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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 23 August, 2014

Damien Kiberd: Martin Callinan thought his friendship with Shatter would save him. He was wrong.

The ex-Garda Commissioner was hung out to dry in the most contrived way – but the Taoiseach’s handling of GardaGate was razor sharp.

Damien Kiberd

EX-GARDA COMMISSIONER MARTIN Callinan learned a hard lesson last week. If you hang around for long enough in your local barber shop, then sooner or later you’ll get a haircut.

Callinan may have imagined that his friendship with the political elite in general and the Justice Minister Alan Shatter in particular would immunise him against the vicissitudes of political life. He was wrong.

His controversial evidence to the PAC concerning penalty points suggests he values loyalty to his senior officers greatly and expects loyalty from them. Now he knows that in politics there is no loyalty, or real friendship either.

Callinan has been hung out to dry in the most contrived way. Even if you believe the government’s official version then the following is still true:

  1. Callinan did not install the phone monitoring machines at twenty or more Garda stations. They were there for decades. He disconnected them last November
  2. Callinan recognised the real and present danger these machines posed to the conduct of criminal trials and tribunals of inquiry and wrote to the AG and the Department of Justice on March 10th to express these fears.
  3. Callinan asked for Mr Shatter to be told immediately about these fears. The Minister apparently was not told.
  4. Callinan participated in a working group convened in Shatter’s very own department, under the Minister’s nose, which dealt with the problem immediately. Shatter was not aware of this meeting/s.

Who knew what – and when

The official version suggests that the Commissioner was not fired by the Taoiseach. Rather, the Taoiseach directed that one of his senior aides go to the Commissioner’s home on Monday 24 March to impress upon him the gravity of a problem which the Commissioner had himself identified fourteen days earlier.

It also suggests that the Taoiseach was directing the actions of the Secretary General of the Justice Department at this stage. There is a clear implication that Shatter –who works 24/7 and is obsessed by detail- was kept ‘outside the loop’ during the critical period from 6pm Sunday (when Kenny was filled in by Attorney General Máire Whelan) until the dispatch of the emissary to Callinan’s home on Monday evening.

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(Pic: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

Meanwhile the emissary was expected to convey to Callinan a deep sense of ‘gravity’ concerning a matter of which almost the entire Cabinet was ignorant but of which Callinan himself was painfully aware.

The official version is that Shatter was only given an actual copy of Callinan’s letter of 10 March at 12.40 pm on 25 March, two hours after Callinan resigned (at 9.45 am).

What was Shatter told?

Shatter has said that he was briefed by his department concerning the developing crisis on Monday evening. But Did Shatter know overnight on Monday that his Commissioner –to whom he was allegedly ‘joined at the hip’- was about to retire? What sort of verbal briefing did he get that night? Nobody knows. Or, rather, nobody is saying.

Furthermore, why was Shatter largely ignorant of the developing crisis over phone monitoring between 21 March when he returned from Mexico and 24 March? After all, it appears that there was a real risk that criminal trials could collapse or have to be postponed because of the bugging issue. Surely such a hands-on minister would be all over this issue like a rash? Surely such an industrious man would have cancelled his visit to Mexico?

And what of the role of the Attorney General in all of this? Had she read the GSOC report on the Waterford assault case? Had she checked to ensure that Shatter was up to speed with the events as they developed? Was she sending memos to the Justice Department?

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Attorney General Máire Whelan (Pic: Photocall Ireland)

Or was she simply baffled by the apparent lack of urgency at the centre of government? What did she know of the cases that were likely to come before the courts in late March?

The ringmaster

The Taoiseach is, of course, the ringmaster in all of this.

At one level his behaviour appears decisive and authoritative. Told of a potentially damaging legal issue by his AG he seizes the initiative and deals with it himself in a manner that is so melodramatic that the Garda Commissioner chooses to take early retirement.

With surgical precision Kenny separates the fate of his Justice Minister from that of his Garda Commissioner. When he goes, Callinan’s departure is linked in the public mind not to penalty points or the appalling GSOC row (on which he was wholly ad idem with Shatter) but to the new issue of phone monitoring equipment at Garda stations.

Instead of having to fall with Callinan on the earlier issues on which both sang from the same hymn sheet, it suddenly becomes possible for one to step down and the other to remain. The Siamese twins are separated: only one survives. Kenny has not lost a full Cabinet minister yet.

What happens next

The real, actual importance of the phone monitoring saga will become apparent over time. Will it paralyse the courts? I doubt it. Judges have a way of dealing with what Lord Denning referred to as the ‘appalling vista’. Just because a privileged client/lawyer conversation was recorded does not prove that it was listened to by any third party. And even if it was there may be no link at all between that third party (the eavesdropper) and the conduct of any related litigation involving the parties to the recorded conversation.

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(Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland)

New safeguards may be required to protect defendants and indeed the integrity of the court system. It may be necessary for the Director of Public Prosecutions and prosecution lawyers in future cases to ensure that none of the evidence that they lay before the courts has been improperly procured. Where even the slightest risk exists that such evidence might in any way be wrongly obtained then it be struck out and disregarded.

As for the new, decisive Taoiseach well he is clearly still ahead of the game. His razor sharp handling of Shattergate is a welcome contrast to the events of recent months where only his emotional intelligence has been called into service.

Many had become concerned that the fuzzy, overly subjective part of Kenny’s brain was becoming dominant at the expense of the logical side.

Either way it is good to see the Taoiseach getting stuck in on a real issue for once: those thirty year old bugging machines that nobody remembered to switch off.

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