The Dublin government is in crisis and the 26 County judicial system on the point of collapse following revelations that illegal recordings have been made of telephone conversations to and from police stations for some three decades.
The news first emerged shortly after Garda police commissioner Martin Callinan resigned (officially, ‘retired’) amid an ongoing scandal over the force’s handling of motoring offences and accusations of corruption by two Garda whistleblowers. He was also accused of spying earlier this year when it emerged that a sweep of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) had found evidence of high-tech electronic surveillance.
But the new scandal has the potential to overshadow such events, and could see hundreds of trials aborted, judgements overturned, and prisoners set free.
Following a Cabinet meeting yesterday, the Fine Gael-Labour government announced the setting up of a Commission of Investigation into the recordings. Taoiseach Enda Kenny denied opposition claims that he “sacked” Callinan as a result of the crisis.
As the coalition government appeared to descend into chaos, denials were issued on behalf of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, Attorney General Maire Whelan and senior civil servants.
A key issue is whether client-lawyer privilege was abused by the recordings. The nature and number of which remain unknown, but they are understood to include every landline phone call at every major Garda station from the 1980s. More than 2,500 tapes have already come to light -- some of which may be “mouldy”, according to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan -- but since 2008, the calls were recorded electronically.
While it is clear that previous administrations will face their share of blame for the fiasco, the current government’s handling of the situation has brought the crisis to a climax as court cases were being halted today until more information on the spying is forthcoming.
Public records indicate the issue of recorded telephone conversations arose in the courts as far back as 2011. Concerns was also raised by a report of the Ombudsman’s office in June of last year. At that time the Ombudsman said that the ‘Garda Commissioner may wish to re-evaluate his practise regarding the recording of such calls.’ The Ombudsman’s report was subsequently sent to the Garda Commissioner and to the Department of Justice.
The issue is also at the heart of legal proceedings in November surrounding a very high profile murder case in County Cork, the 1996 death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in 1996. It is understood this is the case which first brought the matter to the attention of the Attorney General, but she inexplicably failed to raise the matter before Cabinet. She also refused to discuss the matter over the phone, the Taoiseach said today.
Minister Shatter has attempted to sidestep criticism by insisting that he only became aware of the secret recordings yesterday, although admitting his department received a letter from Callinan two weeks ago detailing the situation.
The audacious Minister for Justice eft journalists slack-jawed today when by blamed the delay partly on his involvement on behalf of the government in the St Patrick’s Day festivities in Mexico.
“I don’t think that any reasonable person could claim with any credibility that there has been any inaction on my part or the part of the government to what has undoubtedly been a series of disturbing issues,” he said.
“Rather, we have been unflinching in our determination to face up to past difficulties.”
COURTS IN CRISIS
As the blame game continued and pressure on Minister Shatter reached unprecedented levels, the adjournment of an IRA trial added to sense of disarray.
Lawyers for two men accused of IRA membership successfully applied to the juryless Special Criminal Court today to have their trial halted “in light of recent events”.
Barristers for the two men told the court that their clients had telephone calls with their lawyer while in garda custody and before they were subsequently interviewed by the gardai.
The barristers sought disclosure of any records of the phone calls that might exist. Prosecuting counsel insisted that gardai were “completely unaware” of any recordings.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said that it was not credible that Minister Shatter was unaware of last June’s Ombudsman’s report.
“This is the latest in a series of debacles around An Garda Siochana, the administration of justice and the Minister for Justice,” he said.
“Minister Shatter has on every occasion sought to protect the Garda Commissioner who has now resigned; he tried to discredit the Garda whistle-blowers Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former Garda John Wilson, and he undermined the office of the Garda Ombudsman over the bugging allegations.
“The Taoiseach has said he will not ask Minister Shatter to resign. That is a mistake”.