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Monday 19 February 2018

Noonan: Widespread taping of phone calls in garda stations may taint criminal cases

Finance Minister Michael Noonan
Finance Minister Michael Noonan

Niall O'Connor, Political Correspondent

MICHAEL Noonan has said the government fears that both civil and criminal cases may now be "tainted" as a result of the widespread taping of phone calls in garda stations.

The Finance Minister this evening said a large number of tapes are in existence which may contain conversations obtained illegally.

In an extraordinary twist to today's developments, Mr Noonan said he believed Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was aware of the phone taping last summer.

However, it's believed that he did not tell Justice Minister Alan Shatter until recently despite putting an end to the practice in July.

Noonan told RTE's Prime Time this evening that the recordings stopped last November.

“The other issue then is the more important issue, that’s the content of the tapes. The issue back in November was the fact that there was recording taking place and it was at a lower level of importance because it had been going on for years and it had been discontinued," he said.

“The issue of the letter of the 10th of March (is that) in a specific piece of litigation the contents of the tapes became relevant and that moved the issue up hundreds of percent. It’s the content of a particular tape in a particular piece of litigation that has raised this to the importance that the Taoiseach had to get involved immediately and set a commission of investigation in place.

“The issue rose to a very serious magnitude when one piece of (litigation) threw up a situation where the contents of one tape was enormously relevant and we don’t know what’s in the other tapes and there are 2,500 of them.”

He said Justice Minister Alan Shatter was away for St Patrick’s Day and was in his office only about four days after that.

“He came back into his department this Monday and he was briefed on it,” Minister Noonan said.

“They (the officials) weren’t under time pressure. On the nature of the litigation, the material on a particular tape didn’t have to be divulged for some time yet,” he added.

He assumed the senior officials in the Department of Justice, on receiving the Garda Commissioner’s letter of March 10, said they would evaluate it as best they could and then fully appraise Minister Shatter, Mr Noonan added.

“The minister was out of the office. Maybe the officials had their reasons for doing it on a face-to-face basis when he returned. In the nature of the litigation, the piece of evidence on the tape, which in my view was very, very serious, would not have become public for another 10 days or two weeks so the senior officials would have known that they weren’t under time pressure,” Mr Noonan said.

“I’m not suggesting this is satisfactory. What I’m trying to do is make sense of a series of events,” he added.

“We’re not happy. The Taoiseach isn’t happy. That’s why there’s a commission of investigation to find out all the facts,” Mr Noonan said.

“I think the minister (Shatter) is a very good minister. I think this minister is extremely competent and there is no suggestion he did anything improper so he shouldn’t resign,” Mr Noonan said.

The coalition is now in a deep crisis as details emerge of the widespread tapping of phone calls both to and from garda stations across the country.

It's now feared that such a practice could jeopardise court cases - both past and present, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

And Speaking on RTE's Six One news, Mr Noonan said that the tapes could impact on both civil and criminal cases.

"We must proceed now in a calm and reasoned way to get the full facts, to make sure that no litigation civil, or criminal is tainted as a result," he said.

Asked whether the government fears cases could be tainted, he replied:

"It's a fear obviously."

Mr Noonan pointed to an unnamed court case last year, during which the presiding judge deemed one such alleged tape "inadmissible".

"It (the recording of phone calls) ended last November arising out of another court case, the existence of one such tape came to the attention and the judge in the case decided it was inadmissible in evidence, Probably on the grounds it was obtained illegally. So that was a signal and the practice was stopped,"he said.

Mr Noonan said gardai are being requested to provide the necessary information as the terms of reference of an independent commission of inquiry is set up.

The incredible turn of events came as Taoiseach Enda Kenny issued a staunch defence of his Justice Minister amid growing calls for him to follow Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and resign from his post.

However, Labour rowed in behind Mr Shatter also, describing him as a "reforming minister".

Mr Kenny he was informed of the new revelations at 6.00pm on Sunday by Attorney General Maire Whelan.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said Mr Shatter's position is "untenable" as a result of his decision to "undermine" the characters of garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson.

Mr Kenny responded by describing his Fine Gael colleague as "probably the most reforming Minister for Justice in the past 50 years". He added that he has spoken to Mr Shatter about his remarks and that the minister will deal with this issue on Thursday.

It's expected that he will withdraw the comments, made on the Dail record, and issue an apology to Sgt McCabe and former Garda John Wilson.

Ministers were briefed about the revelations of taped phone calls at the Cabinet meeting, where Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan's resignation was also discussed.

A Coalition source said the new developments are extremely serious and more significant even than the whistleblower controversies.

Now the Government has confirmed an inquiry into "a new and very serious issue relating to An Garda Síochána". 

"The implications of this matter are potentially of such gravity that the Government has decided to set up a statutory Commission of Investigation into this matter of significant public concern," a spokesman said.

"It will be chaired by a senior serving or retired member of the Judiciary.

"In the context of ongoing legal proceedings in a particular case, the Government has learned that a system was in place in a large number of Garda stations whereby incoming and outgoing telephone calls were taped and recorded.  The Government was informed of this new information at its meeting today.

"As the matter is before the Courts, it is not appropriate to make any further comment on the specific case.

The statement added that the practice of making records was "in place for many years and was discontinued in November of 2013.

"It is not yet clear why this practice was in operation.The Government is extremely concerned about this information," according to a statement.

"The Government has asked for a full, detailed report on all aspects of this matter from An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality, so that an informed decision can be made on the legal and other consequences, with the assistance of the Attorney General.

"The terms of reference for the Commission of Investigation will be decided shortly, once a full report on the circumstances has been made available to the Government.

The news of the fresh revelations came just hours after the shock resignation of the Garda Commissioner.

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