Out Of Office Reply

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Finance Minister Michael Noonan went on RTÉ’s Prime Time last night following former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan’s resignation yesterday morning and the lunchtime announcement by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that he has set up a commission of investigation to look at the widespread recording of phone calls at Garda stations across Ireland over approximately 30 years, up until November 2013.

It’s understood that 2,500 tapes of conversations exist.

Minster Noonan – who was  justice minister from December 14, 1982 to February 14, 1986 – appeared with the caveat that he would have a one-to-one interview and that he wouldn’t have to discuss matters with any oppposition members..

Host Miriam O’Callaghan was keen to get a timeline of events from Minister Noonan, to essentially find out who knew what and when in relation to these recordings.

She was especially determined to find out what Justice Minister Alan Shatter knew and when he knew it. This is largely because of what has been reported so far, specifically:

Enda Kenny told the Dáil that he first he heard about the issue of garda station recordings was when the Attorney General Máire Whelan told him late on Sunday afternoon around 6pm.

– On Monday night, a senior civil servant was sent to have a chat with Martin Callinan – who was under pressure from Labour and Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar to withdraw his ‘disgusting’ remark about Garda whistleblowers Sgt Maurice McCabe and John Wilson – to talk about the Government’s unease about ‘recent events’.  Callinan was also informed of the Government’s plan to hold an investigation into the garda station recordings.
– On Tuesday, Alan Shatter learned about the garda station recordings for the first time.

However.

RTÉ News reported last night that a letter was sent by Callinan to the Department of Justice on March 10 – five days before Minister Shatter left for Mexico as part of his St Patrick’s Day jaunt – outlining the matter about the garda station recordings, while the Attorney General was made aware of the matter as far back as November 2013 and had been involved in a working group in order to deal with the issues, in consultation with Martin Callinan.

And.

GSOC reported on these issues in June 2013, when it investigated a Garda assault case involving Anthony Holness. The GSOC report said the Garda Commissioner ‘may wish to re-evaluate his practice regarding the recording of such calls and the consents required if it is to be permissible to use such recordings in evidence’.

RTÉ’s Katie Hannon of Prime Time said t she was told Minister Shatter didn’t see that GSOC report and that there was no legal obligation for the GSOC report to be brought to Minister Shatter’s attention.

With that in mind, here’s a transcript of Minister Noonan’s one-to-one interview with Miriam O’Callaghan.

Miriam O’Callaghan: “Minister, first of all, this is a very strange affair, before we go into the substantive problem of obviously recorded phonecalls in Garda stations, it’s important to work out who knew what and when. So if we deal with that issue today, of the recording of the phonecalls in garda stations. People are wondering why it was announced today because that information was in the public domain ever since the court case back in November. As you know, the Holness case and then the GSOC report in June. So, how was it today that it was so important? It was announced and that people only became aware of it in your Government?”

Michael Noonan: “Well, obviously, we don’t know all the facts and that’s why a Commission of Inquiry is being set up and that’s why the gardaí, under the new commissioner and the Department of Justice have been instructed to provide full reports and I can’t give you full answers but I can tell you what I think may have happened.”

O’Callaghan: “I don’t want to cut across you so soon but I’m not asking what actually happened in the gardaí, I’m asking you now about the Cabinet and who knew what and when.”

Noonan: “That’s what I want to address. First of all, the Garda Ombudsman made a report in June of last year and he recommended that because the practice of recording had come to light in Waterford Garda Station, in a particular case that the Commissioner might re-evaluate the practice. This was a very tentative, you know, pitch by the Ombudsman’s office.”

O’Callaghan: “Well it was a direct quote actually, they said ‘Commissioner [Callinan] may wish to re-evaluate his practice regarding the recording of such calls’.

Noonan: “Yeah, he may wish to re-evaluate…

O’Callaghan: “Based on a court criticising that behaviour.”

Noonan: “What I’m saying is that, nothing hangs on it, but it was a tentative enough way of putting a recommendation. Now I don’t know whether the Commissioner re-evaluated or not but, coincidentally, the practice was ended in November [2013], so I presume there was a re-evaluation at some level in the guards.”

O’Callaghan: “But how come Minister Shatter or the Department of Justice was not aware of the GSOC report?”

Noonan: “I’m, I’m, I’m, I can’t answer that. I don’t know.”

O’Callaghan: “Do you find it a bit strange? You’re a former minister of justice?”

Noonan: “Look, I don’t know what the, what the protocols are but I know the Ombudsman’s office is independent in the exercising of its functions and guards its independence very diligently and the minister has been criticised previously because of a perceived attempt to not allow them exercise their independence in full. So there are issues there and they can be answered, if they’re…”

O’Callaghan: “But minister you are a very experienced minister, you’re a former Minister for Justice, no, just let me ask this question. Are you seriously suggesting that a court in November criticises the practice of these Garda recordings, GSOC go on to make a serious report suggesting this behaviour should be changed and that the minister for justice, the department of justice, in this country, would not be aware of that?”

Noonan: “Well I presume the Department of Justice was aware of it because…”

O’Callaghan: “But why didn’t they tell their minister?”

Noonan: “Maybe they didn’t think it was important at the time because there are two issues. First of all there’s the fact that the taping was taking place and the recordings were going on for quite a lot of years, somewhere in the teens and the high teens probably. Now that practice was discontinued in November and that was the end of that matter and there was legal assessments being done…”

O’Callaghan: “Ok, and to move..”

