IT HAS BEEN a dramatic day in Leinster House where the government has been attempting to deal with the fallout from what’s become known as ‘gardagate’ – encompassing everything from circumstances around the Garda Commissioner’s resignation to the long-running whistleblower/penalty points saga.
The crisis that has engulfed the coalition in recent days has many strands to it, none of it simple to explain and many questions still remain.
This morning was dominated by Justice Minister Alan Shatter revealing what he could about explosive revelations that incoming and outgoing calls from a large number of garda stations have been recorded since the 1980s.
But that was later overshadowed by the Minister choosing to finally issue an apology to two garda whistleblowers for saying that they did not cooperate with an internal inquiry into allegations of malpractice in the penalty points system.
The Dáil spent several hours discussing the controversies and issues surrounding An Garda Siochána today.
Here’s what we learned, what it means and what questions still remain…
1. The Garda Commissioner got a visit before he resigned
The Taoiseach confirmed today that the secretary general of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell, spoke to the Garda Commissioner on Monday night, prior to his resignation, to ensure Martin Callinan “be made aware of the gravity of how I felt about this and its implications”.
“You essentially sacked him,” Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin claimed, but Kenny vigorously denied such accusations.
One of the obvious questions which arises from this is why was a civil servant, who reports to Alan Shatter, conveying the views of the Taoiseach to the Commissioner and was Shatter aware that Purcell was doing this?
2. The Attorney General only raised the recordings controversy after Kenny called her – and she wouldn’t talk about it on the phone
It emerged today that Kenny had called Marie Whelan on Sunday morning and she indicated that there was another matter she wished to discuss with him over the phone – one which would have to be done in person.
The Taoiseach was eventually briefed at 6pm on the very serious claims that emerged yesterday.
“Well you may laugh,” said a stone-faced Kenny when he pointed out that the AG wouldn’t discuss the issues over the phone, adding: “If you were appraised of the matter, you would not.”
3. Shatter only found out about the recordings on Monday night – and only read the Commissioner’s letter yesterday…
In his speech this morning, the minister gave details of what he knew and when he knew it. It emerged that he was told about recordings on Monday night.
But it also emerged that despite the Garda Commissioner’s letter coming into his department on 10 March he only received it just before lunchtime yesterday and read it after that, before meeting with the AG and the Taoiseach.
Key questions surround why was Shatter only told about it on Monday and not on Sunday when the Taoiseach found out? Why did Shatter wait until the next day to read the letter given the seriousness of the situation?
And of course, why did it take so long for the letter, coming into the department on 10 March, to reach Shatter over two weeks later. Yes, he was in Mexico, but they have phones and internet there, as some have noted.
“Unfortunate” was the word the minister used to describe this delay. Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News this evening, Labour minister Brendan Howlin said that “it is surprising that the Minister was not alerted to that matter” but noted some mitigating personal circumstances.
4. … but his officials were discussing it at least a week ago and the AG knew last November
The matters covered in the now crucial 10 March letter from the Garda Commissioner outlining the recordings were being considered by Shatter’s department, the gardaí, the AG and the Data Protection Commissioner on the 19 and 20 March. RTÉ reports that there were contacts between officials in the Department of Justice and the AG’s office on 11 March.
Shatter was, we are being told, unaware that all of this was happening.
It also emerged that the Attorney General was informed about the tapes in November of last year when the Garda Commissioner was in touch with her and the practice was ceased. But Shatter insisted today that she did not know the circumstances surrounding the making of the tapes, the legal background, the tapes’ contents or how many there were.
This raises questions for the Attorney General (above), which some say she should answer before an Oireachtas committee. This is highly unlikely given the secrecy of her role and more importantly her advice to Government, but Whelan will have to account for her actions at some point, most likely behind closed doors.
5. Shatter didn’t see a GSOC report on Waterford garda station recordings – nor did anyone else in his department
On the GSOC report last June, which discussed illegal recording of calls at Waterford garda station, Shatter said that it was “the simple truth” that GSOC did not furnish the report to him or his department. The Ombudsman had no legal obligation to do so and confirmed as much to us this morning.
“Insofar as it received any media coverage, it does not appear as if any member of the media regarded the report as of any major importance,” Shatter said of the reports from TheJournal.ie and the Irish Examiner at the time.
So, are we to believe that Shatter did not read the media reports, nor was any official in his department aware of them or the GSOC report? Or is it that because a fuss wasn’t made about its contents, the report became irrelevant in the grand scheme of things?
