Callinan 'couldn't understand' why Taoiseach aide called to his house
Brian Purcell described his late-night dispatch to the Garda Commissioner as the worst in his career, writes Maeve Sheehan
Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30
When he worked in social welfare, Brian Purcell was abducted and shot in the legs by the gangster Martin Cahill because the civil servant stopped his dole. It says a lot when a man who endured that ordeal describes the day of his cloak-and-dagger dispatch to the Garda Commissioner's home as one of the worst in his career.
It was Monday March 24, 2014. The Secretary General at the Department of Justice was on his first day back at work having taken leave following the death of his mother.
A string of Garda controversies had plagued his department for months, from the penalty points scandal to the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan's branding of the whistle-blowers who exposed it as "disgusting".
That morning, Purcell was plunged headlong into another Garda controversy that was about to blow: the covert Garda phone recordings. Purcell had had a long day and it was about to get longer.
It was late. He was waiting to be summoned to a meeting with the Taoiseach. The then Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, had been over at Government Buildings since 6.20pm.
He had been in the middle of briefing the Minister on an overlooked Garda system that recorded phone lines in various stations around the country, a practice that had been going for years, when the minister was called away.
To compound matters, Purcell realised only at the briefing that the Minister had never actually been informed about this very serious issue.
It dawned on him that Alan Shatter was discovering the news for the first time, on the eve of a Cabinet meeting where it was likely to be raised by a worried Attorney-General whose officials had earlier that day been assured by Purcell, that yes, the Minister for Justice had been fully briefed.
To make matters worse, Purcell had not passed on to the Minister a formal letter from the Commissioner on March 10, outlining that he had stopped the phone recordings, and other actions he had taken to deal with the issue. Callinan had asked that it be shown to the Minister. Instead after a "quick look" he passed it to an assistant secretary who handled Garda issues, Michael Flahive.
It was among the most significant of the many "serious information deficits" and "multiple communication failures" identified in the Fennelly report.
Purcell had still not got to tell Alan Shatter about the Garda Commissioner's March 10 letter when the Taoiseach called him away to a meeting at 6.20pm.
The Taoiseach wanted to discuss a Commission of Investigation into the recordings ahead of the Cabinet briefing and also felt duty bound to inform the Garda Commissioner of his concerns in advance of what was likely to be a "charged" Cabinet meeting.
He had been briefed the night before by Maire Whelan who presented an alarming vista. Although aware of it since November, she now believed there was "wholesale extensive recording" of telephone calls in Garda stations in what amounted to a wholesale violation of the law, the Fennelly report said.
Whelan later clarified that she had referred to "potential illegality" at the briefing. But the picture she presented was enough to "shock" the Taoiseach while Martin Fraser had images of "verdicts being overturned or criminals to be released or jails to be emptied". Her assessment "contributed decisively" to how the Garda recordings were viewed.
At 9pm, Purcell was summoned. He was "shocked" and "extremely uncomfortable" with the proposition that he call on the Commissioner. It was "unprecedented".
He spoke "very forceful", according to Fraser. He said the Garda recording had been going on for 30 years and Callinan had stopped it. Any commissioner could have found themselves in his position.
The Taoiseach's instruction prevailed. But what exactly he wanted Purcell to convey to the Garda Commissioner went to the heart of the Fennelly Commission's inquiries.
There was no record or note and the five people at the meeting "differed sharply" in their recollection, the Fennelly report found, significantly on the "absolutely central question as to the content of the message that Brian Purcell was asked to convey to the Garda Commissioner".
The Taoiseach told the Fennelly Commission that Purcell's brief was to "apprise the Commissioner of the concerns of the Taoiseach and to ascertain his views."
Purcell said there was no mention of seeking the Commissioner's view. He said he was asked to convey the gravity with which the Taoiseach viewed the matter of the Garda telephone recording systems and to ask him to consider the situation.
"Would I have been shocked or would I have said it was wrong if I had been asked to get the views of the Commissioner?" he asked in evidence.
Shatter, who "urged pause for thought", told the Fennelly Commission the notion that Purcell had been "asked to go seek information was fantasy." In his opinion, the Taoiseach was firmly of the view that the Commissioner should resign or retire.
Martin Fraser, who was questioned repeatedly by the Commission, went no further than to say that the Garda Commissioner's views were "implicitly being sought".
Maire Whelan said the Taoiseach never voiced his concerns about expressing his continued confidence in the Commissioner. Purcell was "mistaken" and had "misunderstood the remit", she said.
Purcell said he had not. He left after 10pm. Shatter offered to accompany him. Purcell replied: "I think this is something that is better if I do it myself." He left Government Buildings, went to his car and phoned the Commissioner at 10.15pm.
Twenty-five minutes later, close to 11pm, he was sitting in the Garda Commissioner's house for an uncomfortable meeting that lasted until after midnight, following a pattern of discussion punctuated by "long silences" that to Purcell "seemed like an eternity".
Purcell said he told the Commissioner that the Taoiseach's grave concern was that he might not be able to express confidence in the Commissioner. Callinan asked if he was perceived to have done something wrong. Purcell assured him this was not the case.
Did the Taoiseach think he'd had something to do with setting up the recording systems? Purcell shook his head.
Callinan "couldn't understand" it. As he saw it, he had fulfilled his duties regarding the Garda tapes. He was unaware that no one at the meeting except Purcell knew that he had written to the Minister formally about it.
Did the Government not have confidence in him as Commissioner, he asked. Purcell told him it was to be discussed at an early morning meeting in advance of cabinet. Callinan told Purcell he would retire.
It "was a terrible moment, a terrible thing for [him] to have to deal with," said Purcell.
He asked for three months. Purcell made a call: the Taoiseach wanted to think on that overnight.
When Purcell got into his car, he saw a text from Alan Shatter, sent at 12.05am: "This is horrendous. Phone me when you can at any time. A."
Purcell phoned the Minister from his car. Shatter said something like "this is awful". Purcell wasn't in the mood for a lengthy conversation. He told him about the Commissioner's retirement.
The Taoiseach "didn't sleep a wink" that night. The next morning he texted Martin Fraser: "Have considered this all night. Once decision on early ret is made it simply has to be immediate. Otherwise Cabinet accepts reason for stepping down but allows it to continue. This would simply not be feasible in any circumstance. Hs [sic] therefore to be with immediate effect."
Purcell phoned Callinan. He was disappointed, spoke fleetingly of legal action, but agreed to go. That afternoon, he filled eight to 10 refuse bags with his personal files and left them to be shredded. He turned in his Garda issue phone, the SIM card removed, and with it, its history of text messages.
He turned off the lights and shut the door on his 41 years in Garda Siochana while across the city in Leinster House the body politic was all over the latest Garda controversy that cost him his job. But the strange circumstances of Callinan's departure proved the bigger one.
Purcell's late-night visit was the catalyst for the Garda Commissioner's retirement, the Fennelly report found. But it concluded the Taoiseach didn't intend to put him under pressure and Callinan chose to retire.
It didn't accept all of the Taoiseach's testimony, however. If Purcell had been instructed to obtain a reponse or view from the Commissioner, it is "most surprising that none of these five carefully prepared written statements" of those present, says so.
"It would be extraordinary if an essential component of Mr Purcell's instructions was omitted by all five such able and experienced politicians and civil servants. This cannot have been accidental."