Coalition transparency called into question over bugging controversy

The Coalition is attempting to downplay the bugging scandal but its claims of accountability and transparency have really been called into question, writes Deputy Political Editor Mary Regan

FOR a Government whose commitment to accountability and transparency was already beginning to wane, the Coalition’s handling of matters of vital public interest in recent days can only serve to undermine its promise on entering office that “honesty is not alone our best policy but our only policy”.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who made this pledge in March 2011, was yesterday under pressure to explain why he erroneously quoted the law in what was described as an attempt to undermine the office of the Garda Ombudsman in the ongoing saga over investigations into whether its offices were bugged or under surveillance.

Questions were also emerging about the judgment of his Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, in his efforts to downplay the sweep carried out at the offices by British security experts as “routine” and “of a nature that had occurred previously”.

And all the while, the Government was tying itself in knots as it tried to explain away a transcript showing a garda whistleblower was told he’d be “finished” if the Mr Shatter knew that he was raising concerns about matters within the force.

The Taoiseach yesterday tried to issues reassurances, explanations and assurances on all three issues — but is unlikely to escape a public backlash as it appears we are not being told the full truth.

During Leaders’ Questions yesterday, he was forced to give assurances that no member of the gardaí should feel “in any way under pressure or under threat in his or her dealings with the confidential recipient” — the office set up in the wake of the Morris Tribunal to ensure whistleblowers had somewhere to raise their concerns.

His reassurances came a full week after the Dáil first heard details of the conversation between Sergeant Maurice McCabe — the whistleblower at the centre of the penalty point controversy — and the confidential recipient, Oliver Connolly.

Details of the conversation which took place in January 2012 were revealed in Saturday’s Irish Examiner, in which Mr Connolly told the garda: “I’ll tell you something, Maurice, and this is just personal advice to you. If Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished.”

Mr Connolly, a barrister who had donated €1,000 to Mr Shatter before his appointment, told the whistleblower: “If Shatter thinks, here’s this guy again, trying another route, trying to put on pressure, he’ll go after you.”

Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, read out further quotes in the Dáil on Tuesday, saying the revelations were “extremely disturbing, extremely sinister”.

Enda Kenny did not give any response to the matter at that time, but under further questioning yesterday, told the Dáil: “when I left the Chamber, I read the transcript.”

It would seem strange that if the Taoiseach read the transcript after leaving the chamber sometime on Tuesday, that Minister Shatter told the House later that night that he hadn’t see it.

The justice minister said he was “curious” about what was “floating around” about “some transcript to which I am not privy.”

He said: “I do not know anything about the meeting which took place nor do I know how the transcript was created. I do not know whether it was an agreed transcript of a conversation which allegedly took place between the confidential recipient and Sergeant McCabe. I do not know selectively what is being quoted from it.”

When the disparity between both accounts became obvious, the Government press secretary contacted journalists to say that what the Taoiseach actually meant was that he read the Dáil transcript.

In other words, he had read the transcript of the debate he had just participated in, rather than the transcript of the conversation involving the whistleblower that he was questioned on.

One has to wonder why Mr Kenny didn’t just say this himself when he was asked repeatedly by Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley how he had accessed the transcript.

While a recording of the conversation is held by Mr McCabe’s solicitors, the Taoiseach said: “There is no basis for implying that the Minister for Justice and Equality spoke to the confidential recipient about expressions that refer to him in the article which appeared as printed in the newspaper.”

Minutes later, Mr Kenny found himself facing demands that he correct his statements that the Garda Ombudsman was obliged, under law to report concerns about threats to its security, to the minister.

The Government’s initial reaction to the revelations that the Ombudsman had brought in a private company to test its offices for bugging, was not to express concern that this might have happened, but to blame the office for not telling the minister.

In what has been interpreted as an attempt to draw attention away from the issue of what happened, and shift blame to the independent office, ministers spoke about the Ombudsman Commission “coming clean”, “being grilled” and “levelling with” Alan Shatter.

It was an approach described by Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins as “turning the Ombudsman’s office from the status of victim to villain”.

In his first reaction on Monday, the Taoiseach said: “Most importantly, section 80 subsection 5 of the Garda Síochána Act requires that GSOC would report unusual matters or matters of exceptional importance to the Minister for Justice and that’s a fundamental issue that GSOC needs to explain to the Minister for Justice.”

The act states that the Ombudsman “may” rather than “shall” inform the minister of any “exceptional circumstances”. So — at best — the Taoiseach or his handlers misunderstood the law. Or — at worst — they intentionally misrepresented it.

Asked yesterday if he would correct the record, he pointed out that the Commission “had knowledge that it should have availed of this provision and reported the matter to the minister”.

But he added that “any excessive meaning attributed to my words is regretted”.

Mr Kenny — who said on Monday that this was the “most important” and “fundamental issue” in question — changed his tune yesterday to say: “I think we can put this matter behind us now.”

The Taoiseach insisted that he had been “at pains to point out that it is of the utmost importance that the independence and integrity of GSOC be maintained.”

And the justice minister said he had “no beef” with the Ombudsman’s Commission.

Many members of the opposition do not see it this way. Lucinda Creighton accused the Government of an “astonishing attack” on the independence of the Ombudsman; Finian McGrath said it’s a “strange little country when the victim of a crime is being placed in the dock and blamed for an alleged offence.”

Mr Collins said they tried to “shift the focus away from the questions which were uppermost in people’s minds.”

Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said “people will argue that the minister has too close a relationship with the Garda Commissioner and that the system of policing in this State is not healthy.”

But the minister replied that, “unfortunately from the opposition there is more heat than light,” in the same, dismissive attitude applied to whistleblowers and the Garda Ombudsman’s Office.

The mask on the transparent, open and straight-talking Government has slipped, to reveal something quite different underneath.

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