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Phone tapping: Papers reveal garda commissioner’s belief that he had no choice but to retire

The Fine Gael-led government’s insistence in 1983 that two senior garda officers were not forced to retire over the phone tapping scandal is at odds with State papers released this month.

Patrick McLaughlin who retired as Garda Commissioner in 1983
Patrick McLaughlin who retired as Garda Commissioner in 1983
Image: Screengrab via RTÉ/YouTube

THE GOVERNMENT’S INSISTENCE in 1983 that two of the most senior gardaí in the State were not asked to resign or retire over the phone tapping scandal is undermined by details that have emerged in documents released under the 30-year rule.

State papers disclosed by the National Archives this month contain a letter from the Garda Commissioner Patrick McLaughlin to the then Justice Minister Michael Noonan in the senior garda says “it is apparent that you and the Government feel that I have not lived up adequately to my responsibilities”.

The letter, informing Noonan of his decision to retire the following month, came on foot of a conversation between the pair on 19 January 1983 – just as the scandal was about the break – which had led McLaughlin to his beliefs as outlined in the letter dated 20 January.

Noonan insisted to the media at the time that both McLaughlin and his deputy commissioner Joseph Ainsworth were not asked to resign and that “there was no question of asking them to retire”.

But records from the Department of the Taoiseach reveal a draft of government minutes entitled ‘Garda Siochána: Removal of Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner from Office’:

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The draft minutes detail how the Minister was seeking authorisation to inform them “that the government have lost confidence in them” and “that, on that account, the government propose to remove them from those offices”. A handwritten note inserts the word ‘consider’ between ‘to’ and ‘remove’.

Later drafts use far more diplomatic language and Noonan instead seeks authorisation from government to inform both McLaughlin and Ainsworth that if interviews with them “develop on lines that suggested to him [Noonan] 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 documents released this month also detail McLaughlin’s letter to Noonan on the day that the scandal broke, in which the outgoing commissioner writes: “In particular I am thought by you not to have measured up in the exercise of control relative to the matters discussed.”

“In the circumstances it would not be appropriate for me to try to continue in the post.”

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He states that his retirement on 1 February “does not mean that I am in away culpable in the controversy” beyond, he writes, signing a ‘postal warrant’ for the tapping of Irish Independent journalist Bruce Arnold’s phone.

He goes on to say that neither Arnold, nor Sunday Tribune political correspondent Geraldine Kennedy, were found to have any connections to criminality and that the request for warrants to intercept their conversations came from the Minister for Justice, Seán Doherty, and not from within the garda force.

McLaughlin writes that he had no knowledge of the supply of a tape recorder to then Tánaiste and Finance Minister Ray MacSharry for recording a conversation with Martin O’Donoghue, but noted: “If we are requested to supply something to a Government Minister we have very little option but to comply.”

See National Archives, Reference 2013/100/115

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