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Galway East Independent TD Noel Grealish (55) leaves Galway District Court this morning.
Galway East Independent TD Noel Grealish (55) leaves Galway District Court this morning.
Image: PA/Alamy Stock Photo

Golfgate trial hears 'the public was whipped up into hysteria' and 'good people had to resign'

The case is being heard at Galway District Court.
Jan 6th 2022, 6:30 AM 70,814 0

Updated Jan 6th 2022, 6:12 PM

THE GOLFGATE TRIAL of two politicians and two hoteliers has heard claims that “good people had to resign” after the public was “whipped up into hysteria” following the event.

Independent TD Noel Grealish (55), former Fianna Fail senator Donie Cassidy (76), John Sweeney (61), owner of the Station House Hotel in Clifden, and his son James (32), the general manager of the hotel, face charges in relation to an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner which took place at the Station House Hotel in the Connemara town in August 2020.

The State alleges that the four men were organisers of the event and that the event contravened a penal provision of a regulation made under Section 31A (1) of the Health Act 1947 as amended, to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19. 

The offence, which the men deny, is punishable by a fine of up to €2,500 and/or six months in prison.

During this morning’s hearing at Galway District Court, Eoghan Cole BL for the State told the court that the men “did not take all reasonable steps” to ensure that the number of persons at the event did not exceed 50 persons. 

Cole said it would be a “distortion of reality” to say the dinner constituted “multiple events” because of the presence of a partition wall. 

Colm Smyth SC for Cassidy argued that his client was following Fáilte Ireland guidelines that had been agreed between the government and the representative body.

Smyth argued that Cassidy, who was President of the Oireachtas Golf Society, had relied on the published guidelines which represented “an official document” and had “the imprimatur and the logo of the government”. 

Smyth also argued that a partition wall that was in place at the time of the event was “soundproofed” and “clearly defined two areas”. 

He said that the room was previously one room but was partitioned.

“There was a partition wall dividing two suites. One was known as the Kylemore, the other was known as the Omey Suite. In fact, originally it was known as the Kylemore but when they were divided by this partition wall, which I understand was soundproof and so on, it clearly defined the two spaces,” he said.

He added that multiple gatherings were permitted in hotels at the time of the event “provided they were housed in separate areas”.  

Counsel also outlined Cassidy’s background, saying that he was the Leader of the Seanad on a number of occasions and is “an owner of four hotels in the city of Dublin alone” and thus has shown “strict adherence to the licencing laws”.

Addressing the nature of the partition wall, Cole said the court would “hear evidence in relation to the partition” from witnesses.  

Cole argued that it would be a “distortion of reality” to suggest that the dinner “comprised multiple gatherings”. 

“They came in response to an invitation to attend an event which Mr. Smyth has eloquently described to you and the basis for the event, but it was one event, and there was in excess, there was 81 people in attendance at it. It was not multiple gatherings,” Cole said. 

Cole also argued that the guidelines relied upon were not “the law of the land” but that the relevant law was S.I. No. 234 of 2020. 

Smyth sought a ruling from the judge on the status of the guidelines.

Judge Mary Fahy noted that the guidelines do “have the Rialtas na hÉireann stamp” and that it would be “unrealistic to disregard these guidelines”.

donie-cassidy-75-leaves-galway-district-court-in-co-galway-after-attending-a-hearing-where-he-is-one-of-four-people-accused-to-have-breached-covid-restrictions-by-organising-a-golf-society-dinner Former senator Donie Cassidy 75, leaves Galway District Court this morning. Source: PA/Alamy Stock Photo

Representing Grealish, Michael McDowell SC said his client contends he did not organise the President’s Dinner at the centre of the case. 

McDowell said that Grealish, as Captain of the Society, was “responsible for some aspects of the first day” of the two-day event but that there was “no dinner” on day one.

Counsel for John Sweeney argued that there was “a potentially unsavoury aspect to the prosecution” because there was “no complainant”.  

He said a criminal investigation came about “only from the media interest” that began following a report in the Irish Examiner. 

The media interest in the case was also raised by Smyth, for Cassidy, who said that the “the press became involved” and “public sentiment was whipped up in hysteria”.

