Tuesday 16 July 2019

Fianna Fail use Fennelly report to ramp up pressure on AG

No bombshell for gardai in Commission findings but questions for Taoiseach linger

Attorney General Maire Whelan Photo: Tom Burke
Attorney General Maire Whelan Photo: Tom Burke
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

For the second time in a matter of weeks, Garda management have been found to be clueless as to the curious goings on in Garda stations around the country.

It emerged last month that senior officers apparently had no idea that gardai had been making up the numbers of breath tests at alcohol checkpoints and logging on them on the computer system. Then last week, the long-awaited Fennelly report found they were also "ignorant" that calls to Garda stations were routinely recorded.

When it was revealed almost by accident in 2014 that calls into Garda stations were being secretly recorded, the Attorney General, Maire Whelan, was so alarmed that her assessment presented those hearing it with a vista of convictions falling, jails being thrown open and prisoners being released on to the streets.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins

Mr Justice Fennelly's scrupulous 800-page report which was published on Thursday ultimately found plenty of errors, oversights and misunderstandings in An Garda Siochana, but nothing to support the AG's fears. No criminal convictions were overturned as a result of non-999 calls being taped.

The Garda's top brass have little further to fear from the Fennelly report. They are already facing the humiliation of a succession of external audits and a radical cultural overhaul, and Mr Justice Fennelly's lengthy recommendations will be added to the mix. Critics of Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, who is already under pressure to step aside, won't find much ammunition.

Perhaps it is not gardai who have to watch their back on Fennelly, but the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his Attorney General Maire Whelan as the ghost of commissioners past come back to haunt them.

Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan Photo: Tom Burke
Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan Photo: Tom Burke

In the Dail next week, Fianna Fail plans to resurrect the sequence of events that led to the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan's sudden retirement in March 2014.

Mr Justice Fennelly had already examined the issue in an earlier interim report. The previous November, the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case indirectly led to the discovery that non-emergency phone calls into Garda stations were being recorded. Maire Whelan was informed at the time, and five months later, she read a 15-page report by a senior colleague, which included a suggested legal justification for the recordings.

Nevertheless, in her first dealings with the Fennelly Commission, Ms Whelan said she briefed Mr Kenny that the calls were "in complete violation of the law". She later backtracked, saying she had referred only to "potential illegality" and had not accused anyone of an "offence".

Mr Justice Fennelly found that Maire Whelan's assessment "contributed decisively" to how the Garda recordings were viewed, and that was with the utmost gravity. The Taoiseach was "shocked".

Former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Martin Fraser, his secretary general, had images of "verdicts being overturned or criminals to be released or jails to be emptied". Her assessment inspired an urgent meeting after which a senior civil servant was dispatched to Martin Callinan's house, on the instructions of Taoiseach.

But Mr Justice Fennelly found that those at the meeting "differed sharply" in what was to be conveyed to the then Garda Commissioner but he retired the next day.

Mr Justice Fennelly had asked the question: did the Taoiseach force the Garda Commissioner to resign? The answer was no, but to reach this conclusion, Mr Justice Fennelly had to navigate his way through the conflicting evidence about this critical meeting that preceded Mr Callinan's decision to retire.

Mr Justice Fennelly's report of last week found that the Attorney General's anticipated catastrophe never happened, but other than that, he did not revisit in any detail what he had already thoroughly examined.

Alan Shatter, the former Minister for Justice who was at that critical meeting, told RTE that he "questioned the factual basis for the level of alarm and called for calm assessment". He said Mr Callinan had been put in a position where he had no choice but to retire.

He said Marie Whelan's position as AG was "untenable". Fianna Fail said it will be pressing the Taoiseach next week on "his behaviour, that of his Attorney General and the interaction between them both on this matter".

"Although the report concluded that the recordings were unlawful, the consequences of such unlawfulness were significantly over-estimated by the Attorney General and the government," said Jim O'Callaghan, Fianna Fail's spokesman on justice.

Additional reporting by Philip Ryan

Sunday Independent

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