6. Details of how the recordings were made are emerging…
Shatter revealed some detail about the recording system used by the gardaí, saying that the original recorders were replaced by dictaphone recorders in the 90s and further replaced by “NICE recorders, which I understand is a brand name”.
The Labour TD Kevin Humphreys has discovered that the minister was most likely referring to NICE Systems Limited – an Israeli-based company which specialises in telephone voice recording, data security and surveillance as well as systems that analyse this recorded data.
It also emerged that the gardaí issued a tender for recording devices in 2007 and awarded a contract in 2008 for a system that would replace the analogue recordings.
The tender asked that the successful supplier would install 2 terabyte (2,000 gigabytes) hard drives at Garda HQ and at the headquarters of each of the six Garda divisions.
Tonight, the gardaí confirmed they held a public tender in October 2007 for a range of telecoms, video and radio equipment, but declined to comment further, saying a further report is being compiled on the matters raised by the Justice Minister.
7. … and they’re already having serious implications
Worryingly, according to the government, transcripts from some of the garda tapes have “the most serious implications” for a number of legal cases and already today the trial of two men accused of IRA membership was disrupted.
The trial of Thomas McMahon, 31, and Noel Noonan, 34, was to start at the Special Criminal Court but there are now questions from the pair’s defence counsel as to whether consultations they held over the phone with their solicitors while they were in custody were recorded. The trial is adjourned until tomorrow. The prosecution said they can’t possibly know if the conversations were recorded.
Legal experts believe that these emerging recordings could have big implications across the board for cases that have been disposed of, matters before the courts and those due for hearing in the future.
8. Alan Shatter was wrong about the whistleblowers
Alan Shatter claimed on 1 October last year that the garda whistleblowers, Maurice McCabe and John Wilson, did not cooperate with the O’Mahoney inquiry into the penalty points controversy. But he was wrong, and he said as much today.
9. But he was right about everything else…
Shatter was keen to point out that he handled almost all other aspects of the penalty points fiasco in the right way.
He insisted that if he had ignored the allegations he would not have looked for the Garda Inspectorate to undertake such a comprehensive review of the system or establish the Criminal Justice Working Group to oversee the implementation of the Inspectorate’s recommendations.
10. … and he never misses an opportunity to land a few blows on Fianna Fáil
Shatter took a pop at the opposition, saying that “various deficiencies identified” by the Comptroller and Auditor General were not addressed by previous governments and that a 2009 report by the Garda Ombudsman into the points system was not published and its recommendations not implemented in full.
He also hit out opposition TD Niall Collins claiming that the Fianna Fáil justice spokesperson had not expressed any issues with either the O’Mahoney report or that of the gardaí’s Professional Standards Unit (PSU). Shatter insisted that his only interest “at all times, has been the public interest” and said he was “firmly of the view” that the cancellation of penalty points should be used in a “fair and impartial manner”.
11. The opposition still think he should go…
“The fish rots from the head and the rot starts with you Minister,” Mick Wallace said as he outlined the 30 reasons why Alan Shatter should resign. The independent TD was joined by others in the Technical Group and both opposition parties in calling for Shatter to go.
The Minister’s apology has done little to appease Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin or indeed anyone who has been criticising him in recent days. “You compounded the wrongs revisited on them… You questioned their personal and professional credibility,” Mary Lou McDonald told Shatter.
Public Accounts Committee chairman John McGuinness again raised the case of a female garda, who he says was pursuing a claim of sexual harassment within the force, and was warned off from doing so by the Garda Confidential Recipient. Shatter told McGuinness to look at his files concerning the case. He did, and they had further discussions on the issue later — during which McGuinness conceded Shatter had written to him concerning the matter. The Justice Minister said he would look into it, should the person in question wish him to pursue the matter.
12. … The Minister is safe for now
Flanked by Enda Kenny – who gave some indication the apology was coming earlier in the day – and a former justice minister, Michael Noonan, it was clear that Shatter had the backing of the government and that the apology takes the sting out of the matter for now.
Opposition calls for him to go remain, but more important for Shatter are those on the government backbenches, who felt he should go if he didn’t say sorry but now feel he has done the right thing.
Indications from tonight’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party are that while there is unease about the events of recent weeks, Shatter is safe for now with the backing of the ministerial ranks in the party.
“The leadership is particularly anxious for no escalation,” one Labour source said tonight.
All pictures: Photocall Ireland and Oireachtas TV. First posted at 6.40pm
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