The Irish government has launched an inquiry into widespread bugging of Garda stations just hours after the force’s chief dramatically stood down.
After a lengthy Cabinet meeting, the coalition released a statement declaring it was extremely concerned about the revelations which it said were potentially of such gravity that a statutory Commission of Investigation was being established.
The Government said in a statement: “In the context of ongoing legal proceedings in a particular case, the Government has learned that a system was in place in a large number of Garda stations whereby incoming and outgoing telephone calls were taped and recorded.”
“The Government was informed of this new information at its meeting today. As the matter is before the courts, it is not appropriate to make any further comment on the specific case.”
The bugging was in place for “many years and was discontinued in November of 2013” but it is not yet clear why the practice was in operation.
“The Government is extremely concerned about this information,” said the statement.
Both the Garda and the Department of Justice have been ordered to report back to the coalition on the sensational claims.
The announcement followed the shock resignation of Garda Comissioner Martin Callinan, who said he was retiring in the best interests of his family and the force after months of battling allegations of wrongdoing within his ranks.
Mr Callinan’s dramatic stand down in a country unfamiliar with high-profile resignations has stunned those professionally closest to him as well as senior Government figures, some of whom had demanded he withdraw controversial remarks about whistleblowers.
In a statement Mr Callinan said: “In the best interests of An Garda Siochana and my family, I have decided to retire. I felt that recent developments were proving to be a distraction from the important work that is carried out by An Garda Siochana on a daily basis for the citizens of the State in an independent and impartial manner.”
The Garda chief did not deal any further with the controversies that have rocked his stewardship of the force, but praised his colleagues for serving the people of Ireland.
Mr Callinan is understood to have tendered his resignation “with immediate effect” to the Justice Minister Alan Shatter this morning after coming under intense pressure in recent weeks to withdraw remarks he made about two whistleblowers within his ranks.
During a parliamentary watchdog hearing into abuse of the penalty points system by the force, the country’s top police officer said only two officers out of 13,000 were making “extraordinary, serious allegations”.
“Frankly I think it is quite disgusting, on a personal level I think it is quite disgusting,” he said at the time.
An Opposition backlash culminated in several Cabinet ministers, spearheaded by Transport Minster Leo Varadkar last week, calling for the remarks to be withdrawn.
A statement from Garda headquarters insisted the remark was about the manner in which “personal and sensitive data” was appearing in the public domain and not the the character of the whistleblowers Sgt Maurice McCabe or ex-garda John Wilson.
While Mr Callinan was expected to make some statement on the controversy early this week, his resignation has come as a shock to those closest to him in the force.
Confirming his decision to quit, he said he had never failed to be impressed by the dedication of all serving members and civilian staff since taking the top post four years ago.
“The last four years have seen major changes in An Garda Siochana, which were always done in the best interest of the community for whom we do our job,” he said.
“Although some of these changes have not always been easy, statistics from the Central Statistics Office have shown that they have resulted in a reduction in crime throughout the country.”
He added: “I have great confidence that the delivery of an excellent policing service by excellent people will continue as it has done since An Garda Siochana’s foundation.”
“I wish my successor, current members of An Garda Siochana, and those due to join later this year my continuing best wishes and wholehearted support.
Padraig Mac Lochlainn, Sinn Fein justice spokesman and chairman of the Public Service Oversight Committee, said Mr Callinan had made the right decision.
“From the moment that the allegations from the two Garda whistleblowers, Maurice McCabe and John Wilson, emerged about widespread malpractice of the penalty points issue the Garda Commissioner sought to downplay and even dismiss the allegations,” he said.
“Worse, he repeatedly sought to discredit the credibility of the two whistleblowers which culminated in the outrageous ‘disgusting’ comment at the Public Accounts Committee.”
Mr Mac Lochlainn said recent separate reports in the penalty points controversy by both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Garda Inspectorate vindicated the core allegations of the whistleblowers.
Mr Callinan was due to retire last August but the Justice Minister tweaked a ban on gardai serving past the age of 60 to allow the police chief serve for two more years.
The order came at a time when hard-hitting cut-backs and reforms had to be inflicted on the force under Ireland’s economic rescue package.
But the financial woes - including the closure of 100 Garda stations - appeared to be the least of his worries, as he was forced to battle several high-profile fall-outs about alleged Garda wrongdoing.
Last year, the long-running High Court judge-led Smithwick Inquiry said the Garda remained a force where “loyalty is prized over honesty” as it concluded officers colluded in the murders of two RUC officers in 1989.
Last May the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) launched an astonishing attack on the force, accusing it of withholding vital evidence from its inquiry into allegations that elite Garda officers colluded with a convicted drug trafficker.
The independent watchdog set up to investigate Garda wrong-doing claims a specialist unit within the force turned a blind eye to drug dealer Kieran Boylan’s activities in exchange for information on other dealers.
The row laid bare mounting tensions between the force and its watchdog.
Sensational claims by Gsoc earlier this year that its headquarters in central Dublin had been bugged by government-level technology has led to yet another ongoing inquiry, headed by a retired High Court judge.
Furthermore, a dossier of alleged Garda wrongdoing gathered by the whistleblowers is being investigated in a Government-appointed inquiry by a senior counsel.
Fianna Fail justice spokesman Niall Collins said the shock resignation is “the latest depressing chapter in a crisis that has been going on for months”.
“It is a crisis of the Government’s own making and stems from the absolute and ongoing failure of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Justice Minister Alan Shatter to show proper leadership on the issues,” he said.
“The Commissioner was left in a very difficult position and his resignation follows the unprecedented politicisation of his office by Minister Alan Shatter.”
Mr Collins demanded Mr Shatter make a full statement before the Dail.
“There will be some in Government who will hope that Commissioner Callinan’s resignation draws a line under the crisis,” he said.
“They are wrong. The Commissioner’s resignation actually throws into even sharper relief the abject failure of Alan Shatter to be accountable for the way in which he deliberately undermined the credibility of the whistleblowers and misled the public about their activities.”
Mr Collins added that Mr Callinan had had a very distinguished career and that the country owes him a debt of gratitude for a lifetime of service.
Whistleblower Mr Wilson, who is fighting cancer, said his former Garda boss had made the right decision.
“I take no pleasure in the demise of any human being,” he said in a short statement to his local radio station Northern Sound.
“Martin Callinan has done this country some great service throughout his career in An Garda Siochana, but his position had become untenable and his decision to resign is the correct one.”
Amidst the extraordinary developments, the Government said it would move to set up an independent Garda authority to supervise the force.
Proposals are to be made public after two separate ongoing inquiries into abuse of the penalty points system and alleged bugging of the force’s official watchdog, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission.