Monday 19 November 2018

Yes Fergus, you did describe actions of Albert as 'irredeemably corrupt'

Fergus Finlay has denied he ever made such a damning assessment of the former Taoiseach. Jody Corcoran sets the record straight

Albert Reynolds and his wife Kathleen
Albert Reynolds and his wife Kathleen
Fergus Finlay
Ragouts from the Sunday Times. Picture By David Conachy. 02/9/2014
Sunday Times page on Albert
Quote in Sunday Times
Eoghan Fitzsimons
Harry Whelehan
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

"I never believed he was 'irredeemably corrupt'. If somebody were irredeemably corrupt it would mean they were guilty of criminal acts and I never believed that of Albert Reynolds"

Fergus Finlay (Sept 1st, 2014).

Albert Reynolds finally settled his libel action against the Sunday Times less than four weeks before a retrial was due to start in the High Court in London on 2 October, 2000.

The newspaper had accused him of lying to the Dail and his Government colleagues in 1994.

When the settlement was announced, the Sunday Times accepted Reynolds' assurances that he had not lied and Reynolds said be believed the newspaper had not acted maliciously.

The high-profile case spanned more than five years, involved three major court hearings and cost more than St£1.5m.

It also changed the law of defamation in Britain.

The first trial in the High Court in London in 1996 saw Reynolds win, but he received just one penny in damages after a six-week hearing.

Later the Court of Appeal decided that he should get a new trial and set aside the penny damages. The Sunday Times then argued a substantial point of law in the House of Lords.

The retrial was due to hear evidence from Brian Cowen, the then Foreign Affairs Minister, Noel Dempsey, the then Environment Minister and Michael Woods, the then Education Minister.

The Sunday Independent can also reveal that Kathleen Reynolds, now widow of the former Taoiseach and their daughter, Andrea, were also due to give evidence.

Mrs Reynolds would have said: "The strain of this litigation has now continued for more than five years. Much of that time has been taken up with litigation by the Sunday Times to various courts to say that they were entitled to attack my husband in the way in which they did simply because he is a politician, and the attack concerned the fall of the Government.

"My husband has found the delay stressful and frustrating. Equally frustrating is the continued determination of the Sunday Times not to apologise for what they published, although they accepted long ago that the factual basis of their article was wrong. They defend a quite different case. My husband finds this extraordinary, and worries and talks about it constantly."

Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach in February 1992, heading a Coalition of Fianna Fail and Labour under the leadership of Dick Spring.

The Coalition was beset by several tensions and difficulties.

The final difference, which developed into the political crisis at the centre of Reynolds libel case, was over the Attorney-General and the inaction of his office in the matter of an extradition warrant.

Harry Whelehan had been appointed A-G in September 1991.

Since about October 1993, Reynolds and Spring had been discussing forthcoming vacancies in the senior judiciary, including an expected vacancy in the office of the President of the High Court.

Reynolds favoured the appointment of Whelehan; Spring was initially against but then took the position that he would not oppose it if there was a comprehensive review of the system of judicial appointments and a new Court of Appeal.

In intended evidence to the libel case retrial, Brian Cowen would have said: "Mr Spring did not articulate his reasons for not favouring Mr Whelehan."

The fragile understanding over the appointment of Whelehan was then shaken and destroyed by what became known as the Smyth affair.

Fr Brendan Smyth was a Catholic priest wanted by the RUC on charges of sexual abuse of children in Northern Ireland.

An extradition warrant prepared by the RUC had been in the A-G's office for seven months without any substantive action being taken on it.

The matter was exposed in October 1994 and received wide publicity and caused wide public concern.

It also raised an issue as to the suitability of Whelehan for appointment as the country's second most senior judge.

The appointment was to have been discussed at a meeting of the Cabinet on Thursday, November 10, 1994, but a terrorist incident in Newry delayed the discussion until the following day.

