Thursday 19 October 2017

Smears, insinuations, allegations and charges

Damian Corless recalls the original GUBU mega-mess in Irish politics

Tit for tat: Seán Doherty
Tit for tat: Seán Doherty

A wobbly minority government. A train-wreck of cock-ups, conspiracy theories and ­communications blunders with the garda authorities at their heart. A Taoiseach and a Justice ­Minister with questions to answer about what they knew about who, and when and where. If all this comes with large dollops of déjà vu, then you're old enough to ­remember the original GUBU ­mega-mess, which tumbled CJ Haughey from office in 1982.

In FF's short nine months in power, the jobless figures soared by 30,000, but what really had the public's attention fully glued was a Grand Prix of car-crash government which has entered posterity as GUBU (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented). The acronym had been cobbled together by Labour's Conor Cruise O'Brien from Haughey's own words after double murderer Malcolm MacArthur was captured in the home of the Taoiseach's Attorney General, Patrick Connolly. But by year's end, GUBU had come to stand for a wider and deeper malaise in the Irish State.

Early on, the Taoiseach had pulled a misbegotten stroke, depriving his own dismayed tribe of a prized European post and giving it to FG's Dick Burke. The cunning plan was to win the ensuing by-election, gaining a badly needed seat. It came horribly unstuck when FF bombed in the poll.

Then the rumour mill started whispering that Justice Minister Seán Doherty had placed illegal phone taps and was throwing his weight around like a latter-day Wyatt Earp, a rogue lawman riding roughshod over the niceties of the law. It later emerged journalists Geraldine Kennedy, Bruce Arnold and Vincent Browne were targeted. Then, a garda car on protection detail with Doherty crashed in mysterious circumstances. The vehicle, containing a pistol and Uzi sub-machine gun, was abandoned for a time.

FG tabled a no-confidence motion. Chief Whip Bertie Ahern worked to seal a deal preventing an election, to no avail. In the Dáil, FF went down kicking and screaming. Minister Gene Fitzgerald accused FG of "personal vilification and accusations". He accused his namesake Garret of "a campaign of national sabotage that reflects no concern for the people".

"Smears, insinuations, allegations and charges have been made," he continued. "We had this great story about telephone tapping, and we all know now the true story there. We know now that that was concocted."

Justice Minister Doherty raged: "I have been vilified, I have been pursued by certain elements in the media, by politicians in the Fine Gael party, in this House and outside it. I do not wish to say more than that I will not allow my character, my integrity, nor indeed that of my wife or children to be impugned and vilified in the way it has been attempted.

"It seriously damages parliament and in many ways affects the capacity of the Minister for Justice, whether the office be held by me or by somebody else, to pursue his function in the way which is so essential at this difficult time."

He complained about the "scurrilous" media coverage of his involvement with the crashed garda car. Then, under parliamentary privilege, he named four opposition deputies, calling it strange that "there has been no mention of the accidents involving" them. With this, FG's Enda Kenny asked Doherty why he hadn't included on his list an accident involving a certain FF TD?

As the tit-for-tat continued under Dáil privilege, Doherty accused FG's absent ex-Justice Minister Jim Mitchell of "direct interference with members of An Garda Síochána in the course of their duty". He claimed a relative of Mitchell's had been stopped behind the wheel while over the limit. Doherty said Mitchell was Justice Minister at the time that the medical report, necessary to a prosecution, had mysteriously gone missing. Doherty said the gardaí insisted they'd never received the report, despite the fact it had been sent to them by registered post.

The reputation of the force was further tarnished in the dying days of the first GUBU government, when the socialist deputy Jim Kemmy told reporters that there was a special cupboard in the interview room of Dublin's Bridewell Prison which was designed to allow detectives to illegally eavesdrop on private conversations between prisoners and their solicitors. Kemmy showed reporters photos of a door with 20 spy holes drilled in it, which he described as "a form of dirty tricks by gardaí in Detective Branch". He claimed that the photograph had been sent to him by a whistleblowing officer (although the term whistleblower wasn't current back then).

Kemmy told the media: "Some gardaí are afraid of what is going on in the force now."

The photo showed that the cupboard door had a second highly unusual feature apart from the spy holes. This was a bolt which allowed it to be locked from the inside. Kemmy questioned why anyone would want to lock themselves into an ordinary innocent cupboard. The hidey-hole was positioned convenient to where a consulting solicitor would sit facing his client.

The garda press office issued a statement saying: "It does not exist. There is no such cubbyhole in the Bridewell." A follow-up statement from the force admitted that the cupboard in the photo did exist, but for the sole purpose of storing books, not spooks. A garda spokesman then assured the public that a senior officer would carry out a full investigation to establish the truth of the matter. And that was the end of that.

Déjà vu, only more so.

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