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Sunday 19 May 2019

Whelehan 'regrets' hurt caused in X case

Ex-Attorney General stands by decision to prevent abortion

Lynne Kelleher

The country's most controversial Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, has spoken of his regret at the sadness and hurt suffered by the people at the centre of the X case.

But in a new RTE documentary on the case which inflamed the nation, the barrister said his sense of duty to Ireland forced him to legally prevent a pregnant 14-year- old girl who was raped from leaving the country for an abortion.

Miss X was effectively made a prisoner in her own country when Mr Whelehan, acting for the Constitution, was granted an injunction preventing the teenager from leaving Ireland for 10 months until she had given birth.

Former government press secretary Sean Duignan told the Scannal documentary it was widely thought in the corridors of power that the Attorney General should have turned a blind eye to the case.

But Mr Whelehan told how he had a duty to uphold the Constitution and protect the life of the unborn child.

"I'm not prepared to say I regret what I did because what I did I was required to do and I had taken a very high, responsible, significant constitutional position which required me to do that," he told Scannal.

"I am not prepared to say I regret having to do my duty. I do, of course, regret the upset, the sadness and the trauma which was visited on everybody involved but that is something which I can't do anything more about.

"I received a telephone call from the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP was concerned as to the involvement of the guards and his office in the request and he felt that a constitutional issue arose which should be considered by me as Attorney General.

"The problem was stark. There was an unborn child with a constitutional right to life. There was nobody to advocate the right of that child to be born other than the Attorney General.

"I don't want this to sound harsh but where the mother of the child who is entitled to have its life protected decided to seek an abortion the only mechanism in our system is for the Attorney General to intervene and to make a case for the child to be born alive."

Mr Duignan, who was government press secretary in 1992, said the general feeling in political circles was that the X case should have been shelved until it was too late to prevent the young girl from travelling to England for an abortion.

He said: "Both sides of the House were adamant that Harry should have taken advice. What they really meant by that is that he should have delayed . . . that the file should have dropped behind a radiator or whatever and he should have delayed at least until the girl was out of the country and she had her abortion . . . that it was all done and dusted and the most important thing was that it would be finished outside the jurisdiction."

But the former Attorney General said he could never have just turned his back on the matter.

He said: "I knew it was suggested by a great many people that I should have done nothing and really that could never have been a proper or honourable action nor could it have in any way put me in a position of discharging my constitutional obligation to protect or at least seek to protect the right of that unborn child to be born.

"I was very disappointed by the level of hysteria. It created an atmosphere which I think was very unhealthy."

Mr Duignan said Albert Reynolds was dismayed to find one of the country's most contentious cases sitting on his desk on his first day as Taoiseach.

He said: "On my very first day as government press secretary, I walked into the Taoiseach's office and he said 'Welcome Diggy, You're not going to believe what just landed on my desk'. I said 'Something called the X case?'

"He said, 'I don't believe it. How could this happen to me on my very first day in office?'

"I remember Harry and himself kicking it back and forward, arguing about it. Albert was going, 'Harry, you've got to think politically occasionally' and Harry was saying, 'You can't get over the legal and the constitutional implications, Taoiseach'."

The press secretary reveals how he ended up cringing with embarrassment when he was briefing foreign correspondents on Ireland's dealings with the 14-year-old rape victim.

He said: "In the middle of it all, the gardai actually seized thousands of copies of the Guardian newspaper out of Dublin airport on the basis that it contained some type of abortion services advertisement.

"The church became involved, the feminists became involved and the pro-life people and the right-to-choose people.

"I was running a weekly briefing session for foreign, largely UK correspondents, and these weekly briefings quickly deteriorated into a weekly humiliation zone, most certainly embarrassments."

The documentary, which will be shown on RTE One tomorrow night, details how the family of Miss X appealed the decision to the Supreme Court which overturned the decision, leaving her free to travel for an abortion. But it later emerged that the young girl had a miscarriage.

The rapist at the centre of the case was sentenced to 14 years in prison, which was eventually reduced to four years on appeal.

Mr Duignan said Mr Reynolds had predicted that the case would have serious ramifications for his term in government when he told him the Supreme Court had allowed the young girl to leave the country for a termination.

He said: "We were actually in a motorcade moving towards Downing Street. I rang up the Taoiseach and at first I thought he hadn't heard me. I remember Albert saying 'we're up to our necks in it now Diggy, they're all out to get us', and he was so right."

In 1994, Harry Whelehan was nominated as President of the High Court by Albert Reynolds, though the Labour members of government opposed him over revelations of the delay in the Attorney General's office's dealings with the extradition warrant of a paedophile priest.

"That case had never been brought to my attention", Mr Whelehan told the documentary. "The senior official in the case had just never passed it on to me. I never considered that. And that became part of a controversy surrounding my appointment to the High Court."

Just days after Mr Reynolds brought Mr Whelehan to the Aras to be appointed President of the High Court by President Mary Robinson, he made a damning speech about him in the Dail in a bid to stay in power.

Mr Whelehan said he couldn't continue on in his role as High Court President after Mr Reynolds's outburst.

He said: "As a judge, I was going to hear cases and the person losing the case would be in a position to say 'look, the guy who appointed this man to be President of the High Court felt like he shouldn't have appointed him, he got a bad deal'.

"So there was a big issue for the judiciary there and for me so I resigned on that basis."

In the documentary, Mr Whelehan, who has practised successfully at the Bar since 1994, said the government still has to deal with the abortion issue 17 years after the X case left a huge question mark hanging over it.

He said: "In one of the Supreme Court judgments, Mr Justice McCarthy was stridently critical at that stage that nothing had been done between 1983 and 1992.

"If that comment was justifiable in 1992 it is doubly or triply justified now."

'Scannal' will be shown on RTE One tomorrow at 7.30pm

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