Before that meeting, Reynolds had obtained from Whelehan a written memorandum, dated November 9, which sought to explain the handling by his office of the request for the extradition of Fr Smyth.

That memo stated that Whelehan himself had been unaware of the warrant, that the matter was not understood to have been urgent and that there were several legal issues to be considered.

At the Cabinet meeting on Friday, November 11 that year, Reynolds supported Whelehan's appointment but Spring and his Labour colleagues opposed it.

When Reynolds persisted, Spring and the other Labour ministers withdrew from the meeting.

In his intended evidence, Brian Cowen would have said: "My view of when the Labour Ministers walked out of Cabinet on November 11, 1994 was that they were completely absenting themselves from that decision. Mr Spring confirmed that that was the Labour position in a telephone call to Mr Reynolds later that evening, at 5.30pm."

Despite the withdrawal, Fianna Fail members of the Cabinet decided to proceed and that evening Whelehan was appointed President of the High Court and Eoghan Fitzsimons was appointed as the new A-G.

Two significant events occurred during the course of the weekend.

On the Sunday evening there was a meeting of the Labour parliamentary party at which Labour TDs decided to attack Fianna Fail over the Smyth affair and what they regarded as the lack of accountability of the A-G's office.

On the same day Reynolds, through Justice Minister, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, asked the new A-G to undertake a full and urgent investigation of the Smyth file.

The political crisis developed and reached its climax during the next three days and nights, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, November 14, 15 and 16, 1994.

Fitzsimons discovered on the Monday that there was an earlier case in which a relevant section of law had been considered. This was the Duggan case.

The Duggan case concerned a request for the extradition of John Duggan to England on charges of indecent assault of a man and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Duggan was described in the Dail as an ex-monk but this was incorrect.

Information related to the Duggan case was conveyed orally to Reynolds on the Monday but, he said, without any certainty as to its significance.

Fitzsimons indicated that a senior civil servant in his office was taking a different view from that which the new A-G was disposed to take.

Reynolds said that he did not want "on the one hand, on the other hand" advice and asked Fitzsimons to discuss the matter with Whelehan and produce definitive advice.

Fitzsimons was also told of potentially grave consequences for Whelehan and was asked to request Whelehan to postpone his swearing-in as President of the High Court.

Fitzsimons saw Whelehan that evening, but Whelehan declined to postpone his swearing-in.

On the Tuesday morning, Fitzsimons did further work on the Smyth and Duggan cases and prepared an answer to the key question: Was this the first time that the relevant section of law was applied?

Fitzsimons delivered his written advice and the draft answer to the Taoiseach's office but by then (about 2.25pm) Reynolds had left his office for the Dail chamber.

Fitzsimons' prepared view was: "It would be absolutely incorrect to inform the Dail and this was the fist time that the section was considered. It was considered - though not in a profound manner in the Duggan case."

On the Tuesday afternoon Reynolds, who had not himself received Fitzsimons written advice, made a statement in the Dail which was broadly supportive, although by no means uncritical, of Whelehan.

Reynolds said that he was giving a full account. He spoke of a failure in "the system" within the A-G's office. But he made no reference to the Duggan case.

Then on the Tuesday evening after the debate was over Reynolds read Fitzsimons' written advice. On reading it he was agitated and upset - in his own words, he "hit the roof".

He decided that he must make a further statement to the Dail. Fitzsimons was asked to visit Whelehan again and invite him to resign as President of the High Court. But Whelehan declined to do so.

Meanwhile, a motion of confidence had been put forward for debate on the following day and urgent negotiations were taking place between senior members of Fianna Fail and Labour in the hope of saving the Coalition.

The Dail was to have sat at 10.30am on the Wednesday morning to debate the motion of confidence.

A few minutes before then, Spring signed a note recording that on the basis of a prepared statement being incorporated into Reynolds' speech he would lead his ministerial colleagues back into Government.

The Dail sat briefly but adjourned until about noon...

