Editorial: Dark day for the gardai leaves many worrying questions
Yesterday was a dark and in many ways extraordinary day for the Garda Siochana and public life in general. The first meeting of the Cabinet since they scattered to the four winds for St Patrick's Day was supposed to open with Fine Gael minister Leo Varadkar lined up with some Labour ministers to demand that the Garda Commissioner withdraw his use of the word 'disgusting' with regard to the actions of the Garda whistleblowers.
Such things rarely go to plan and in this case the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, astonished the Cabinet with the revelation that for many years a large number of garda stations, believed to be several dozen, have been recording incoming and outgoing conversations on unspecified phones. The Taoiseach told the Cabinet that there were what he called "grave implications" for past legal cases and some yet to come.
The morning's drama was heightened by the resignation of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.
Meanwhile, the precise implications of widespread but seemingly random recording of calls to and from garda stations remains to be seen. But it certainly begs the question of who was recording what and, more seriously, why? According to experts the "secret nature" of these recordings makes it very likely that there are past cases where the prosecution and defence were unaware that such recording existed.
Another serious issue is the possible recording of telephone conversations between solicitors and clients and what implications that might have for past or future convictions.
There is much we do not know. The recording of conversations in and out of certain garda stations seems to be a practice going back to the 1980s when the State itself was under threat and it was used to record those ringing with warnings.
It's worth remembering that gardai faced particular and very serious threats in protecting this State and its citizens not too long ago. They still face dangers the rest of us, thankfully, do not have to deal with in our work lives.
But why a practice which may have been instituted in the face of one particular threat was retained long after the threat faded is a question that now needs to be answered. The practice was referred to in a report by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman's Commission (GSOC) in June 2013 in relation to a 2011 court case involving members of the force based at Waterford garda station. "The practice of gardai in Waterford of recording all incoming and outgoing calls on a particular phone was in breach of relevant statute on recording of telephone communications," says the GSOC report. What happened between June 2013 and yesterday it is difficult to say.
We do know that in November 2013 the Attorney General Marie Whelan was informed of this practice.
We know two weeks ago, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice was informed of the implications of the practice, but the minister, Alan Shatter, has said he was not informed of it until yesterday morning.
It now seems that last Sunday the Attorney General felt it was a matter of such importance that she decided to inform the Taoiseach directly.
These are all, no doubt, matters which will be of importance to the Commission of Inquiry which has been established to investigate this latest calamity to befall the gardai.
This commission now joins the Cooke Commission which is investigating the possible bugging of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman's Commissioner (GSOC) offices in Dublin and the Guerin Inquiry which is evaluating the handling of the whistleblowers' allegations, and which some believe could lead to a further inquiry.
Justice Minister Mr Shatter is due to appear in the Dail to answer questions today. While there are a lot of issues surrounding recording of phone calls, data protection and the ability of the gardai to maintain the confidentiality of information in its possession, the real issue here is whether criminal proceedings have been compromised as a result of these practices.