Wednesday 17 January 2018

Kenny's legacy relies on Shatter's loyalty

What happened on the night before the Garda Commissioner retired

Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Garda commissioner Martin Callinan who dramatically resigned. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

On March 25 last year, four of the then most influential men in Irish politics gathered in a room in Government Buildings to discuss a gravely urgent matter of national importance.

It was a Monday evening so it would have struck the then Justice Minister Alan Shatter as slightly strange that he was being summoned to Taoiseach Enda Kenny's office.

But then the previous months had been far from normal for Shatter, who was embroiled in numerous scandals over his handling of the justice portfolio.

When he arrived to the meeting, he was greeted by the Taoiseach and his secretary general Martin Fraser.

The previous evening they had both met Attorney General Maire Whelan, who outlined deep concerns about automated recordings of telephone conversations in garda stations - a discovery made in a case taken against the State by former journalist Ian Bailey.

Shatter should have been aware of the problem as former garda commissioner Martin Callinan sent a detailed letter outlining the issues about the recordings to his department some weeks earlier.

But a breakdown in communications meant Shatter only learned of the recordings hours before the meeting.

Callinan's letter was sent to Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell who was called to the Taoiseach's office that night.

Little is known about the exact details of what was discussed but there were fears the recordings had the potential to collapse court cases and result in convictions of serious criminals being overturned. What we also know is Purcell was sent to Callinan's family home that evening to convey a message from the Taoiseach.

Asked in the Dail what he told Purcell to say, Kenny said: "I asked the Secretary of the Department of Justice and Equality to convey to the then commissioner my deep concern about these matters and the fact that I would be reporting them to the Cabinet and the Dail."

The next day, at around 9.30am, Callinan retired as Garda Commissioner much to the surprise of the onlooking public who had grown increasingly confused by the number of scandals that rocked the force.

At the same time, news began to circulate that the Government was preparing to establish a Commission of Inquiry, but into what was unclear.

At the time, there were plenty of issues which required such an investigation - quashed penalty points, garda malpractice or the alleged bugging of the Garda Ombudsman.

However, later that day, the unsuspecting public were lumped with another controversy to get their heads around.

The Opposition demanded answers from the Taoiseach over his role in Callinan's retirement because if Kenny forced him from office without first seeking Cabinet approval, he faced accusations of breaking constitutional law.

Little by way of explanation was forthcoming, although the soundings from those who knew Callinan best was that he was left with no option but to fall on his sword.

For months, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein TDs have accused the Taoiseach of sacking Mr Callinan.

During the Labour leadership contest, Communications Minister Alex White also said he believed Kenny unconstitutionally forced a garda commissioner from office.

Minister White's tune somewhat changed once he was given a Cabinet position after his failed attempt to lead the Labour Party.

The Government promised all would be revealed following the publication of Justice Nial Fennelly's investigation into not only the automated garda recordings but also the events which led to Mr Callinan's retirement.

Justice Fennelly was supposed to publish his findings on Callinan's retirement before last Christmas but the judge asked for an extension and his report will be published next month.

By now, the main protagonists will have given their versions of events on that fateful night to the judge.

It is safe to assume the Taoiseach stuck to his story and Callinan is unlikely to have been kind to Kenny when he spoke with Fennelly.

What Shatter, Purcell and Fraser told the judge remains to be seen.

Shatter and Purcell were both ousted from high office during the course of a turbulent year for the Government.

Shatter was forced to step down in the wake of the findings of barrister Sean Guerin's investigation into the handling of garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe's allegations of misconduct in the force. Shatter is challenging some of these findings in the High Court.

Purcell was removed from his position after a damning review of the Department of Justice. He has since been reappointed to another less prestigious post within the civil service.

Shatter has remained as outspoken as ever since his fall from grace but has refused outright to discuss Callinan's retirement.

Purcell has also kept quiet about the issue which many see as the single biggest threat to Kenny's leadership.

For months, Shatter has been desperately trying to have his name removed from the terms of reference for the investigation into the Guerin Report's findings.

Two weeks ago, Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett controversially ushered the terms through the Dail without debate. The Taoiseach, however, has refused to give in to Shatter's demands.

Purcell knows exactly what he was told to say to the former commissioner.

And Kenny's career rests on whether the former Secretary General's testimony backs up his claim that he was merely relaying concerns to Callinan ahead of a Cabinet meeting.

If Purcell's evidence leans more towards the view from the Callinan camp, then the Taoiseach's position could become tenuous and he may find himself joining the long list of people forced from office over the garda scandals.

Sunday Independent

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