Noonan: “And the other issue then is the more important issue: that’s the content of the tapes…”

O’Callaghan: “No, actually, before we go into the content of the tapes, I just want, no you see the timeline is important because people think today’s announcement is a bit of a coincidence.”

Noonan: “No, if you let me explain.

O’Callaghan: “Let me ask about the Garda Commissioner’s letter two weeks ago because that’s big news tonight..”

Noonan: “That’s exactly, that’s exactly where I’m getting to.”

O’Callaghan: “OK.”

Noonan: “The issue back in November was the fact that there was recording taking place and it was at a lower level of importance because it had been going on for years and it was discontinued. The issue on the letter on the 10th of March, that in a specific piece of litigation, the contents of a tape became relevant and that moved the issue, you know, up hundreds of per cent.”

O’Callaghan: “But in his letter, Minister, sorry, the Commissioner said: he told the Attorney General on November 11, 2013

Talk over each other.

Noonan: “I need to say this Miriam, or you’ll miss the point completely. It’s the content of a particular tape in a particular piece of litigation that has raised this to the importance that the Taoiseach had to get involved immediately and to set a Commission of Investigation in place. Now I think the explanation is, but this all has to be investigated, that while the issue was whether the taping had taken place or not, that was dealt with by the Commissioner, discontinuing it. And there was a working party put in place.”

O’Callaghan: “Let me come back now because we will bamboozle the viewer…”

Noonan: “No we won’t..”

O’Callaghan: “Because it is confusing. But in the Garda Commissioner’s letter tonight which RTÉ News got, he specifically says, in relation to that November case that he consulted the Attorney General on November 11, 2013. So how come it’s only Sunday afternoon, the Taoiseach becomes aware of this.”

Noonan: “I’m sure, I’d be reasonably confident that what happened was that he got legal advice from the Attorney General’s office before he instructed that the practice of recordings in Garda stations was discontinued but at that stage, in my view, the issue was the fact that recordings were taking place. The issue rose to a very serious magnitude, well beyond that when the one piece of legislation threw up a situation where the contents of one tape was enormously relevant and we don’t know what’s in the other tapes and there’s 2,500 of them.”

O’Callaghan: “But that case happened last November, minister.”

Noonan: “No, no, it didn’t, it didn’t. You see, this is a litigation situation that I’m sure that the Commissioner was appraised of, wrote pretty immediately to the Department of Justice on the 10th of March. Now, the minister was like all ministers, away for Patrick’s Day. He was in his office for about four days after that letter got up to the Department of Justice. He came back into his department this Monday and he was briefed on it.”

O’Callaghan: “OK. It’s more a matter of who knew what when. The letter was sent over two weeks ago, according to the Garda Commissioner. Would nobody in the minister’s department, no senior civil servant think this is very important, at a time when the Garda Commissioner and the Minister are embroiled in a national crisis. Wouldn’t you tell him about this letter?”

Noonan: “Well I would assume that they would have thought it was enormously important.”

O’Callaghan: “Well why didn’t they tell him about it?”

Noonan: “Because the minister was in Mexico for a week.”

O’Callaghan: “They can call him.”

Noonan: “Of course they could but they weren’t under time pressure because on the nature of the litigation, the material on a particular tape didn’t have to be divulged for some weeks yet or some time yet, and I assume, and I’m assuming, that the senior officials in the department of justice said ‘we’ll evaluate this as best we can and when the minister comes back we’ll fully appraise him’ because we have a small period of time to do so.”

O’Callaghan: “OK, so.”

Noonan: “…before this becomes a public issue.”

O’Callaghan: “Ok, minister, so a letter of this importance, so important that you have actually initiated a Commission of Investigation into it today, it’s so important, it sat in the minister’s office and nobody thought it worth their while to tell him about it?”

Noonan: “Well, the minister was out of the office, maybe the officials had their reasons for doing it on a face-to-face basis, when he returned. But the essential point to remember is that in the nature of the litigation, the piece of evidence on the tape which, in my view, is very, very serious would not have become public for another 10 days or two weeks so that the senior officials would have known that they weren’t under time pressure and they let the minister come back into the country and..”

Talk over each other

O’Callaghan: “Ok, so we had, just to recap, the GSOC report six months ago, in June, nine months ago in fact, which the minister wasn’t told about, a letter two weeks ago, which the minister wasn’t told about, and the Attorney General being briefed in November, and she didn’t tell anyone, so what is going on within Government?”

Noonan: “I’m not suggesting this is satisfactory. What I’m trying to do is make sense of a series of events that have come and I think if you distinguish between the fact that there were recordings being made in Garda stations and then the contents of a particular recording which was quite damaging…”

Talk over each other

Noonan: “That’s one piece of insight.”

O’Callaghan: “But surely..”

Noonan: “And the other things is, you’ll have to remember that the primary decision made by the Taoiseach when he took control of this and recommended to the Cabinet on Tuesday was that there would be Commission of Investigation into everything. I mean, we’re not happy. The Taoiseach isn’t happy, that’s why there’s a Commission of Investigation to find out all the facts.”

Later

O’Callaghan:Why did you refuse to mix it, our debate, with anyone from the Opposition?”

Noonan: “Because there’s a tradition that when ministers come on, they explain the situation on a one-to-one and I didn’t want to get into a Punch and Judy Show because I feel I’d important explanations to give to the Irish public and to yourself indeed.

Watch back in full here