In an extract from his memoirs, published in the Sunday Times on December 7, 1997, Fergus Finlay wrote: "Reynolds was now prepared to attack in the Dail the judge whose appointment he had rammed through the previous Friday, and defended the previous day. Spring showed me a piece of paper which contained some sentences that the Taoiseach proposed to use in his Dail speech - sentences that [Brendan] Howlin had negotiated through the night. It was the consensus of the senior Labour party people present that the Government should be preserved, because the peace process was still in its infancy.

"Spring told me that for these reasons he had signed an undertaking to lead the party back into Government. I knew from his face that he was unhappy and when he asked me how I felt about it, I thought I was going to be sick.

"'How can he do it,' I asked. 'Albert can't say these things about the President of the High Court.'

"'But he's going to,' Spring told me...

"I could hardly speak. I stammered out something about Reynolds demeaning his own office, and that of the presidency of the High Court. If he followed this approach, I did not see how he could be supported.

"All the time I could see that Spring was in agony over the decision. You don't work for someone for 15 years without knowing a little bit about what's going on inside. I think that Spring had decided that he had to do what was in everyone's interest except his own.

"Ten minutes later I was sitting on a park bench in St Stephen's Green. I'm not sure what was going through my mind. I knew that Spring's decision to lead his team back into Government was not one he had taken easily, or for the sake of hanging on to office. But I couldn't, for the first time in all the years I had worked with him, support his decision. The course that Reynolds was now willing to follow to stay in office would do untold damage to important institutions, and was, in my opinion irredeemably corrupt.

"I had a scrap of paper in my pocket and I scribbled an incoherent resignation on it. When I stood up I discovered my eyes were blurred with tears. I must have looked a sight - red-eyed, scribbling on bits of paper, unsure where to go next.

"There was nothing for it but to go and give Spring my scrap of paper. But when I got there he was briefing his colleagues on a startling new development…"

[When his memoirs were published Finlay removed his "irredeemably corrupt" view to state instead that the events reminded him of the book The Final Days about Richard Nixon.]

During the adjournment of the Dail on Wednesday morning, Spring had a meeting with Fitzsimons, as a result of which Spring decided that he would not continue in a Coalition headed by Reynolds. The meeting was described in a memo which Fitzsimons prepared soon after the events in question:

"He asked me about the Duggan case. I gave him details. He asked me when the file was found. I informed him that it was found on Monday. He then asked me when the Taoiseach was told but also said that I needn't tell him if I did not wish to do so. I informed him that he was the Tanaiste and that I would tell him. I then told him that the Taoiseach was informed of the Duggan case on Monday. I expressly recall Dick Spring's response to this information.

"He said: 'Oh Lord, Eoghan, we will both be back at the Law Library.'"

Spring declined the suggestion of a meeting at which the Smyth and Duggan cases would be further explained or discussed.

The Labour leadership wanted a head - Albert's head. The Coalition had effectively collapsed.

Reynolds resigned as Taoiseach on the morning of November 17, and as leader of Fianna Fail soon afterwards. The new President of the High Court also resigned.

On Sunday November 20, the Sunday Times published in the World News section of its British edition an article headlined 'Goodbye Gombeen Man' with a subsidiary headline 'Why a fib too far proved fatal for the political career of Ireland's peacemaker and Mr Fixit'.

Kathleen Reynolds would have told the libel case retrial that in November 1994 her husband went through an "extremely traumatic" time because of the political crisis.

"It had been an extremely stressful week for him, because it was not clear if his partners in Government, the Labour Party, would resume Government or not. I recollect he worked late on the Monday evening and did not come home to our Dublin apartment until about midnight. I spent a quiet evening at home with whatever children were living with us at the time. We had no visitors that evening.

