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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Garda chief was pushed out with blunt warning

* Callinan told he might not survive Cabinet meeting
* Spotlight falls on roles of secretary general and AG
* First court case delayed as fears mount over legal impact

Tom Brady, Fionnan Sheahan, Niall O'Connor and Dearbhail McDonald

Published 27/03/2014 | 02:30

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EMBATTLED Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan stepped down after a blunt warning by a senior civil servant that he was unlikely to survive a looming Cabinet meeting.

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Mr Callinan received the warning late on Monday at his Dublin home from the Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell – who was sent there by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

He made it clear to Mr Callinan that a new controversy was about to erupt over the taping of telephone calls in 26 garda divisional headquarters and that it was top of the agenda for the Cabinet.

Mr Kenny has firmly denied in the Dail that he sacked Mr Callinan, despite the claims by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin yesterday.

But last night, ministers privately admitted that Mr Callinan's resignation prior to the cabinet meeting had been "politically desirable".

It alleviated the crisis, healed the rift between the two government parties, avoided a stand-off at Cabinet, and eased the pressure on Justice Minister Alan Shatter to resign.

There was also a fresh focus on the role of Attorney General Maire Whelan amid claims she knew about the taping of phone calls to garda stations since last November.

The Taoiseach confirmed he first learned of the issue emerging when he spoke with Ms Whelan last Sunday morning.

The impact of the fresh revelations about the Garda tapes is already being felt in the courts.

Last night, legal experts warned that criminal and civil litigation arising from the controversy could "swamp the courts for years to come" as criminal law firms undertake a review of key cases.

The Special Criminal Court has already adjourned a trial against two men accused of IRA membership, in what is understood to be the first court case affected by the garda phone taping revelations.

The case was put back until today, as the judge asked the DPP to make similar checks in relation to another case due next week.

The full scale of the taping also became clear as it emerged that telephone calls in every garda divisional headquarters in the State were routinely recorded over the past three decades.

Mr Shatter yesterday apologised and set the record straight after he previously claimed whistleblowers, former Garda John Wilson and serving Sergeant Maurice McCabe, did not co-operate with an internal inquiry into the scandal.

But Mr Callinan's resignation also took the heat off Mr Shatter and the Government on the whistleblower affair. "There was a head delivered," one minister said.

The Commissioner was already under major political pressure from ministers within Fine Gael and Labour because of his decision to stand firm over controversial comments on garda whistleblowers.

The Commissioner's description of their actions in carrying out a trawl of the Garda's Pulse computer system and distributing confidential data publicly as "disgusting" had haunted him since January.

But he was now told that the emergence of yet another garda controversy was being treated very seriously.

The inference drawn by Mr Callinan from the bombshell conversation with Mr Purcell was that he would be lucky to get through the cabinet meeting unscathed.

But he agreed to "sleep on it" and consider what he had been told.

The following morning, less than two hours before the start of the cabinet meeting, he telephoned Mr Purcell only to be told that the position had worsened.

Mr Callinan, decided then to announce he was stepping down from his post. He had earlier discussed his position with his family, and decided that there seemed to be no end in sight to the series of controversies that were impacting on the garda force.

Exchanges in the Dail became heated as the Taoiseach denied "sacking" Mr Callinan, although he admitted sending Mr Purcell to talk to him on Monday night.

The Fianna Fail leader challenged Mr Kenny: "You essentially sacked him."

He added: "You sent a senior civil servant out to the commissioner the day before the cabinet meeting."

But Mr Kenny said he deplored Mr Martin's accusation. "It is the first time you have accused me of being a liar in here," he said.

"I reject your assertions. It's actually beneath you to come in here and say something like that," the Taoiseach added.

But government sources said Mr Callinan's position had become untenable because of the build-up of controversies.

"How was he going to fight on all fronts?" one minister asked.

However, the Government's version of what and when the authorities – and in particular, senior civil servants – knew about the developments in the growing controversy is being disputed by some senior gardai.

Senior officers said last night that Mr Callinan had ensured that two high-ranking Justice officials had been regularly briefed during the past two months about the progress being made by the gardai in trying to establish the extent of the phone taping.

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They also said that the officials were told about the preparation of the discovery of documentation for a civil action being brought against the State by journalist Ian Bailey.

But Mr Kenny said the first time he was aware an issue had arisen was in a conversation with Attorney General Maire Whelan on Sunday morning. "The Attorney General was not prepared to talk to me about the issue on the telephone," he said.

Mr Kenny said the transcripts of a small number of tapes from garda stations had "the most serious implications" for a number of court cases.

The potential scale of the problem went far beyond a specific case, which had brought the problem to light. "It just doesn't deal with a single case."

The Taoiseach confirmed that it stretched to the near 2,500 tapes up to 2008 and digital recordings after that.

Irish Independent

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