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Miriam Lord: Who will commemorate the Partition of Clifden in 2120?

In 100 years, there could be deep divisions around marking the centenary of Golfgate

When the contentious centenary of the Partition of Clifden rolls around in 2120, will the president attend the commemoration or swerve the invitation?

Will the entire com-mit-tee be there too, or just the captain and the hon sec?

It may well that the authorities might decide against recognising this milestone for fear of reviving deep-seated divisions and disturbing the resting pain of ructions past.

But the Continuity Oireachtas Golf Society will probably do something to mark the occasion because throughout its chequered history members have always been partial to a day out with the few drinks and a prize-giving afterwards.

Little did they know that the event they believed was taking place in full compliance with the transitioning rules would cause national uproar

And then, two years later, in 2122, the society can go into full celebration mode to commemorate the extraordinary trial and sensational exoneration of the Golfgate Four after shadowy forces of the State and the established media had them arraigned on criminal charges and paraded into Galway District Court for all to see.

“Legends of the Nineteenth Hole.”

Their names will be etched on crystal and their faces will smile from bodhrans . . .

A hundred years earlier, when a group of golfing politicians and their guests gathered for dinner in a Connemara hotel after their annual President’s Prize outing, the country was in the grip of a pandemic, with a fretful citizenry about to enter a second phase of lockdown designed to stop the spread of the virus.

Little did they know that the event they believed was taking place in full compliance with the transitioning rules would cause national uproar, leading to what one defence lawyer described as “catastrophic consequences” for some of the participants.

Fabled night

What happened on that fabled night in August 2020, and its turbulent aftermath, will go down as one of the defining events of Ireland in the time of Covid.

The occasion on its own was nothing to write home about: an undersubscribed golf society for parliamentarians not unduly burdened by the demands of high office and retired parliamentarians with time on their hands was holding its main outing of the year. There would be two rounds of golf with a gala dinner on the second night dedicated to the memory of a deceased member who revived the failing society 50 years earlier.

Because of concerns over Covid, the organisers switched their original dinner venue at Ballyconneely Golf Club in Connemara to the much bigger Station House Hotel in Clifden. Eighty-one guests turned up to eat; 54 were hotel residents. They were directed via separate entrances into two dining areas divided by a sliding floor-to-ceiling partition down the middle of the main banqueting suite and named the Kylemore and the Omey suite.

Fewer than 50 people in each space.

Was this against the law?

When the hotel's owners John and James Sweeney and politicians Noel Grealish and Donie Cassidy appeared in court 18 months later, the judge ruled it was not. In a criminal prosecution, said Judge Mary Fahy, she must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that they breached the Covid restrictions.

After hearing the evidence she said: “I have to have that reasonable doubt.”

On the morning of the do, the day after the Taoiseach announced the imminent introduction of new restrictions, he checked the situation again. The gig was good to go

This was not a case of keen golfers Cassidy and Grealish getting “a rub of the green”. But they definitely got a rub of the grey, fortuitously falling into a grey area of confusion between the announcement of the revised restrictions and their implementation a few days later.

Connections

Oireachtas Golf Society president Cassidy, owner of a number of very successful hotels and a music promoter, is a former senator and TD who knows his way around the hospitality world. He would have had the connections and known who to contact for up-to-date advice.

With the legality of his gala dinner, in the planning for months, in the balance, Donie hit the phones and got the latest state of play from the head buck cats in the Irish Hotels Federation. As they represent a vital sector of the economy, they were in constant contact with the Government and knew the guidelines.

On the morning of the do, the day after the Taoiseach announced the imminent introduction of new restrictions, he checked the situation again.

The gig was good to go. The Oireachtas Golf Society had slipped in under the wire.

Result.

This week, standing on the steps of Galway courthouse after his acquittal, a shaken and visibly upset Donie Cassidy acknowledged that, with hindsight, he would have done things differently.

The dinner did not break the law, even if the public sensed Covid cleverality.