“So the press became involved as they’re entitled to do, public sentiment was whipped up in hysteria, was whipped up about this and a lot of people, good people, had to resign from their positions,” he said.  

john-sweeney-60-right-and-james-sweeney-32-leave-galway-district-court-in-co-galway-after-attending-a-hearing-where-theyre-two-of-four-people-accused-to-have-breached-covid-restrictions-by-organis John Sweeney 60 (right) and James Sweeney 32. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Smyth also on a number of occasions read statements from former Attorney General and current Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe, who he said would be “one of the important witnesses in this case”. 

Witnesses

This afternoon, the trial heard evidence from six separate witnesses who were at the dinner and were called by the prosecution to provide their recollections of the event. 

The witnesses were sitting Fianna Fáil Senator Aidan Davitt, Fine Gael councillor Martin Brett, independent councillor Paudge Connolly, former Oireachtas officials John Flaherty and Cáit Hayes as well as Rob McAuliffe, who was a guest of Flaherty’s. 

Flaherty told the court that he was invited to the event by Cassidy and was “almost certain” that he paid Cassidy for the golf and the dinner. 

He described Cassidy as a “very experienced hotelier”who had assured him in advance of the event that it was compliant with public health guidelines. 

Flaherty told the court that in his view guidelines were observed at all times during the dinner.  

Flaherty said there was a partition between two suites which he described as a “floor to ceiling wall”. Flaherty said there was what he described as a “service route” at a pillar to allow for staff to move between the two suites. 

Asked by Cole if he would describe this route as a “gap or a door”, Flaherty said it appeared to him that it was a “route that was constructed for that specific reason”. 

Cole asked Flaherty if “a gap” would be a “fair description” of what he was describing,  with Judge Fahy then saying that the witness can describe it to the best of his ability. 

“You can just give your evidence as to what you saw and observed yourself,” the judge said. 

Examined by counsel for the defendants, Flaherty said it was his understanding that the dinner took place in the Station House Hotel and not the golf clubhouse specifically to adhere to Covid-19 guidelines. 

He said it was his understanding that “two suites were being used to host a private function”.

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Asked was he personally satisfied that the event was conducted in adherence to the guidelines and accepted practices, Flaherty responded: “I felt safe.”

The other witnesses also provided evidence as to their recollections of the partition.  

McAuliffe said that, after the dinner, the partition was opened up during speeches and prize-giving. The witness said that the partition was “opened up, not fully, a small bit on both sides”. 

McAuliffe said during dinner he estimated there were “45-50″ people in the suite in which he was sitting and that he was not aware of people eating in another place. 

Hayes testified that, ahead of the dinner, she examined the area to ensure that it was safe as she had invited a guest who was medically vulnerable. 

Hayes said that after examining the area she felt it “looked absolutely fine, it was two rooms”. 

“I felt very happy with it, I went back upstairs and told her that I can’t see any problems with it, we’re fine,” she said

Hayes added: “There was a full partition wall, a partition dividing the front room from the back room. A partition that hotels use to divide larger spaces into smaller spaces for various functions.”

Senator Davitt said the event was “extremely professionally conducted”, adding: “they were very much on top of the game at the hotel, particularly in relation to Covid.”

Davitt described the hotel’s approach to ensuring compliance with Covid regulations as “extreme”. 

“There was a hard partition which was on a track, but it was very much a Room A and a Room B. You couldn’t hear what was going on in the front room or they couldn’t hear what was going on in our room,” he said. 

Connolly gave evidence that there were two rooms that had “entirely separate entrances” and a PA system for people to hear the speeches.

He said that during the presentation a number of individuals left one area to go the other to receive a prize. 

“The partition was opened slightly to facilitate those two people travelling through,” he said.  

Brett said the gap in the partition was “approximately about the width of a person” but that he didn’t see anybody moving through it. 

The court was also told that the availability of witnesses was being affected by Covid-19 restrictions and that it was “highly unlikely” the trial would conclude in the two days for which it was listed. 

Owing to the issues with witnesses giving evidence, the garda statements of a number of other witnesses were read out to the court.

Judge Mary Fahy said that if the case is not concluded tomorrow they would seek to return for it to be listed again on 3 and 4 February. 

McDowell, for Grealish, said that his client was eager to have the case concluded and that it should be possible to conclude it tomorrow.

The case resumes at Galway District Court tomorrow at 10am. 

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Rónán Duffy

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