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The 'uncomfortable' meeting in Martin Callinan's house that led to his early retirement

The visit was the “immediate catalyst” for the Commissioner leaving his position – and the force.

THE EVENTS OF the night of 24 March has been shrouded in mystery since the resignation of former garda commissioner Martin Callinan.

Garda Commemoration Source: Niall Carson

Yesterday, with the publication of the Fennelly Report, more details about that fateful late-night meeting between the Secretary General at the Department of Justice and the police chief emerged.

The home visit has now been described as the “immediate catalyst” to Callinan’s decision to retire. That move came just before knowledge that telephone calls in and out of garda stations had been recorded was made public.

Where?

According to the report, during a meeting of the Taoiseach, the Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Secretary General to the government Martin Fraser, it was decided that the most appropriate person to talk to Callinan about issues raised by the Attorney General about the phone call recordings controversy was the Secretary General at the Department of Justice Brian Purcell.

Once Purcell had been called to government buildings and appraised of the situation, the men set about to decide where the conversation should take place.

Various options were explored and dismissed.

  • The Department of Justice’s offices were closed and they didn’t want to call the Service Officer to have them reopened. 
  • Government buildings were excluded because of the “danger of media interest”.
  • There was also a “perceived danger” of being seen in a late-night meeting at Garda HQ.

So, despite it being something he did not want to do, Purcell agreed to arrange a meeting at Callinan’s home.

It was described to the Fennelly Commission as “the least worst option”.

Why?

Ian Bailey lawsuit Grave concerns after revelations that phone calls in and out of garda stations were recorded - which could impact the Ian Bailey case. Source: Brian Lawless

The word “uncomfortable” is used multiple times throughout the following pages of Fennelly’s report, with Purcell making it very clear that is how he felt throughout the final hours of 24 March.

According to the report:

He had never had to do this before and did not believe that any other Secretary General had done so. A visit by him to the home of a Garda Commissioner was an unprecedented event.

However, the Taoiseach deemed it necessary. He believed it would be “absolutely unfair” to have new information come out at a Cabinet meeting about the controversy.

“I felt it would be grossly unfair to him to say, like, wait until the morning, a half an hour before a Cabinet meeting fixed for 10.30am, what are you going to do. So it’s just a matter of, if you like, normal courtesy,” Enda Kenny said in evidence.

Both the Attorney General and the Taoiseach had expressed grave concerns over the controversy, not least at the impact it could have on the ongoing Bailey litigation.

Who?

28/5/2014. Brian Purcell at Justice Committees Brian Purcell Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter offered to accompany Purcell to Callinan’s house but the SecGen said it was “something that’s better if I do it myself”.

This offer was seen by Purcell as a “genuine attempt to share the burden”. To underline his point, he disclosed that at 12.05am on 25 March Shatter sent him a text saying “This is horrendous”.

Earlier – at 10.15pm to be exact – Purcell called Callinan to indicate that he needed to speak to him about a matter that could not be discussed over the phone.

Callinan, for his part, had “absolutely no idea” what this could be about. He suggested both the Department’s buildings and Garda HQ as destinations but Purcell said he would call to his home.

Twenty-five minutes later, he had arrived for what he would later describe as one of the worst day of his career.

It was a terrible moment, a terrible thing for [him] to have to deal with.

What was known?

The report goes to pains to outline Callinan’s “own state of knowledge” at the time of this meeting. It asks the reader to remember that the Commissioner had:

  1. Informed the Attorney General’s office of the general recording issue in November 2013. 
  2. Believed he had told Purcell about it at the same time over the phone.
  3. Written to Purcell on 10 March, informing him of developments.
  4. Asked Purcell in that letter to tell Alan Shatter of those developments.
  5. Attended a meeting with officials from the Attorney General’s office and the Justice Department about the Ian Bailey case, where the recording issue was brought up.
  6. Been given the Minister’s support the day previous despite “media frenzy”.
  7. Been told that day that there could be more time before the recording issue went public because of a request by the AG to the court in the Bailey case.

“In other words,” the report reads, “the Commissioner, from his perspective, had good reason to presume that from as early as November 2013, and certainly by 10/11 March 2014, both the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice would have been made aware of the key facts in relation to the general recording issue and the Bailey case.”

He had no sense that this was now being treated as a matter of great gravity.

Before 11pm to after midnight

The meeting was characterised in the report as a lengthy discussion punctuated by long silences.

To Purcell and his discomfort, those silences “seemed like an eternity“.

Despite some insignificant recollections by the participants, Fennelly has given a summary of the event.

According to that synopsis, Purcell had consistent messages for Callinan. Firstly, that Enda Kenny had “grave concerns” about the issue. And, secondly, that he may not be able to convey his own confidence in the Commissioner at Cabinet the next day because he wasn’t sure how other Ministers would receive the news of the recording issue.

Questions

Callinan says he recalls asking Purcell if it was perceived he had done anything wrong. He was assured this was not the case.

He was also told that the Taoiseach did not believe he was involved in setting up a system to record non-999 calls.

This part of the discussion brought “a lot of silences”.

The Commissioner said he continuously sought an answer as to why the Secretary General of the Justice Department was in his house for a late-night meeting.

The awareness [of the issue] was out there, I couldn’t understand it…”

The response to Callinan’s question about whether the government had confidence in him was not met with a full answer. Purcell said it would be a matter for discussion before Cabinet.

Callinan said he was told there were “other issues coming down the line” including “problems in or around the justice system“.

Extremely difficult

The report concedes that the meeting of two men who knew each other very well was “an extremely difficult one”. Fennelly writes:

The Commissioner was surprised and shocked. He had had no inkling that anything of the sort was to take place. He had a very strong professional and personal relationship with the Secretary General and could see that Mr Purcell was extremely uncomfortable.

“He also said that that he felt ‘Mr Purcell had a certain degree of difficulty in imparting whatever he had to impart to me as well’.

The letter

PastedImage-42711

Fennelly notes that it is “surprising” that there was no discussion of the letter of 10 March from Callinan to the Department of Justice.

He also said it was “unfortunate” that the Commissioner was not aware that nobody at the earlier meeting knew of its existence except Purcell.

Therefore, it does not make up much of the narrative of the 24 March – except as a reason why Callinan continued to be confused about the presence of a senior government official in his house at midnight.

Callinan’s Notes

In a handwritten diary the next day, Callinan jotted down his recollection of the meeting under a heading: Note of Meeting with Sec. Gen. @ house (made 25/3/14).

It read:

PastedImage-61221

He had taken from the fact that Purcell had visited his home late at night to tell him of the Taoiseach’s grave concerns that he was expected to consider his position.

He said several times that “from his experience” this is what had to happen, despite Purcell not using that phrase.

I want to be very clear, there was absolutely no options put on the table to me.

And later, in evidence, he added: “I was left in no doubt what I had to do then that evening. I was left in absolutely no doubt.”

The aftermath

Callinan’s initial decision was to announce his retirement but to postpone it for a three month period.

However, this was rejected by the Taoiseach overnight. Claiming he hadn’t “slept a wink” Kenny said that any early retirement must come in with immediate effect.

“Having considered this all night,” he wrote the next day in a text message to Purcell, “Once decision on early ret is made it simply has to be immediate. Otherwise Cabinet accepts reason for stepping down but allows it to continue. This would simply not be feasible in any circumstance. Hs therefore to be with immediate effect.”

After a phonecall to convey this message, Callinan told Purcell he would be retiring for family and personal reasons.

Originally posted Tuesday evening. Updated 7am Wednesday.

Read: Visit from civil servant was ‘immediate catalyst’ for Martin Callinan’s retirement

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