But one thing that Cassidy and Grealish will have realised very early on in the “Golfgate” fiasco is that they drove a coach and horses through the spirit of that law.

And that is what really infuriated people. People all over the country were making difficult sacrifices because of the pandemic, pointed out Eoghan Cole BL, counsel for the prosecution, “and one of them was not to organise an event for over 50 people”.

But a hotel could hold a number of functions, once the guest list in the room didn’t exceed 50. There was much discussion about this in court: could one function split between two rooms be classed as two separate events? If there is a small partition in a dividing wall, do two rooms revert to one?

Guidelines

The much-relied-upon industry guidelines were a major part of the case. "Significant", according to star witness Supreme Court judge Justice Séamus Woulfe, who took the stand for the prosecution and, like almost all the other witnesses for the prosecution, gave evidence beneficial to the defence.

“The guidelines are a document issued by the Government of Ireland,” repeated Eddie Walsh SC, for John Sweeney, pointing to the State harp on the paper. “For the DPP to seek to ignore the Government of Ireland is outrageous, as simple as that. Is the DPP setting up a separate state? Is the DPP the working government of Ireland because that seems to be the thrust of what the prosecution is doing?”

It was clear, according to the four senior counsel drafted in for some rare pirouetting in the district court, the event did not breach the rules at the time. But this fact was lost, said Senator Michael McDowell SC, representing Noel Grealish, in the media pile-on which led to a “national meltdown” and “a complete misrepresentation of what happened” on the night.

And then there was that cast of well-connected insiders who went for the meal. In the disappointing Z-list context of the guest list, one name was seized upon above others. (The only Government minister present, Dara Calleary, doesn’t play golf, only came along to make a speech and resigned from office within 24 hours of the first news report in the Irish Examiner.)

It was Cassidy and Grealish, seen as representatives of an entitled ruling class, who became a lightning rod for the pent-up anger of a frightened and suffering populace

Former Fine Gael MEP and junior minister Brian Hayes is now the head of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland. Social media was soon awash with rumours that his guests were vulture fund managers from the UK.

A former captain of the society, Hayes’s dining companions were golfing pals he’s known for years. “We grew up together,” said Det Garda John O’Donovan, who was one of them.

Embarrassment

When the “scandal” erupted, O’Donovan informed his Garda superiors about his attendance as he was afraid it might have caused embarrassment to the force. “Disciplinary matters were considered at the time” but no action was taken, he told the court.

During the entire controversy, right up to the three-day court case, there was little mention of two of the defendants, hoteliers John and James Sweeney. While this case was every bit as serious for them, if truth be told they could almost be classed as collateral damage. They are not and never have been politicians. It was Cassidy and Grealish, seen as representatives of an entitled ruling class, who became a lightning rod for the pent-up anger of a frightened and suffering populace.

Not quite fiddling while Rome was burning, but feasting while hearts were breaking.

That hurt and resentful public mood was summed up the Ceann Comhairle when the Dáil returned that September. In a blistering attack on a golf society with the word “Oireachtas” in its title, he said it was not normal for intelligent people to make a collective decision that was so fundamentally wrong.

Going ahead with the dinner was either “collective crass stupidity” or “arrogant delusion”.

Neither of which, as the judge found in Galway this week, is a criminal offence.

One dinner, one dinner, two rooms.

Insp Peter Conlon testified that he believed the event was in one room, despite the partition, because of the gap in it. What side to take?

Defence lawyer Johnny Cochrane’s famous phrase about the glove during the OJ Simpson trial comes to mind.

“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Or, in the case of Golfgate: If the room was split, you must acquit.

Case dismissed, ruled Judge Fahy. “The dinner took place in two distinct areas of one large hotel.” She was satisfied the representatives of the golf society complied with the rules at the time.

It was a criminal prosecution, not proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, as opposed to the court of public opinion.

In the Town Hall Theatre opposite the courthouse, Carrie: The Musical is in full swing.

The prosecution may be dead and buried; as for public opinion, will this dormant saga have a Carrie-type ending?