Sunday 24 September 2017

Improper eavesdropping techniques undermine our basic rights

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Picture: Gerry Mooney
Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan Picture: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

IN the end it was revelations about improper use of phone tapping which speeded up the exit of that extraordinary politician Charlie Haughey.

The phone taps had been placed in 1982 by An Garda Síochána at the instigation of the then-Justice Minister Seán Doherty, on the phones of two senior political journalists, Bruce Arnold of the Irish Independent, and Geraldine Kennedy of ‘The Sunday Tribune’. At the time and for a very long time afterwards it had been rumoured that Mr Haughey, as Taoiseach, was fully aware of the phone taps, which were aimed at finding the source of leaks against him from senior Fianna Fáil members.

Full confirmation of the phone taps, by the new Fine Gael Justice Minister Michael Noonan, in January 1983, brought Mr Haughey to within an ace of being ousted from the party leadership. As it was, several senior gardaí resigned. But he muddled through a series of fraught and confused events and eventually battled his way back to become Taoiseach in March, 1987.

A decade later, in early 1992, Seán Doherty, smarting at his perception that Mr Haughey had failed to support his bid to become Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, revealed his former boss knew all about the phone taps. Under pressure from his junior coalition partners the Progressive Democrats, and yet another heave from within his party, Charlie Haughey announced his intention to resign.

Read More: Phone-tapping hits all private citizens

The prolonged saga – even with its delayed action outcome – shows just how sensitive the issue of phone-tapping can be. And at the heart of it all is a visceral question of trust in the authorities that they will use a great but very sensitive power wisely and with all due restraint.

Most Irish people expect their police to use all means at their disposal to defend State security and to prevent and ultimately punish serious crime. For the past 15 years, pretty much every citizen in this land has a mobile phone, which is frequently used. It is only reasonable that intercepting mobile phone calls would be a resource in the battle against crime and subversion.

But the events of the early 1980s shook the public’s trust in the authorities to act with all decorum and integrity. These latest revelations will revive such memories for people, and also raise new concerns for a rising generation.

They come at a very difficult time for the Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, who is currently fire-fighting up to six controversies and facing increasingly strident calls from all opposition parties that she step down. Commissioner O’Sullivan can of course argue that these original events, which date back more than a decade, were certainly before her time.

But Ms O’Sullivan, who took over the post in 2014, may face close questioning on how the issue was settled to avoid a public airing in the law courts. She will also face the familiar pattern of questions about her state of knowledge of the various phases of the case. She will probably be able to argue she was protecting the security of the State and wanted to avoid further unwanted negative publicity about the force, particularly as it occurred in a period prior to her appointment.

The issue will also be a most unwelcome additional controversy for Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Fianna Fáil, underpinning the minority coalition, has said a replacement for Enda Kenny as leader must not retain Ms Fitzgerald as Justice Minister.

This has in turn led to a ritualistic circling of Fine Gael wagons with a message of support from one putative party leader, Simon Coveney. But today’s revelations are  deeply unhelpful.

In a similar pattern to the Commissioner, Ms Fitzgerald will face calls to explain her state of knowledge of the matter. More importantly, she will face close questioning on what she has done to ensure the conduct of proper procedures around phone-tapping.

She could do worse than have a long talk with  Finance Minister Michael Noonan and get his memories of events 34 years ago. The Justice Minister has in recent days been busy arguing that she has continued to drive through garda reforms, amid all the controversy, with extra powers for the Garda Ombudsman and the setting up of the Policing Authority.

Now she will also face real calls for a separation of the policing and national security functions as happens in many other countries. Last month the former Public Expenditure Minister and Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, called for this urging the creation of an “Irish FBI”.

The history of this Government’s response to garda crises has been a mixture of sluggishness masking denial.

But it is clear that a swift response is urgently required here.

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