Sunday 24 February 2019

Mistakes and misjudgments reveal lessons of 1983 haven't been learned

Charles Haughey gives a press conference about the phone tapping scandal. Photo: John Carlos
Charles Haughey gives a press conference about the phone tapping scandal. Photo: John Carlos
Former Fianna Fail Justice Minister Sean Doherty
Geraldine Kennedy when she was political correspondant with the Sunday Press in 1983

Bruce Arnold

When in 1983 the State made public the tapping of the phones of journalists it did so with what appeared to be speed and completeness. In reality, it fell far short of that.

 It exonerated Geraldine Kennedy and myself of any criminal justification for what had been done to us, and the garda commissioner and deputy commissioner were obliged to resign. They were not punished and they remained on full pensions. Indeed, when Fianna Fail returned to power in 1987, one of them was given employment by Padraig Flynn as if he had done nothing wrong.

Furthermore, such action as was taken to investigate and regulate more strictly An Garda Siochana was superficial, rather than the root-and-branch investigation and reform of the force. It took a further three years and a joint action in the High Court to establish the constitutional misdemeanour and the abuse of human rights that had affected quite fundamentally the lives of the two journalists involved.

Even after that, nothing fundamental was done. The return of Fianna Fail to power under the leadership of Charles Haughey in 1987 meant that even the idea of there being unfinished business facing the State in the creation of a far better, more suitable, fair and efficient policing system was not undertaken, except with a superficial kind of window-dressing that conceals what is wrong and may be blamed for the inadequacy of personal, property and life protection.

We continue to have a problem on our hands as we have had all along and it has been exposed now by a series of mistakes, misjudgments and evasions.

They start at the top with Enda Kenny, who has shown poor leadership and little understanding of a growing crisis in which absurd delays and concealments have dominated the increasingly embarrassing circumstances in which service and reassurance to the public was the least of the concerns facing those who rule us.

It would seem clear to a growing number of thinking people that we have silted the State up with layers of crises, beginning with a fundamental reality that the guards are not a disciplined force except in being a kind of updated 'Lugs Branigan' men in blue who are spoken for by a commissioner who has 20:20 vision on everybody in his force, believing them all to be 100pc good and loyal men.

Furthermore, he will not have them interfered with. On this basic and ridiculous premise, he has now retired. The Government sat tight waiting for this to happen, dealing with it in the same self-protecting way that Garret FitzGerald and his government did in 1983.

Time should not have been allowed for the absurdly slow spread of rumour and speculation about who controls the gardai and what strange archaic relationship has been going on between the minister, his department, the Taoiseach, the whistleblowers, and Attorney General Maire Whelan. This is already costing the Government dearly, with many explanations still to be given – and given in a convincing, truthful form.

Why did it take so long for Martin Callinan to address the problem of his use of the term "disgusting"? Was he advised not to withdraw it? And if so, by whom? Why was he allowed to retire? What message did the secretary general bring to him at his home? And why was that procedure followed? Is it really possible that we have the same protocols as we had in 1983? Or have we still no appropriate procedures for dealing with a crisis still far from over?

Mr Kenny has increasingly behaved as a bewildered member of an audience at an increasingly rickety, third-rate piece of political theatre. This is an unfortunate downward curve in his otherwise moderately admirable management of his team. Admirable because he was obeying the troika's orders and didn't have to provide leadership or vision. Now he must do both.

There is also a problem with regard to Ms Whelan not informing the Cabinet about the phone tapping affair for some considerable time. This is an outrageous reinstatement of a human rights abuse that should never have been employed after the High Court judgment in the case taken against the State by Geraldine Kennedy and myself, resulting in that protection being made part of the Constitution that Mr Kenny wants to fiddle with.

If it can be shown that her inaction on this single issue affects ongoing or previous criminal trials, then the crisis will deepen. The Government lawyer has to recognise the political danger of things crossing her desk as well as the legal issues arising from them. But it would seem that she needs to sharpen her political antennae.

It would seem that the garda tender for the phone-tapping equipment specified an ability to record calls and that this was put out to tender in 2008. Unlike the devious and dishonest way in which phones were tapped by Sean Doherty as Minister for Justice on the instruction of the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1982, this was no rogue activity but an organised breach of the Constitution.

The wider issues covered here require fundamental reform of the gardai and policing in general – possibly the formation of a new force – the swift resolution of the present crisis, and a change in Mr Kenny's approach.

We do not need strength of purpose if the purpose is simplistic or feeble. That is the bedrock position we are now in.

Irish Independent

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