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'Ireland's Watergate': How the phone tapping scandal would lead to Haughey's downfall... eventually

What was the phone tapping scandal? takes a step back in time and examines what was arguably the biggest political scandal in Irish history that would have consequences far beyond 1983.

image“I have done the State some service, they know it, no more of that.” – Charlie Haughey quoting Othello upon resigning in 1992.

IT WAS THE political scandal that had such far-reaching consequences that they were still being felt 11 years later when Charles Haughey was forced to resign as Taoiseach in 1992.

But no-one could have predicted that when the phone tapping revelations first emerged in 1983 and were just the latest in a string of controversies arising from Haughey’s GUBU government.

‘Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented’ or GUBU was the moniker given to the events 1982 which engulfed the Haughey administration and were still causing problems even after Fianna Fáil was booted out of power in the November 1982 elections – the second that year.

Haughey was in opposition for just over a month when the Fine Gael-led coalition blew the whistle on what was then and remains perhaps the biggest scandal in Irish political history or as Pat Kenny (below) referred to it at the time: “The biggest political crisis since the Arms Trial.”


What emerged in three separate and lengthy government statements was, briefly, that two high-profile political journalists’ phones had been tapped on the orders of the Minister for Justice Seán Doherty, that Doherty had also facilitated the secret recording of a conversation between Fianna Fáil Ministers Ray McSharry and Martin O’Donoghue, and that as as result two of the most senior gardaí in the country were retiring.

Fianna Fáil leaks

The phone taps were carried out in and around mid-1982 amid a heightened sense of suspicion that ministers were leaking information from Cabinet discussions.

A series of stories were reported by both the Irish Independent’s Bruce Arnold and the Sunday Tribune and later Sunday Press’s Geraldine Kennedy about internal divisions within Fianna Fáil over the future of its leader, Charlie Haughey.

After the February 1982 general election, where Haughey failed to win an overall majority, Dessie O’Malley emerged as a possible successor with his challenge reported on extensively by Arnold who even went as far as to list the Fianna Fáil TDs who he said were prepared to oppose Haughey.

But Haughey would survive the challenge, garnering enough support at a stormy parliamentary party meeting to force O’Malley to withdraw his leadership bid.

Meanwhile, Kennedy (below) broke several stories about dissent in the Fianna Fáil ranks in the Sunday Tribune prior to another leadership challenge in October of 1982.

This was led by future finance minister Charlie McCreevy, the Kildare TD, whose motion of no confidence saw O’Malley resign from Cabinet in preparation to vote against the party leader. But Haughey would survive again after insisting on a roll call vote as opposed to a secret ballot.


Kennedy would recall in 1983 how she was warned about two months before what became known as ‘The October Coup’ that her phone might have been unofficially tapped to record conversations she might have with five Fianna Fáil dissidents.

“I thought that was very strange and sinister, but I couldn’t check it out, nor confirm it, so I didn’t do anything about it,” she told RTÉ’s Today Tonight.

What would later emerge was that Seán Doherty authorised warrants for garda phone taps of the phones of Arnold and Kennedy. In the case of Arnold, a phone tap was sought to “secure useful information concerning subversive activity” on 10 May 1982 and was later withdrawn on 12 July.

A few weeks later on 28 July a tap was applied to Kennedy’s phone and was said on the 27 October to be “yielding results”. It was withdrawn on 16 November.

The scandal breaks

Rumours also circulated at the time that taps were also being applied to several Fianna Fáil dissidents’ phones including those of O’Malley, McCreevy, Haughey’s old rival George Colley, Seamus Brennan and Martin O’Donoghue.

In the case of O’Donoghe a tap was conclusively proven and exposed in January 1983 when the whole scandal emerged.


Just weeks into his term in office newly-appointed Justice Minister Michael Noonan (above) issued a statement on 6 January 1983 stating that an investigation is taking place into allegations that phones of two journalists had been tapped.

He said that newspaper reports suggesting a widening of the investigation are “wholly speculative and devoid of any foundation”.

