Thursday 27 October 2016

Inside the Cabinet: Thin blue line that almost collapsed the Government

Garda bugging row strained relations and nearly resulted in Labour pulling out, Eamon Gilmore reveals in these extracts from his autobiography

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

SERIOUS CRISIS: The garda bugging debacle strained relationships between Eamon Gilmore and Labour’s Enda Kenny, and almost brought the government down
SERIOUS CRISIS: The garda bugging debacle strained relationships between Eamon Gilmore and Labour’s Enda Kenny, and almost brought the government down

A number of allegations made about the gardaí, including those made by Sergeant Maurice McCabe, all of which led to a series of investigations, and to questions for Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

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Before long, there was a media and public storm over confidence in the gardaí, the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice. Both the Taoiseach and I were repeatedly asked if we had confidence in the Minister and in the Commissioner.

I answered, as did other ministers, that it would be helpful if the Commissioner withdrew the offending remark, but he didn't - and the controversy continued.

I saw in this controversy, however, an opportunity to progress a Labour policy objective which Fine Gael had not accepted in the Programme for Government.

As Labour Justice spokespersons in opposition, Brendan Howlin and Pat Rabbitte had advanced the case for an independent Garda Authority.

On Friday, March 21, the Taoiseach telephoned me from the European Council meeting in Brussels. He was due to meet the press following the Council meeting and was worried that, if he went as far as I had on the Callinan issue, the Commissioner might have to resign.

We agreed a formula of words which we would both use. We spoke again on Saturday morning as I was due to meet the press at an event in Belfast. On both occasions, I emphasised the need to proceed with Garda reform and the establishment of a Garda Authority.

In our discussion on Saturday, I felt that the Taoiseach had warmed to the idea, and seemed keen to get on with it. We said we would talk again about it at our regular pre-Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

When I arrived in Government Buildings at 9am on Tuesday morning, March 25, my Private Secretary, Robert O'Driscoll, told me that the Taoiseach wanted to see me urgently, and he stressed that I needed to talk to him before the Labour Ministers' meeting. I walked the long corridor to the Taoiseach's office. When I got there, I found him to be untypically agitated.

The Attorney General, who had to miss this Cabinet meeting due to a family commitment, had briefed him the previous Sunday afternoon about matters on which she had been due to report to the Cabinet.

In the course of that briefing, she had informed him that she had become aware of recordings which the gardaí had made of telephone conversations to and from certain Garda stations - and, in some cases, between Garda stations.

She explained that the public would become aware of the existence of these recordings, because of a court case that would be heard later that week. The Taoiseach, went on to tell me that he had met with the Minister for Justice and the Secretary General of that department, Brian Purcell, on Monday evening; that Mr Purcell had travelled out to Commissioner Callinan's home to discuss the issue; that the Commissioner had decided to retire and that a letter advising of his decision was on its way, as we spoke.

I was shocked.

Firstly, at the gardai tape recording of conversations, then at the possibility that people acting out of civic responsibility who had rung a garda station with information or a complaint could be on tape, and that these tapes might have to be produced.

Furthermore, I was deeply concerned that the Taoiseach had been aware of the problem since Sunday evening but was only telling me about it two days later - and that, in the meantime, the Commissioner had chosen to retire from his office.

I spent a long time discussing the crisis with the Taoiseach, but we both knew we had to act promptly.

News of the Commissioner's retirement was bound to leak out quickly.

We agreed not to proceed with the usual parallel meetings of the Labour and Fine Gael ministers that morning, and instead to go directly to the Cabinet Room to bring the Cabinet up to date.

However, we were also concerned about the prospect of a leak directly from the Cabinet meeting.

(The Taoiseach told me about one occasion when details of a Cabinet discussion were being summarised on a radio station while the meeting was still in progress. A texting minister!)

For this meeting, the Taoiseach and I put our mobile phones in the middle of the Cabinet table and all other ministers followed suit.

We had to decide on the appointment of an Acting Commissioner and prepare a Government statement.

A small group of ministers from both parties went to rework the draft statement which had been produced by the Government secretariat.

The sticking point was the proposed establishment of an independent Garda Authority, but the Taoiseach and I reached agreement on that in a side meeting.

The retirement of the Commissioner was big news. There were statements from all sides in the Dáil and wall-to-wall media coverage.

Late in the afternoon, Mark Garrett entered my office with news that he had just heard from an RTÉ source that there was a letter from Commissioner Callinan which had not, apparently, been brought to the attention of the Cabinet.

I knew of no such letter and asked Mark to get a copy from his counterparts in the Taoiseach's office right away.

