| 7.3°C Dublin

Minister at war with Herald over Sargent letters

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern has declared war on this newspaper for our reporting of the illegal behaviour of a serving Government Minister.

Gardai today demanded interviews with our journalists who highlighted the unlawful interference into a criminal investigation by exjunior minister Trevor Sargent.

Today, in a demand to the Herald, Det Supt John McMahon wants journalists to give themselves up to a Government-driven probe into the Sargent scandal.

Gardai have also demanded that the Herald hand over the documents that proved Sargent interfered with the course of justice.

In a developing situation, the detective superintendent has also written to the editor of this newspaper warning that he and the three journalists who worked on the story, will be questioned in the near future.

Editor Stephen Rae and reporters Conor Feehan, Kevin Doyle and Geraldine Gittens, have been told to make themselves available.


In response, Herald solicitor Kieran Kelly pointed out that the investigation already showed a worrying lack of clarity, and was clearly "politically motivated".

"Your letter does not set out any alleged offence but refers to 'aspects arising from articles' published in the Evening Herald."

Mr Kelly continued: "It is quite apparent from comments of politicians that this investigation is to identify the source of stories which appeared in the Evening Herald. It is, therefore, a politically motivated investigation.

"Obviously our client has a professional duty to protect sources of information obtained by it in the course of investigations and reporting."

The development shows that gardai are intent on following Justice Minister Dermot Ahern's instruction to expose the whistleblowers that ended Mr Sargent's ministerial career.

The Green Party TD was left with no choice but resign last week after it was revealed that he used State-headed paper to advise a rank-and-file garda officer that it would be "wholly inappropriate" to prosecute a constituent.

Although the Herald has published undisputable proof that Mr Sargent was the one who acted unlawfully, the Justice Minister is determined to investigate the source of the explosive stories.

Opposition parties suggested that Mr Ahern might have leaked the information in retaliation for the Greens demanding that Defence Minister Willie O'Dea resign over a separate scandal.


Mr Ahern has denied the allegations and has admitted that a large motivation for this investigation is to clear his own name.

Now less than a week after breaking the story, the Herald has received a letter from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI).

Senior officers working in the NBCI are normally tasked with investigating serious crimes such as gangland activity, rape, kidnapping, child abuse and murder.

However, Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy has put a number of officers, including Detective Superintendent John McMahon, on secondment from normal duties to handle the Sargent case.

Supt McMahon's letter to the Herald editor confirms his appointment as head of the investigation into articles that "relate to the leaking of documents in possession of An Garda Siochana and others".

It continues: "As Editor of the Evening Herald I am writing to you to ask for your cooperation in this investigation.

"I am requesting that you would hand over all documentation in your possession relating to the above articles."

The first article published on February 23 revealed how Mr Sargent intervened in the course of justice by writing to a garda in June 2008.

Mr Sargent said it was "shocking" to hear that a constituent was being prosecuted for threatening behaviour.

The following day we produced a second letter showing that Mr Sargent had also been in communication with a Superintendent in Balbriggan in mid-February.

As the stories were clearly in the public interest, this newspaper and its reporters will not be cooperating with the investigation in any form.