But less than fortnight later, on 19 January, a further statement from Noonan revealed that “a new development has now taken place” and confirmed that morning that a miniature tape recorder, not involving telephone tapping, was sought from a garda source and subsequently returned together with a tape of a political conversation which was transcribed using garda facilities. A further statement was promised “within the next two days”.

In fact it came the following day, on 20 January, when Noonan issued three lengthy and explosive statements. He noted that shortly after taking office he was notified from official sources about “the interception under official warrant of the phones of Bruce Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy”.

But he also said that it had emerged the previous weekend that garda equipment had been used to record a “political conversation”.

In fact, what had transpired was that towards the end of October 1982, Joseph Ainsworth, a deputy garda commissioner, received a call from then Justice Minister Seán Doherty in which he was instructed to bring recording equipment to then Tánaiste and Minister for Finance Ray MacSharry.


The next day, Doherty had a tape sent to Ainsworth for transcription and the senior garda officer later took two copies of the transcript to Doherty at Government Buildings where the minister handed back the recording equipment.

Secret recording

The conversation that had been secretly recorded and transcribed was between MacSharry and Cabinet colleague Martin O’Donoghue and was described by Noonan as “related solely to party political issues concerning Fianna Fáil and included nothing which could be thought to relate to matters of concern to the Garda Siochána”.

MacSharry later defended his actions, saying that rumours were sweeping the party that he could be ‘bought’ to support efforts to depose Haughey, and that he used the equipment to record any attempt to offer him bribes.

Fianna Fáil minister Padraig Flynn would later recall how MacSharry was “furious” at the claims and wanted to have solid evidence to show he could not be bribed if he was offered.


The scandal was huge.

Noonan, little-known at the time having only recently been elected to the Dáil, came to prominence for an assured and commanding performance at a hastily arranged press conference on the night of 20 January where he laid out the details of the scandal.

“The checks and balances which should operate in the system no longer operated,” he said, promising an investigation into all taps taking place and legislation to introduce safeguards.

Press cuttings from the time detail how it was viewed as the ‘Irish Watergate’. Martin O’Shea wrote in the Irish Press that “all the elements are there; the deed, the rumours, the coverup… and finally the resignations”.

Garda retirements

Garda Commissioner Patrick McLaughlin retired as did his then deputy, the aforementioned Joseph Ainsworth.

Records revealed today show how far from Noonan’s insistence at the time that the two were NOT asked to resign nor retire, in fact McLaughlin felt he had no choice but to do so, and indeed that appeared to be the government’s view as well.

MacSharry resigned from the Fianna Fáil frontbench while Doherty quit the party before rejoining again in 1984.

Haughey was, as ever, the great survivor and in denying any knowledge of what had gone on he went on to lead Fianna Fáil in opposition until it returned to power, with him as Taoiseach, in 1987.


However, it would be in early 1992 that the phone tapping scandal would finally catch-up with him when Doherty, in the wilderness for over a decade made a now infamous appearance on RTÉ television’s Nighthawks (above).

He said for the first time that he had shown transcripts of Arnold and Fitzgerald’s recorded conversations to Haughey.

A few days later Doherty claimed that a decision had been taken to stop the leaks from Cabinet and that transcripts of secret recordings were “handed to him [Haughey] directly”.

The Taoiseach insisted that the claims “absolutely false”. But he did not survive and with the Progressive Democrats threatening to pull out of coalition, Haughey fell on his sword, resigning as Taoiseach and, after 13 years, stepping down as leader of Fianna Fáil.

Of all the scandals and allegations that engulfed Haughey in the years during and after his turbulent reign it was ultimately the events of 1982 and early 1983, and specifically the tapping of journalists’ phones, that would lead to his downfall.

Pics: Screengrabs via RTÉ/YouTube, and the National Archives.

See National Archives, Reference 2013/16/1408

FLASHBACK: No mention of Patrick Connolly, GUBU in 1982 State Papers

Column: It’s 30 years since GUBU. Now THAT was a political battle.

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