared, singling out witnesses John Flaherty, former captain of the guard in Leinster House, and none other than Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe as being particularly impressive.

“Responsible people” who wouldn’t have gone to a dinner if they didn’t feel comfortable or safe.

Judge Fahy had no doubt that the defendants did everything they thought they could do to comply with the Covid restrictions.

“And in my view they did comply – not in the court of public opinion but in the court of law, in my view, they did.”

This was only going one way.

“So I am dismissing the charges against all the defendants.”

There were no cheers. No high-fiving.

Misty-eyed

Noel Grealish, who was captain of the Oireachtas Golf Society, was the first politician to emerge. He looked a little flushed and misty-eyed as he stood beside his solicitor and let him do the talking. His lawyer and Oireachtas colleague McDowell, who had just triumphantly talked the case to a conclusion, was beaming.

Donie Cassidy (75), who had taken the whole episode very badly, was last to leave the courthouse, flanked by the members of the Westmeath legal massive who handled his case: his senior counsel Colm Smyth, junior counsel and former Labour TD Willie Penrose and solicitor JJ Mannion.

In some ways, and after hearing three days of evidence, there was a certain inevitability to this whole sorry saga ending with an emotional Donie standing on the courthouse steps in the drizzle, quoting the words of his late, beloved mother: “The truth always wins in the end.”

You knew he was upset because he forgot to thank the Minister for Justice for the use of the hall.

A weight was gone off his shoulders and he was mightily relieved, but the strain was etched on his face as he remembered all the people who were lost to Covid and the “friends who lost their position in life” as a result of the controversy.

Should he have held the dinner at all? “In hindsight, everyone would do something maybe differently.”

A few hours earlier, he was in bits with worry.

“What do you think? I don’t know what to think. The last two years, oh, I couldn’t begin to tell ya. There was no talking to them. No talking to them . . . How do you think it will go?”

Donie the defendant, disconsolate at lunchtime and thinking he was facing into a fourth day in court. For somebody who had been living with the aftermath of the “Golfgate” furore for 18 months, he still seemed shocked by it all.

Considered

After the charges were dismissed, questions were asked about whether he should have organised the dinner. The Westmeath legal massive was having none of it as former Senator Cassidy considered his reply.

“The court has ruled,” they muttered behind him. “The court has ruled.” And then they gently nudged their client towards the car.

All the talk, all the legal argument forgotten in the shock delivery of the verdicts.

Eoghan Cole BL, who argued the case for the DPP and the State, looked disconsolate as he left the building. He had put forward a spirited fight against a star team of legal big guns (and a Supreme Court judge who attended the golf beano giving the benefit of his wisdom on the matter from the witness box). And superb he was too, noted the judge on Thursday.

Does a moveable partition make a moveable feast? How big a gap in the partition is acceptable? Is there a difference between mingling and intermingling? Why did nearly all the witnesses seem to be seated with their backs to the action?

Inspector Peter Conlon – he was the main Garda witness – was given a torrid time in the witness box. He stuck to his view that sticking a temporary partition wall down a room of over 80 people to divide them into two legally acceptable groups did not mean they were attending separate events, or in different rooms.

“It’s my assertion that it is one room by virtue of two openings made in the partition,” he said in reply to Eddie Walsh’s cultured bellowing.

There were discussions on what constitutes a multiple gathering and what is the definition of an organiser. Does a moveable partition make a moveable feast? How big a gap in the partition is acceptable? Is there a difference between mingling and intermingling? Why did nearly all the witnesses seem to be seated with their backs to the action?

What exactly is a “three-shot fourball single stableford Champagne scramble competition”? Inspector Conlon was able to explain that to the court. Guards like playing golf. Barristers like boasting that they know nothing about it, as they did again on Thursday.

Meandering

For all his meandering, McDowell made some excellent points in his closing argument. Not least on the intriguing question of “someone in Dublin”, maybe in the DPP’s office, keen to prosecute some of the main movers in the golf outing because of the public outcry over it?

“Doubtless somebody somewhere in Dublin decided that there was a public interest in showing the public that heads would roll . . . Doubtless somebody did that in order to assuage public opinion and anger.”

It didn't sound like a great night anyway. Former minister Dara Calleary told how he was escorted to a table and told to stay there unless he needed to go to the toilet

This anger was compounded by people “thinking that 80 people had assembled in secret, more or less, abusing their status as members of the Oireachtas” in contravention of the rules. “That was the source of all that anger and recrimination and all the disastrous consequences that followed.”

He reminded the court of the atmosphere at the time.

The country nearly melted down with anger, quivered McDowell.

It didn’t sound like a great night anyway. Former minister Dara Calleary, who had to resign over his attendance at the function, told how he was escorted to a table and told to stay there unless he needed to go to the toilet.

After the decision, some of the victorious lawyers gathered in the opulent bar of the Hardiman Hotel on Eyre Square to have a celebratory drink, watch the six o’clock news and toast the partition.

Is this the end of Golfgate?

The ranks of The Vindicated may now be seeking reinstatement. RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke has already expressed a desire “to be back on air”. Big Phil Hogan will be like a Cheshire Cat. And Dara Calleary will be eyeing a ministerial return when the next reshuffle happens.

As for everyone else, you’ll have to ask all the people who cancelled weddings and other events at the time. If they had known they could have had all their guests in attendance if only they had thought of getting partitions. They won’t be too happy, even if they did the right thing.

Judge Fahy may have closed her case, but the court of public opinion is still in session.

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