Kenny engages in damage limitation after bruising week in GSOC saga

Simon O'Brien: In the firing line.

When Enda Kenny walked down the steps of the Dáil chamber yesterday evening, he paused briefly for a deep breath before taking to his seat for Leaders’ Questions.

A week and a day after his Government started on its misjudged response to revelations of suspected surveillance of the Garda Ombudsman’s office, the Taoiseach was now embarking on a course of damage limitation.

The Cabinet, which met just hours earlier, had woken up to the reality that the public was not happy with their response to the issue, and action was desperately needed to draw a line under it.

Their initial attempts to blame to the Ombudsman’s office for the debacle — and vilify them for failing to inform the minister of suspicions — had backfired.

And the Taoiseach surely knew that this was not helped by his own mistake in going a step too far by basing his case on a misrepresentation of the law.

The Government also failed in its efforts to play down the relevance of the story when it insisted to the Dáil last Tuesday that there was no definitive evidence, no specific concerns and it was all — in the words of Justice Minister Alan Shatter — “baseless innuendo”.

Their strategy to spin it all as a “puff of smoke” was blown open when the Ombudsman’s office appeared at an Oireachtas Committee on Wednesday where they painted a completely different picture to that presented by Mr Shatter.

But the Government fought back, and the minister went on RTÉ’s Prime Time to say that GSOCs’ evidence before the committee was “confused” and they should clear it up.

He boldly proclaimed that a written brief given to him the previous Monday would show that the story he gave to the Dáil was the same story he got from GSOC.

Again, this failed to kill the story, when that document was released and made clear there were serious omissions in the minister’s speech — including the fact that the ombudsman had instigated a public interest investigation into whether gardaí were involved.

An escalation of confrontations at that point looked like it could spell a huge crisis for the coalition.

And commentary that the Government was trying to undermine the independence of GSOC was beginning to reflect very badly.

On Sunday — having kept his head down on the issue for a few days — the Taoiseach struck a more conciliatory approach. He said he wanted “a conclusion” to the issue, and expressed hoped that the “integrity” of the Ombudsman’s office would be maintained.

Meanwhile, the Labour ministers, in a series of interviews over the weekend, subtly put it up to Mr Shatter to clear up the issue this week.

It had become apparent that the controversy was not going away, and the longer it played out the more damaging it was becoming.

And so, when the Taoiseach walked down the steps of the Dáil chamber yesterday, the need to draw a line under the issue for once and for all weighed heavily on him.

The Cabinet had just decided at its weekly meeting to appoint a retired High Court judge to carry out what initially looked like an independent inquiry into the bugging issue, but turned out to be more of a “review” of other documentation on the case.

It appeared to be a major climb-down from its earlier position when the Government had ruled out such a move. “What is it that is to be the subject of an inquiry?” Mr Shatter asked the Dáil last Tuesday. “It gets a headline and a little bit of drama from Deputy [Shane] Ross and others, but apparently there is nothing to be inquired into.”

Why would you subject an “independent entity” such as GSOC to an inquiry, the Taoiseach had asked the following day, when the office had “every capacity to carry out its own investigations” which it already did?

And why would you agree to an inquiry when doing so “suggest we don’t have confidence in GSOC — if we require someone else to inquire into GSOC’s own inquiry.”

What changed their mind ahead of yesterday’s Cabinet meeting?

There was “considerable unease” according to Labour Party sources among its ministers about how the issue had been handled to date. Revelations were still “tumbling out” and the response appeared “unplanned.”

Labour was last night taking credit for pushing the need for an “independent person” to investigate the issue and insisting that a process be put in place that people could have faith in. There was, according to Labour sources, little resistance from their coalition partners.

But Fine Gael claims the inquiry was prompted by fresh information which Mr Shatter says he has obtained late last week.

He told the Dáil last night that he requested the technology consultancy RITS to carry out a peer review of the technical documentation furnished by GSOC.

That report, he said, disputes some conclusions reached by Verrimus, the British security company who carried out the security sweep on behalf of GSOC. It concluded — in Mr Shatters’ words — there is “no evidence at all, not merely no definitive evidence” of surveillance at the Ombudsman’s office.

So will that put an end to the controversy? It all depends on whether Verrimus has anything to say and, more importantly, if GSOC responds.

All the indications are that the Ombudsman’s office — like the Taoiseach — wants to see an end to the controversy so is unlikely to push it any further.

The terms of reference — which are being drawn up by Minister Shatter with the assistance of the Attorney General — will be published today. They will reveal what exactly the former High Court judge will inquire into.

But this will not be on a statutory basis, there will be no obligation on anybody to answer questions, and as Mr Kenny told the Dáil, the task will be “to review all of the documentation and all of the reports that have been produced on this matter to date.”

With little appetite from any side to continue the controversy, Shatter might have had the last word.

Or this may turn out to be another weak attempt to put an end to the controversy that won’t go away.

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