By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Reporter
Health Minister Leo Varadkar has warned gardaí are taking part in "sinister" acts which breach private citizens' rights after it emerged journalists' phones and computers have been tapped and subjected to covert surveillance by the force.
The senior Fine Gael minister hit out at the situation and said he will be "speaking to the Minister for Justice" Frances Fitzgerald about the matter in the coming days after the situation was revealed today.
Under previously hidden powers, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission has confirmed it accessed the phone records of two crime reporters from the Herald and the Daily Mail after a complaint was made by a friend of the late model Katy French about alleged leaking of information by individual gardaí.
As part of existing legislation, officers above the rank of chief superintendent and the GSOC - the State's garda watchdog - can perform covert surveillance of journalists' phone and computer records if they believe there is a reason to conduct such an operation.
However, the measure is highly controversial as it risks preventing genuine whistle-blower information needed to highlight issues in the force from making it into the public domain.
Speaking to reporters at the launch of the Irish Cancer Society's launch of its annual Daffodil Day event, which will take place on March 11, Health Minister Leo Varadkar said revelations that some journalists' phones and computers have been tapped and covertly examined by elements of the State were deeply troubling.
Describing the events as "sinister", he said they potentially breach a citizen's right to privacy and that he will be raising the issue with Justice Minister and fellow Fine Gael TD Frances Fitzgerald in the coming days.
"I only really heard about it for the first time this morning, but obviously I will be speaking to the Minister for Justice about it in the next couple of days," he said.
"I do think there's something a little bit odd and sinister that any Government body would be monitoring the phones of journalists, if that is the case, and would represent an infringement on freedoms in my view," he said.
The revelation of GSOC phone examinations and their potential impact on whistleblowers led to an outcry from the opposition today.
In particular, Social Democrats leader Catherine Murphy - who the Irish Examiner reported last week has been using throwaway mobile phones since April over fears her phone was being tapped - saying the situation would have a "chilling effect" on people trying to reveal hidden information about the force.
While the reason for the complaint by the friend of Katy French which led to GSOC deciding to perform covert surveillance on the reporters' phones remains unclear, the garda siochana has been mired in controversy on a number of occasions over the past two years over its handling and treatment of internal whistle-blowers, including Maurice McCabe.
Meanwhile, technology rights group Digital Rights Ireland has confirmed it plans to take a High Court case against the State over the phone and computer surveillance laws after successfully fighting a similar EU rule in 2014.
"We are challenging primarily the obligation to retain this information on the entire population. As part of that challenge we are saying the mechanisms governing access to information are also inadequate," the group's chairman, UCD law lecturer TJ McIntyre, said.
In a statement the National Union of Journalists also hit out at the garda move, with national secretary Seamus Dooley saying such operations should only be allowed after court applications and that the current system is "worrying".