Caroline O’Doherty puts the spotlight on the events that took place in the hours leading up to Martin Callinan’s retirement as Garda commissioner, from an initial meeting at the Taoiseach’s office to review the issue of telephone recordings, to Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell’s visit to the senior garda’s home
The final countdown to the retirement of the Garda commissioner, Martin Callinan, began at 6pm on Monday, March 24, last year, when a meeting began at the Taoiseach’s office to review the issue of the Garda telephone recordings raised by the attorney general with Mr Kenny the previous day.
Fennelly notes: “It went on for four hours... There is not a single note or record of any kind of that meeting or its result.”
The account of what happened is therefore compiled from the direct evidence given to the commission by those who attended the meeting.
For the first 20 minutes, only the Taoiseach, the attorney general, and the secretary general to the Government, Martin Fraser, met, but Mr Kenny then summoned Justice Minister Alan Shatter.
Mr Shatter was just beginning to be briefed about the recordings by the secretary general at the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell, and the department’s assistant secretary general, Michael Flahive, before he was called to the meeting, of which he had no prior notice.
All four reviewed the facts as known, agreed it was “a grave and serious matter”, with potentially serious implications for the gardaí and the State, and decided it warranted setting up a commission of investigation.
It was accepted that the Garda commissioner had no personal responsibility for the recording systems and: “There was no proposal that the Government consider the removal of the commissioner from office.”
However, Mr Kenny made it clear he might not be able to express his confidence in the Garda commissioner once the issue was brought to cabinet and subsequently made public the next day.
It was agreed that the commissioner should be informed of the serious view being taken by Mr Kenny and it was decided that Mr Purcell should be the one to inform him. Mr Purcell was summoned to the meeting at 9pm and instructed to visit the commissioner at his home — an event the commission found was “without precedent”.
Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, with the former secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell and former Fine Gael Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter at an event in 2012
At about 10.15pm, the Garda commissioner got a call from Mr Purcell to tell him he was on his way to discuss an important matter.
Mr Kenny gave evidence to the commission that he had no intention of using this visit to put pressure on the commissioner to retire and the attorney general also
said the question of the commissioner’s removal did not arise at the meeting.
However, Mr Fraser gave evidence that he suspected the outcome of the visit might be the commissioner’s retirement and Mr Purcell said that he was “shocked and concerned” at what he was being asked to do and told the meeting it was wrong.
Nevertheless, Mr Purcell went to the commissioner’s home at 11pm and delivered the Taoiseach’s message, which left Mr Callinan “shocked”.
He told the commission he did not dispute the seriousness of the recordings issue, as he had written to inform the minister for justice of it two weeks earlier in the letter Mr Purcell had failed to pass to Mr Shatter.
He asked Mr Purcell if it was believed he had some involvement in the recordings and was assured that this was not the case, but Mr Purcell raised other controversies dogging the commissioner, such as the whistleblowers.
Fennelly describes the visit as “extremely uncomfortable and stressful” for both men and, by the time it ended after midnight, the commissioner had come to the conclusion that he was being asked to consider his position and believed he had no option but to retire — a “reasonable conclusion for the commissioner to reach”, Fennelly says.
The commissioner told Mr Purcell there and then he was prepared to “walk off the pitch” to avoid conflict with the Government, for which he had great respect, and he asked to be allowed retire in three months’ time. Mr Purcell told Mr Fraser, who informed the Taoiseach, who considered the request overnight but replied the next day, March 25, that, once the decision to retire was made, it had to be with immediate effect.
When the commissioner was told this, he gave “fleeting consideration” to seeking legal advice but then decided to accept the Taoiseach’s view and submit his retirement immediately.
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