Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Minister's apology to Garda whistleblowers as the force reels over bugging scandal

Justice Minister Alan Shatter speaks at a memorial service for gardai killed in the line of duty at Dublin Castle last May

The Republic's Justice Minister Alan Shatter has buckled under intense public and political pressure to apologise to two whistleblowers who exposed abuse of the penalty points system.

The embattled minister bowed to weeks of demands to set the record straight after he claimed former Garda John Wilson and serving Sergeant Maurice McCabe did not co-operate with an internal inquiry into the scandal.

Mr Shatter, who has survived at the head of the Department of Justice while the Garda lurches from one controversy to another, moved to bury the scandal with a forthright apology.

"It was never my intention to mislead the House and I believe it is appropriate that I apologise to both and withdraw the statements made," Mr Shatter said.

"It was never my intention to cause any upset and if any upset was caused I hope that my correcting the record of the Dail today will put this matter to rest."

The belated apology came a day after Martin Callinan – who has not withdrawn his remarks that the whistleblowers' actions were "disgusting" – was forced to resign as Garda Commissioner over a phone line taping scandal.

The minister denies any knowledge of the routine recording of thousands of non-emergency phonecalls in and out of Garda stations over 30-odd years from the 1980s up until Mr Callinan pulled the plug last November.

And in another day of high political drama in a crisis that has driven wedges through the Fine Gael/Labour coalition, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was forced to deny that he sacked the commissioner over the surveillance operation.

The first public indication that phonecalls were being recorded at some Garda stations came from the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) in June after it secured convictions against three gardai for assaulting a man in Waterford in January 2010.

Mr Callinan was alerted to the Gsoc concerns and pulled the plug on the practice, but not for another five months.

That coincided with lawsuits by Ian Bailey and his partner Jules Thomas who are suing the state for wrongful arrest in the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder probe and sought access to recorded phonecalls from a station in relation to his damages claim.

It was February before the Department of Justice was briefed on the practice on the back of the Bailey case, Mr Shatter claimed.

On Tuesday, in a move not seen in Irish public life since the early 1980s, Mr Callinan dramatically announced his "retirement" for what he said was the good of his family and the force but was clearly linked to the latest damning revelations to hit the force.

When the extent of the secret Garda recording system is fully known there are fears it will wreak havoc with historic and ongoing court cases and spark appeals.

The trial of two suspected IRA members, Thomas McMahon (31) and Noel Noonan (34) at the Special Criminal Court was adjourned yesterday after lawyers sought information on whether telephone calls made by their clients were recorded.

STORY SO FAR

Phone line taping at selected Garda stations began in the 1980s to gather evidence on bomb threats and coded messages. Some 2,485 tapes of calls are stored at Garda HQ. An unknown number of digital recordings have been made since high-tech systems were put into stations in 2008. They operated until November 27. The Irish government is setting up a State inquiry.

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