Government gains time as Fennelly Inquiry terms are unveiled
TIMING is everything in politics – but time gained is also a very precious commodity.
Yesterday, this Government took a step towards buying themselves peace on the garda and security front – perhaps even until the end of this year, as ground rules for the Fennelly Inquiry were unveiled with a report deadline of December 31 next.
In the Garda wars since January, Enda Kenny and Co often reacted too slowly and sparingly, sending themselves down and down in the opinion polls. But yesterday, unveiling the terms of reference for the inquiry into these 30 years of garda-station tape recordings, it was hard to fault the wide remit given Mr Justice Nial Fennelly of the Supreme Court.
And for good measure, the Government confirmed that Taoiseach Enda Kenny will chair a Cabinet committee on the creation of a new Garda authority. Community members naturally include Justice Minister Alan Shatter to be joined by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte of Labour.
It emphasises a Labour win on an issue they could not get included in the March 2011 joint Programme for Government. But a blueprint for fundamental changes in the way An Garda Siochana is run could be offset against some potentially hard-hitting findings by Judge Fennelly late this year.
The actual terms of reference were much as indicated by well-placed sources in recent days. A political hurricane was avoided by specific reference to the events which led to the Garda Commissioner standing down on March 25 last and the Commissioner's letter to the Justice Department a fortnight earlier.
The inquiry's main focus must be a stock-take of these garda phone conversation tapes dating from 1980 to November 27, 2013. Mr Justice Fennelly must establish how many recordings there are and what the implications are for past court cases and those still pending. It is a mammoth task – but the Government insists the necessary resources will be provided to see it through.
The inquiry will also touch on the prison phone tapings involving remand prisoners and their legal representatives.
Judge Fennelly will also look at the level of knowledge of the recordings within the gardai, the Attorney General's office, the DPP, the Justice Department, the Justice Minister's office, the Data Protection Commissioner's office, and the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).
The problem may not be entirely kicked to touch as we await publication of two other garda-related inquiries due later this month. Former High Court Judge John Cooke is to report on alleged surveillance at GSOC; and senior counsel Sean Guerin is examining penalty points and more serious alleged wrongdoing.
Problems with their findings might possibly be put on hold by referring back to the Fennelly Inquiry. And one way or another embarrassing findings will have to be faced this side of a general election.
But all signs are now that hopes linger at Government Buildings that they have, at very least, bought time.