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OPINION: History repeating itself as phones are being bugged

January 25th, 2016 12:04 PM

By Southern Star Team

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IN 1969, as Belfast Catholics faced mobs that had been encouraged to burn out their neighbours, a terrified man rushed to phone the RUC before realising that the people throwing the petrol bombs actually were the police.

RUC participation in the riots has always horrified people ‘down South’ who saw the collapse of trust between law abiders and law enforcers as an example of the irredeemable nature of the Northern statelet.  Yet, down the years a blind eye generally has been turned to the activities of bent coppers and corrupt politicians in this neck of the woods, although the reaction to the vile antics of Taoiseach Charles Haughey and Justice Minister Seán Doherty in the 1980s can be considered somewhat of an exception. 

Last week we got a restored whiff of the bad old Haughey days when several public representatives warned that gardaí were bugging their phones. As if confronted with the ghost of GUBU past, Deputy Catherine Murphy revealed that she now uses a ‘throwaway’ phone to protect the identity of whistleblowers that contact her. 

Gerry Adams, leader of the largest opposition party in the 32 Counties, disclosed that he always worked on the basis his phone was tapped.

 

Monitoring equipment

But now journalists are claiming that the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) monitors their phones and computer equipment. Last week, the National Union of Journalists went public on the case of two journos whose phone records were accessed by the GSOC.  

Indeed, the NUJ believes that GSOC and the Gardaí presently are carrying out investigations into how nine journalists are obtaining their information.  

Gardaí are heading four of the probes and the rest are under the auspices of GSOC, the Ombudsman Commission. The cases include the death of a well-known fashion model, a child abuse investigation that implicates an unnamed former government minister, a prominent current TD and others connected with the water charges protest that caused offence to Madame Burton, the removal by Gardaí of two Roma children from their homes, details about the banking inquiry and the wrongful arrest of TD Clare Daly on drink-driving charges.

 

NUJ concerned

The question posed by the NUJ is this: can hacks be trusted by their sources if the possibility exists that their phones are being monitored? According to union leader, Séamus Dooley, it was very worrying ‘that while Ireland was supposed to be promoting and protecting whistleblowers who act in the public interest, such an integral part of whistleblowing as secure contacts with the media was now being called into question.’

Mr Dooley called for an industry-wide response from editors, meeja owners and reporters ‘because this is a matter which affects every journalist.’

 

Ostrich response

Perhaps Mr Dooley also might seek an explanation from Labour’s Alex White (Communications Minister and former current affairs producer with RTE) in relation to his cynical retort to allegations of phone tapping. As reported in the Irish Examiner, he declared that people should contact the Gardai if they were concerned their phone was bugged!

As with the unfortunate Belfast man complaining to the RUC about RUC thugs burning his house, the minister’s response was a superb example of sarcastic indifference.

The fact that White prefers to behave like an ostrich that disengages mentally from the democratic process is not good enough. Because however unfit his government is for purpose, it still has a responsibility to operate within a framework of constitutional rules that defines the rights of citizens! 

If it doesn’t, we’re back to the established model of Fianna Fáil viciousness and to a revamped Haughey-Doherty-style depravity, which in its day brought us worryingly close to the status of a police state.

After all, it was Doherty’s tapping of the phones of high profile journalists Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold that created a political scandal of such far reaching consequences that it eventually led to a serious constitutional crisis and the resignation of Squire Hockey as Taoiseach. It also brought an end to the careers of the Garda Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner.

 

Writing on the wall

Although the phone taps commenced in 1982 amid suspicion that ministers were leaking information to the press, ten years were to pass before the pathetic Doherty found the courage to entangle Haughey in his crimes. The resulting controversy destroyed Haughey’s political career.

During Doherty’s time as Justice Minister, ‘a nightmarish Kafkaesque climate of fear and tension, and of insecurity and paranoia within the Gardaí was created,’ according to Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh in their book, The Boss: Charles J. Haughey in Government. 

So, perhaps it was with the benefit of hindsight that current Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, saw the writing on the wall and went some way to allay public fears that another wagon-load of corruption, this time Blueshirt-inspired, was coming down the tracks.

Having first declared that she would not interfere in any way with the GSOC investigation, she later appeared to row back by announcing a review of the legislation that allows the Garda Ombudsman access to phone records of journalists.  ‘This review will have regard to any relevant judicial findings and ensure our law represents best international practice,’ she cryptically said.

 

Serious penalties

But her ambiguous climb-down (if it was that) did not convince a clearly narked Sindo. Last week, it drooled over an allegation from ‘senior sources’ that more Garda time was being devoted to ‘trawling’ journalists’ phone records than to any single murder or rape case. In some instances, up to 14 gardaí at a time were said to be involved in investigating journalists’ phone and computer records, and that the purpose was to discover if a breach of the 2005 Garda Siochána Act had taken place. Under the Act, an offending journo ran the risk of seven years’ porridge, or a €75,000 fine. Only Officers above the rank of chief superintendent can order the investigation.

The Sindo, with an uncharacteristic lack of bias and suddenly enveloped in a glistening halo of civil rights, grandly harrumphed about the fact that phone tapping was not common in EU countries and that any surgical inspection of a journalist’s electronic records was an attack on the democratic principles of a free press.

Even Health Minister, Leo Varadkar – of all people – threw in his sixpence worth of concern with the comment that covert garda scrutiny might be breaching the rights of private citizens. For Varadkar, the goings-on were rather ‘odd’ and, in the coming days, he hoped to raise the issue with Fitzgerald, the Justice Minister. 

So that’s all right then! Vrad will sort everything out!

Yet recent events are uncannily similar to Haughey’s GUBU-days, raising the knotty conundrum of how healthy our democracy is under Fine Gael-Labour, and how close we are to the trappings of a Stasi police state?

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