"On the following day, Tuesday November 15, my husband did not come home until the early hours of Wednesday morning. He telephoned me at the apartment at about 10pm to tell me that he would be late home. He also mentioned to me that the reason he would have to stay late was…[he would have to] make a statement in the Dail the next day…I recollect that a friend called by that evening, Ms Angela Phelan, a social columnist with the Independent newspaper whom I had known for a number of years".

At the time, Andrea Reynolds was living at home with her parents in Ballsbridge. She would have told the retrial:

"That week was very traumatic and we had to try to get on with our lives…My father was devastated by the events of that week. We had never seen him like that before. My mother was the strong one who was keeping him going. The rest of us were just keeping our heads down, trying to help each other.

"On the Sunday following my father's resignation as leader of Fianna Fail, I was at home with my parents and sisters Leonie and Cathy. At some point in the late afternoon, there was a telephone call from my eldest sister, Miriam, who lives in Edinburgh. My mother answered the phone but Miriam wanted to speak to my father. She asked him whether he had seen a particularly vicious article about him in the Sunday Times and she read him bits of what it said. My father was very upset and sent out for a copy, but when he got it, the article Miriam had mentioned was not in it. The article in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times was quite different and, by and large, unobjectionable. There were a number of further phone calls between Miriam and my father and they worked out that the article in question had only been printed in the mainland edition. Eventually, later that day, she sent over a copy of the article by fax.

"My father was very upset about what was said about him in the article. He kept saying: 'How could they write this?' and 'Why didn't they even telephone me for a comment?' It clearly hurt him deeply, on top of everything else that had happened. My mother was also very upset but she was not keen on the prospect of pursuing a libel action against a newspaper, particularly one against an organisation with the might and resources of the Sunday Times.

"People seem to think that, when you are part of a family that is in the public eye, you should be able to take all the criticism when things go wrong. Of course you develop a thick skin but there is only so much that you can take. We have always been in the thick of politics and have been through the highs and the lows but that whole time just became too much for all of us. We just thought: 'Thank God it's over.'"

Two weeks ago I wrote an article which referred to the Albert Reynolds defamation case in the context of a prayer of the faithful at his funeral in which his daughter Miriam referred to the vilification of her father.

I stated that a feature of the trial was the highly anticipated evidence of Fergus Finlay, who was Dick Spring's adviser in that Government. Finlay was not called to give evidence.

I told of how Reynolds, at an apartment in Kensington, had shown me a copy of Finlay's intended statement at that trial in which he had referred to the former Taoiseach as "irredeemably corrupt".

On radio and in a newspaper interview, Fergus Finlay immediately denied that he had ever intended to give such evidence.

For example, the Irish Independent reported that Finlay had "utterly rejected" the report.

John Downing wrote that Finlay had insisted he had never, ever, believed Mr Reynolds was "irredeemably corrupt" and had never said such a thing.

Finlay said he believed that Reynolds' proposed actions as Taoiseach, in trying to resolve the Government crisis, would have done irreparable damage to high offices of state.

But "I never believed he was 'irredeemably corrupt'. If somebody were irredeemably corrupt it would mean they were guilty of criminal acts and I never believed that of Albert Reynolds," Finlay told the Irish Independent.

When Albert Reynolds settled his libel action against the Sunday Times, the newspaper published the following statement on Sunday September 10, 2000:

We are pleased to announce the resolution of a libel action against The Sunday Times by Albert Reynolds, the former Taoiseach.

In the edition of The Sunday Times published in Ireland on December 7, 1997, we published an extract from a draft memoir written by Fergus Finlay, former adviser to Dick Spring, the Labour party leader and Tanaiste. Mr Finlay wrote that some of Mr Reynolds' political actions at the time of the collapse of the Fianna Fail-Labour government in November 1994 were "irredeemably corrupt".

The Sunday Times and Fergus Finlay accept that Mr Reynolds did not behave in a corrupt manner and withdraw and suggestion that he did.

We regret any hurt caused to Mr Reynolds.

Sunday Independent

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