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Sunday 21 September 2014

A brief history of covert surveillance

Special Correspondent Ronald Quinlan looks back at bugging controversies in Ireland's not-too-distant past

Published 16/02/2014 | 02:30

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WHILE the claims in relation to the bugging of GSOC are extraordinary, the use of covert surveillance shouldn't surprise anyone who has held even a passing interest in Irish current affairs over the years.

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Indeed only last October, Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded to revelations that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's BlackBerry had been wire-tapped by the US National Security Agency by telling reporters that he always operated on the basis that somebody was listening in on his phone conversations.

As the historian and biographer of the late Charles Haughey, Ryle Dwyer observed at the time, the Taoiseach has been in politics since the mid-Seventies, an era when "tapping was rife".

By 1981, the illegal prying into the private communications of people in and around the nation's corridors of power plumbed new depths when, as Taoiseach, Mr Haughey ordered his justice minister Sean Doherty to tap the phones of journalists Geraldine Kennedy, Bruce Arnold and Vincent Browne in an effort to find out who was leaking information to the media.

But while Fine Gael's justice minister Michael Noonan confirmed in 1983 that the tapping had taken place, it would be a further nine years before Mr Haughey was forced to admit his involvement.

In an interview with Shay Healy on RTE1's Nighthawks in 1992, Sean Doherty confirmed that Mr Haughey had ordered the phone tapping of 1981 and that he had shown transcripts of the journalists' phone conversations to him. Mr Haughey resigned.

In 1995, Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry found himself at the centre of a furore when he told government colleagues and gardai that he was being followed after receiving a letter telling him he was under surveillance.

Mr Lowry claimed that his efforts to smash what he described as a "cosy cartel" in the semi-State sector had prompted three prominent businessmen to order the surveillance. Two Cork businessmen – former CIE chairman Dermot O'Leary and property developer Owen O'Callaghan – initiated legal action against Mr Lowry with claims that he had unlawfully tried to link them to the controversy.

While allegations in relation to covert surveillance make for the biggest headlines when they involve senior politicians, a number of prominent figures in the world of Irish business have also had personal experience of being followed or otherwise having their movements monitored.

Independent News & Media launched an investigation in 2011 after its then CEO Gavin O'Reilly was followed from the company's headquarters in Citywest business park to the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge. When Mr O'Reilly's pursuers were approached by gardai, they confirmed that they had been hired by a third party whom they refused to name to follow the then INM chief. While this kind of surveillance is not illegal in Ireland, INM conducted an "extensive investigation", but was unable to identify the unnamed third party.

Last June, questions were being asked in the Dail in relation to the surveillance methods being used by Nama to investigate the affairs of the developers on its books.

Acting on foot of concerns raised with her by an unnamed property developer, Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin asked Finance Minister Michael Noonan to confirm whether Nama intercepted communications such as telephone and mobile calls, text messages or emails.

Mr Noonan responded that Nama "was not aware" that any such activity was being engaged in by the service providers it engaged to carry out the asset searches it uses to establish the veracity of developers' statements of affairs.

Sunday Independent

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