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Sunday 17 December 2017

Phone-tapping hits all private citizens

A private conversation with a loved one, friend, or confidant is supposed to be kept that way - which is why this is so shocking, writes Niall O’Connor

Niall O’Connor

WE all say things that we wouldn’t want broadcast. Rows with our better halves, awkward moments with family and politically incorrect jokes with colleagues. There are very few places anymore where people feel secure to speak their minds.

But a private conversation with a loved-one or a friend is supposed to be exactly that.

That’s why the revelations today about the widespread phone tapping by gardaí should strike a chord with every law abiding citizen.

A three-month investigation by this newspaper has for the first time unearthed the dysfunctionality that has underpinned the force’s phone tapping unit.

Yes, gardaí bugged the phones of serious criminals – and they should, and will, continue to do so. The organised criminals whose phones were tapped are among the most violent and dangerous individuals in the history of the State. They are evil people who have destroyed and ended lives.

Politicians too are understood to have had their phone conversations listened to –some are household names who played a major role in the Peace Process in the North.

Senior gardaí intercepted these calls by chance, according to various well-placed sources who spoke to this newspaper in recent weeks.

The taps were placed on phones of leading Republican and Unionist figures who oversaw the balancing act that transformed the North from a war-zone, into a land of peace. Once again, it was completely appropriate and correct for gardaí to carry out covert surveillance given the sensitivities surrounding the Peace Process.

Read More: State spending watchdog was kept in dark about Templemore for a decade

Conversations intercepted included those about the decommissioning of firearms and efforts to bring out reconciliation in a land so long hurt by division.

But in the course of our investigation, it became apparent that it wasn’t just politicians and criminals that were brought into the net of covert surveillance.

It might have been you, your spouse, your brother, or your neighbour. That’s why this isn’t just any garda controversy. It goes to the heart of our civil liberties, of the values any democratic society should hold  dear.

Whistleblower

The detective who settled on the steps of the High Court in recent weeks should not be handed the mere label of a whistleblower.

He is a decorated officer who received the force’s highest award for valour and who did all he could to change things form within - but was, according to court documents, ostracised and ignored.

While his case dates back to a time well before Nóirín O’Sullivan was Garda Commissioner, the story is one we have heard so many times since. A member of the force tried to highlight what he saw as a grave injustice. Instead, he was silenced and pushed aside.

It was in the period subsequent to 2002 when Garda intelligence first took delivery of technology capable of monitoring mobile phone conversations. As time went by, the documentation required to support such applications diminished, it was claimed.

In some cases, taps were applied to the phones of people who never once had a brush with the law because the applications to do so were insufficiently detailed.

Some of the interceptions of was just shoddy practice, it’s been claimed.

An officer gave a wrong number, or mistakenly thought a target was involved in criminality. Perhaps other cases were more sinister. That now needs to be established as a matter of urgency.

In a country that thrives on inquiries, this is an issue that be ignored by our politicians.

In recent weeks, it was revealed that two of my colleagues – Conor Feehan of the Herald and Nicola Tallant of the Sunday World - had their phone conversations monitored by the garda oversight body.

The revelations will  have struck a chord with two other respected journalists, Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold, who in the early eighties  had private conversations with sources pried upon by the State.

Journalists work on the basis that their phones are monitored; it’s best practice.

The idea, however, that innocent victims have suffered such a horrific invasion to their livelihoods simply cannot be ignored and is indeed a major scandal.

Online Editors

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