Alan Shatter on knife-edge in garda tapes scandal
* Force in crisis over revelations of 2,500 phone recordings * Gardai may have recorded solicitors' conversations * AG and top civil servants dragged into legal debacle
Justice Minister Alan Shatter is fighting for his political survival in the wake of the latest bombshell revelations to rock the Garda force and the Government.
Mr Shatter is facing serious questions about his level of knowledge of thousands of secret recordings of calls to and from garda stations which began in the 1980s and continued until last November.
The minister said he only learned of the practice on Monday, even though senior officials in his department were told two weeks ago.
The Government's legal adviser, Attorney General Maire Whelan, was told last November about the affair.
Mr Shatter will be in the spotlight today in a special Dail debate on the various garda controversies, during which he is expected to withdraw comments he made against garda whistleblowers.
The biggest crisis to hit the force in three decades – since a previous commissioner re- signed over the bugging of journalists’ phones – has resulted in a high-level inquiry that aims to establish the extent of the damage caused to the criminal justice system by the recordings. Former commissioner Patrick McLaughlin resigned in 1983.
The grave potential consequences of the taping by gardai were set out by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who admitted the tapes could have a “potential impact” on past, present and future court cases.
A Commission of Investigation will ascertain if calls between solicitors and their clients and calls among gardai discussing investigations were among thousands of conversations secretly recorded.
The new inquiry will examine close to 2,500 recordings catalogued at Garda Headquarters.
The dramatic revelation to ministers and opposition leaders yesterday came just after the shock resignation of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.
Mr Shatter is now under immense pressure on two fronts – his backing of Mr Callinan during recent controversies and his level of knowledge of the recordings.
Questions were being asked last night about why discovery of the secret recordings was only being made public now.
The phone taping scandal is the fifth major controversy to rock the gardai in recent months after the continuing fallout from the penalty points affair, findings of collusion with the IRA by the Smithwick Tribunal, allegations the Garda watchdog was bugged and further allegations of mismanagement of investigations.
The affair came to light as a result of legal proceedings in a case related to the murder of French film-maker Sophie Toscan du Plantier.
The existence of the tapes is believed to have been discovered as part of a civil case taken by self-confessed murder suspect Ian Bailey for alleged wrongful arrest.
The commissioner's resignation was initially viewed as being in response to his refusal to withdraw his statement that the actions of penalty points whistleblowers was “disgusting”.
But the emergence of the bigger scandal around the recording of calls is being linked more closely in government circles with his departure. Last November, the Department of Justice was notified the recordings had been made at an unknown number of garda stations.
Yet Mr Shatter told his Cabinet colleagues he didn't know anything about it until this week.
Mr Kenny was informed by Attorney General Maire Whelan on Sunday night of the revelations and he briefed the Government yesterday morning.
The Taoiseach warned the Dail the recording of phone calls by gardai could have enormous implications for “cases being heard, cases going through the courts, cases to be followed or maybe cases that were already dealt with”.
Legal experts last night warned the most grave issue was that each recording likely amounted to a serious criminal offence.
“Under Irish law, the recording of a telephone conversation on a public network without the consent of at least one party to the call amounts to an ‘interception’, which is a criminal offence carrying a possible term of imprisonment of up to five years,” TJ McIntyre, senior lecturer in law at University College Dublin, said.
Mr Shatter's senior officials were told about the scandal a fortnight ago on March 10, when they received a letter from the commissioner. But Mr Shatter maintained last night he did not know about it until Monday evening. And he didn't get a copy of the letter sent to his secretary general Brian Purcell until yesterday morning.
The Government knew about the affair since November 11 last, when Ms Whelan's office was informed by garda management of the problem.
Mr Callinan had become aware of the extent of phone recordings last October after issues in Mr Bailey's case. He immediately took steps to end the practice and then set up a working group to examine the extent of the taping and the type of calls that were being taped.
Garda stations had been taping calls of various types – but mainly referring to 999 calls and bomb threats – since the late 1980s.
The original recording methods, which have been described as being held in old, obsolete and fragile electronic formats, were replaced by dictaphones in the 1990s and a new system put in place in 2008.
The practice later ceased in a large number of stations but other stations continued and tapes were sent to Garda Headquarters where they were catalogued and stored. But one senior officer acknowledged last night that in most cases nobody bothered listening to the tapes since they were not immediately needed for investigations.
After the action taken by Mr Bailey, the extent of the issue and the legal implications became clear.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan also admitted the Government fears that both civil and criminal cases may now be tainted as a result of the widespread recording of phone calls.
“We must proceed now in a calm and reasoned way to get the full facts, to make sure that no litigation, civil or criminal, is tainted as a result,” he said.
Asked whether the Government feared cases could be tainted, he replied: “It's a fear obviously.”
Mr Bailey is suing the State for damages for alleged wrongful arrest for the murder of Ms Du Plantier in December 1996.
But the state parties have claimed privilege (confidentiality) over certain categories of information sought by Mr Bailey, including telephone calls.
Last November, High Court Judge John Hedigan gave the state parties until yesterday to examine new electronic material, described as ‘phone traffic’ material, uncovered by gardai who have been trawling through a large amount of documents in preparation for the actions.