THIRTY years ago Irish politics were rocked by a series of political scandals, beginning with the arrest of the election agent of the Fianna Fáil leader Charlie Haughey on a charge of double voting in the general election of February 1982. This was followed a few months later by the disclosure that telephones in Haughey's office, while he was serving as Taoiseach, had been capable of listening in, undetected, on any telelphone conversations in Leinster House and Government Buildings.
Shortly afterwards the Attorney General had to resign following the arrest in his apartment of a man wanted for two murders. Haughey variously described that case as grotesques, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. As a result, it and the other scandals that followed were each characterised as a gubu.
The gubu in September involved Justice Minister Seán Doherty, whose brother-in-law was acquitted of assault after his accuser failed to turn up in court. The court was not informed that the missing man, who lived in Northern Ireland, had been arrested on his way to the court and was held without charge throughout the day by the police in Northern Ireland.
Against this backdrop there were wild rumours doing the rounds in Kerry of another scandal involving the Minister for Justice. Five days earlier, on September 22, 1982, the Minister's escort car was involved in an unexplained crash just outside Ballyduff.
Rumours began to develop a momentum of their own. There were suggestions that the Minister was driving and that the singer Geraldine Brannigan was a passenger at the time.
There was no truth to either rumour. She was not even in the country at the time, and Seán Doherty was not in the car.
Minister of State Tom McEllistrim, jr., inflamed the rumours, however, by telling reporters a blatant lie. He said he saw the Justice Minister to his room at the Mount Brandon Hotel, Tralee, around 2 a.m. If there was nothing to hide, people asked, why was McEllistrim lying about the time of their return?
Many people had seen the ministerial party entering the hotel around 4.30 a.m. The lobby of the hotel was quite busy at the time, because it was race week in Listowel.
Seán Doherty and Tom McEllistrim - who were members of "the gang of five" that had orchestrated the replacement of Jack Lynch with Haughey as Taoiseach in 1979 - attended the races in Listowel together the previous afternoon. They then stopped at Ballybunion, before going to the Tankard at Kilfinora, where they remained until 4am.
Some months later McEllistrim acknowledged in a radio interview with Pat Kenny that he had not been honest about the time they left the Tankard. "You mustn't say to the press that you were inside a pub until four o'clock in the morning," he explained with a laugh.
The Garda Press Office aggravated suspicions by denying that there had been a crash, even though the green Ford Granada had remained at the scene for more than five hours. The press managed to locate and photograph the car being repaired at Crofton Motors in Dublin.
Over four weeks after the accident the Garda Press Office finally admitted that there had been an accident. "It is time that the office of the Minister for Justice, or the Garda Commissioner, spoke on the matter of the crash of a State car at Ballyduff," The Kerryman declared in an editorial. "We know that the car was involved in an accident."
Dragging the truth out of the politicians and the Garda Press Office seemed as painful as having a baby! It was nine months before the truth came out in court.
On the evening before the accident District Justice Oliver McGuinness had joined the ministerial party and Ballybunion, where he parked his car. The Minister asked a local detective to collect the judge's car, and the Garda station in Tralee was asked to provide a squad car to drive him to Ballybunion.
When Garda Michael O'Donovan arrived to collect the detective, he was asked by one of the minister's escort drivers, Garda Donal Dunne, to bring two women to Ballybunion, where they were staying. But he refused because he was not authorised to carry civilian passengers in the squad car.
Garda O'Donovan, who was returning to Tralee after dropping off the detective, was the first on the scene of the accident. He then carried the driver of the crashed car back to Tralee.
On the way, he reportedly arrested Garda Dunne on suspicion of driving with excess alcohol. When they arrived at the Garda station in Tralee, he said Dunne bolted and ran down to the Mount Brandon Hotel, where he entered the Minister's room.
In June 1983 Garda Dunne was tried in Tralee on charges of escaping from lawful custody and failing to comply with the drink-driving legislation, but he would found not guilty by the jury after he claimed that he had not actually been arrested. This ended up as one garda's version against another's.
The whole thing should really have had no political connotation, but the late Tom McEllistrim, Jnr., made it political by the way in which he needlessly and disingenuously involved himself. This was then compounded by the initial behaviour of the Garda Press Office.
Some of Haughey's government exhibited contempt for the law that really got up the nose of gardai, because they were giving such poor example. They seemed to think that some laws should only apply to others. They used to joke about the night the garda raided a Dublin pub and the Minister on the premises asked him if he would have "a pint, or a transfer."
After his appointment as a Minister of State, McEllistrim was celebrating with friends in The Pig and Whistle on Rock Street, Tralee. The Ministerial car was parked beside the bar in an obvious way to suggest who was inside after hours. It amounted to an open challenge to the gardai.
Garda Michael O'Donovan told the owner to clear the bar immediately. McEllistrim remonstrated with them. The two gardaí had a job to do and they were supposed to do it without fear or favour. But they did feel they were in danger of being transferred to the back of beyond.
Shortly afterwards their sergeant, Jerry Cronin, made the national news when he was photographed in the background writing out a ticket for the ministerial car parked on double yellow lines, while the minister was officially opening a new building on Russell Street.
Ministers were not above the law, nor the gardaí who were driving them at the time. Michael O'Donovan did end his days in the force some 30 years later in Cahersiveen as a Garda Superintendent.