Commissioner Callinan's letter, addressed on March 10 to the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and clearly requesting that the contents be brought to the attention of the Minister, related to the taping of telephone conversations at Garda stations. I was greatly alarmed. If the Commissioner had reported to the Minister in these terms 15 days ago, why was he now retiring? Why had Alan Shatter not informed Cabinet of the existence and contents of this letter today?

Did the Taoiseach know anything about the letter? These questions added to my anger with the Taoiseach for failing to keep me informed about the tapes issue and the Commissioner's decision to retire.

If it turned out that I and the Labour Party had been blindsided by Fine Gael on all of this it would certainly mean the end of the Government.

I requested to speak with the Taoiseach, Minister Shatter and the Attorney General, separately.

The Taoiseach was having an unusually long day in the Dáil chamber.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General called to my office on her return from Galway, and I was reassured by the fact that her account of the events of the previous few days tallied in every respect with that of the Taoiseach.

Standing at the fireplace in my office, Alan Shatter told me that he had not seen the letter until it was delivered to him at the very end of that day's Cabinet meeting, and that he had not read it until after the meeting.

I did, in fact, recall a large envelope being delivered to Minister Shatter just before the end of the Cabinet meeting, but as I left Leinster House that evening I was still uncertain.

I had yet to speak to the Taoiseach and, as I travelled home, I began to assemble the kind of statement I might make the following morning if the Taoiseach was unable to assure me that nothing untoward had been attempted.

I was sitting at the kitchen table when the Taoiseach called me on my mobile phone.

He told me that he had not seen the letter either and concurred that it was strange and unacceptable that a letter of such importance had not been passed on to the Minister.

I told him that I was taking the most serious view about how the details had unfolded, and he assured me that he was fully aware of the seriousness of the situation for the coalition.

In all my dealings with him, he had never been untruthful with me, so I accepted at face value what he was saying. A few weeks later, I was sitting in the church at Arbour Hill, awaiting the start of the annual 1916 commemoration service. Outside the church, I met Alan Shatter and we were joined a few moments later by the Taoiseach himself. There was no hint of anything off course.

When the ceremony was over, I returned to Leinster House for an appointment, and then travelled to Castleknock for a campaign event for the Dublin West by-election.

Just before the event started, I noticed a text message from the Taoiseach: 'Eamon, can you take a call?'

I assumed it was about a difference of opinion on an unrelated matter which had arisen that morning between our respective Chiefs of Staff, the two Marks, and decided to leave it for the moment.

At the campaign event, I was asked by the press if the Guerin Report on Alan Shatter's handling of the allegations made by Sergeant Maurice McCabe had been delivered yet. I said it had not. In fact, it had.

On my return to Leinster House, I went immediately to the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, only to be called out of it to take an urgent call from the Taoiseach. He informed me that he had received the Guerin Report that morning, that he had given it to Alan Shatter, and that Minister Shatter had since decided to resign.

Though, in fairness to the Taoiseach, he had tried to contact me, it appeared that I was being kept in the dark once again - and this did not help my cause within the Party.

'Inside The Room - The Untold Story of Ireland's Crisis Government' by Eamon Gilmore is published by Merrion Press at a RRP of €18.99

... on learning to drink vodka shots

Learning to handle drinking vodka on a visit to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - a legend among foreign ministers.

"We had a bilateral meeting lasting several hours - and continuing over lunch. Lavrov proposed the first toast: 'To Ireland'. After that we toasted Russia, the friendship between our countries, the United Nations, peace, poetry, love...there were several toasts to Aidan McGeady, the Irish footballer who was then playing with Lavrov's team, Spartak Moscow, and of whom Sergei was a fan.

Fortunately, the Secretary General of the Department, David Cooney, had given me good advice on how to cope with this Russian ritual of mid-day toasting with vodka: "Throw the first one back," he said. "Don't sip. Empty the glass. Then refill your glass with water and repeat. After each toast, throw it back and refill again with water. That way the waiter can put no more vodka in your glass," he added.

It was good advice. By the time the lunch ended, Aidan McGeady's feats were improving with every toast, but I was still stone-cold sober."

The visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland was a highlight for Gilmore who, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, welcomed her to Ireland when she landed at Baldonnell in an RAF plane.

"My image was of the stiff, formal, somewhat cold figure - largely in sync with the recent Helen Mirren portrayal. The first thing that struck me as she stepped out of the plane was that she had chosen to dress in a bright green suit. That wasn't expected! But the implied signal of respect was most welcome and would, it turned out, set the tone for the rest of the visit."

Sunday Independent

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