Whether Garda or political controversy, responsibility ultimately lies with politicians

In the past, Garda commissioners became implicated in what were largely political controversies, writes Ryle Dwyer

THE political controversy that led to the unrest which prompted Martin Callinan’s resignation would initially seem relatively minor in comparison with the controversy surrounding the last time a Garda commissioner resigned in the midst of controversy.

Garda Commissioner Patrick McLoughlin was given the choice of resigning or being sacked in January 1983 over his involvement in the telephone tapping controversy of two journalists.

Mr McLoughlin had essentially facilitated Justice Minister Seán Doherty in tapping the telephones of two political journalists — Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold.

The protocol for tapping stipulated that the Garda commissioner should request the justice minister to introduce a tap, not the other way around. It was the justice minister who initiated the request for taps on the telephones of the two journalists.

The minister was clearly motivated by political concerns.

The two journalists were obviously in the confidence of political opponents of Taoiseach Charles J Haughey, who had been plagued by series of unprecedented political scandals.

In August 1982, a man wanted in connection with a high-profile murder was arrested in the apartment of the attorney general, with whom he had been staying. Mr Haughey described that scandal — leading to the resignation of his attorney general — as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented, which led to the coining of the acronym, GUBU.

Seven weeks earlier, it had been publicly disclosed for the first time that Garret FitzGerald had learned shortly after becoming taoiseach in 1981 that telephones in his office were capable of listening in undetected on any telephone conversation in Government Buildings. Mr Haughey denied that he was aware of the extraordinary capabilities of the telephone.

“I handed over those telephone consoles to the incoming taoiseach, Dr FitzGerald, and I think that speaks for itself,” Mr Haughey insisted. In other words, if there had been anything sinister, he would not have been so foolish as to leave the evidence behind.

There were haunting similarities with the disgraced administration of President Richard Nixon in the United States. Nixon had “hot lines” installed in the offices of state governors so they could contact the White House directly in an emergency. On investigation it was discovered, however, that 30 of those lines remained live to the White House even when the telephone was in its cradle. As a result, the “hot line” amounted to a bug in the office of each governor.

Fear of bugging tended to permeate Irish politics in the early 1980s. While back in opposition in 1982, Dr FitzGerald would not hold a confidential conversation with a telephone in the room.

Even in his own home, he would unplug the phone and move it out of the room before discussing sensitive matters.

An Garda Síochána inevitably got caught up in this climate of suspicion. In 1978 the Fianna Fáil government, headed by Jack Lynch, actually sacked Commissioner McLoughlin’s predecessor, Edmund Garvey, but he later won unfair dismissal proceedings against the Government, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision.

Although the Fine Gael spokesman liked to pretend that tapping of journalists was unprecedented in this democracy, the Fine Gael–Labour coalition of the 1970s had tapped journalists Vincent Browne and Tim Pat Coogan. Mr Browne was subsequently awarded substantial damages, which confirmed that the tap was unjustifiable.

The earlier controversies were largely political matters in which the commissioners became wittingly, or unwillingly implicated, whereas the latest controversy has revolved around Garda matters with mere peripheral political involvement.

In a democracy, however, the politicians are still ultimately responsible.

* Ryle Dwyer is author of Haughey’s Forty Years of Controversy, published by Mercier Press.

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