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Dearbhail McDonald: This comedy of errors is unfunny and is no way to run a country


Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny

For all of the solemnity surrounding its publication, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny's prebuttal that he had been 'vindicated' over the sacking in all but name of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, the Fennelly Commission Interim Report exposes a comedy of errors, albeit a contemptible one.

One of Shakespeare's earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, is replete with slapstick humour borne out of mistaken identities, crossed wires and false accusations leading to wrongful beatings, amongst other things.

The events leading up to the dramatic exit in March 2014 of Commissioner Callinan following the late-night dispatch by Mr Kenny of a petrified mandarin - with a metaphorical gun and whiskey bottle in hand - to the commissioner's home are also replete with bungles, misunderstandings and conflicting narratives that would make Shakespeare blush.

It all started with the discovery process during Ian Bailey's mammoth civil lawsuit against the State, which he lost in the High Court earlier this year.

During the discovery process, taped recordings were found of phone calls between gardai at Bandon station in Cork and between a garda and Marie Farrell, a 'key' but ultimately farcical witness in the Bailey proceedings.

The 'garda tapes' also included recordings between gardai and journalists covering the investigation into the still unresolved murder of French filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier in which Mr Bailey denies any hand, act or part.

It then transpired that systems had been installed on a widespread basis in many garda stations throughout the country in the 1980s to record incoming and outgoing calls from designated extensions.

The rationale initially offered by the gardai was that the tapes were needed to gather evidence around calls made to garda stations regarding bomb threats and other code-word messages.

This rationale is understandable, given the security threat posed to the State at the height of the Troubles.

But that was then.

It subsequently emerged that the recording systems had twice been updated, once in the 1990s and again in 2008 after an Israeli company won a stunning €500,000 contract to supply, deliver and maintain digital recording systems (DRS) in garda stations.

What was stunning about the DRS tender was the recording capabilities sought by the gardai in 2007 included automatic record and instant playback facilities at relevant workstations.

We do not know if the final package also included real-time eavesdropping or delete facilities, and it is still unclear whether the system could, or did, intercept conversations between solicitors and clients - confidential conversations that attract privilege.

What is even more stunning, and in my view inconceivable, is that no one seems to have known about it. Not even Commissioner Callinan, the Department of Justice, nor the Office of the Attorney-General, despite the contract being secured via a public procurement process and at a time when there was huge public pressure for more resources to be assigned to frontline gardai.

You have to read the interim Fennelly Report to capture the sheer lunacy of it all, but it goes something like this: the gardai told the AG's office about the recordings sometime in October/November 2013.

The Commissioner then stopped all non-999 recordings and sought advice from the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, who indicated the activity might not have been illegal after all, prompting a suggestion (by the gardai to the Attorney) that the tapes - excluding of course the tapes relating to the Bailey discovery process - be destroyed.

The prospect of destruction troubled the Attorney, not least because of the potential innocence at stake if there was no legal basis for widespread recording nationally and the possibility that there could be exculpatory evidence on the tapes for others already convicted or incarcerated.

On March 10, 2014, Commissioner Callinan wrote a statutory letter under the formal reporting arrangements between the gardai and the Minister for Justice, alerting the minister to the great reveal about the tapes.

Except, Justice Minister Alan Shatter (as he then was) never heard about the letter until the night before the Commissioner fell on his Enda-supplied sword and the Attorney didn't know until two days before she briefed the Taoiseach that the letter had been sent.

The gist of it all is that everybody thought somebody briefed everybody and that it was somebody else's job to do it.

The accounts of the mistaken impressions and beliefs of who knew what and how about the general recording issues are truly worrying.

But the failure to ascertain the basic factual matrix underlying the Attorney's fears - and almost every entity is guilty of that - is horrific.

Indeed, the juxtaposition between the purported significance of the tapes and what may ultimately turn out to be their actual significance is staggering in the absence of the basic facts.

And it barely conceals the suspicion that the Taoiseach's "alarm" over the tapes was, in fact, a blunt political tool to take out the troublesome Callinan.

By sending a civil servant to the Commissioner's home with the metaphorical gun, and then pretending he didn't, Enda Kenny has exposed himself as a Blairite leader steeped in a focus-group style of government in a bubble.

It paints him as a coward and us as fools.

Ultimately, the Interim Fennelly Report is an indictment of our public administration. And it exposes the contempt, which has hardened in recent years, towards proper governance. Under Fine Gael/Labour, executive power has further concentrated, with decisions of major consequence made by the hands of the few, often to the exclusion of other Cabinet members, let alone our national parliament.

Kenny's handling of the garda recordings is no better than the night of the bank guarantee in terms of its contempt towards public governance. It's no way to run a country - and there's nothing funny about it.

Sunday Independent