The cabinet meetings of January 18th, 19th and 20th, 1983, were among the most dramatic in Irish political history as ministers considered how to deal with the Garda authorities in the light of a phone-tapping and bugging scandal that had taken place under the previous year's Fianna Fáil government led by Charles Haughey.
Much of the detail of what happened came into the public domain in 1983 and later years but the cabinet papers show how the initial government decision to sack the Garda commissioner and the deputy commissioner was modified when both men agreed to offer to retire.
The Fine Gael-Labour government led by Garret FitzGerald that took office in December 1982 was immediately made aware of an episode that involved the tapping of the phones of journalists Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold on the former minister for justice Seán Doherty's instructions.
As inquiries were being made into how the Garda had come to tap the journalists' phones it emerged that a Garda tape recorder had been supplied to a Fianna Fáil minister, Ray MacSharry, to tape a conversation with party colleague Martin O'Donoghue and that the conversation had been transcribed at Garda headquarters.
The cabinet met at 10am on January 18th to discuss what to do. The meeting went on until 6pm. The cabinet reconvened at midnight and the meeting continued until 2.30am on January 19th. In the interval between the two meetings minister for justice Michael Noonan met Garda commissioner Patrick McLaughlin and deputy commissioner Joseph Ainsworth. The first and second drafts of the government's decision on the matter indicate how those meetings influenced the cabinet's ultimate decision.
The first draft of the decision, dated January 19th, was headed: "Garda Síochána: Removal of Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner from Office." It read: "The Minister for Justice was authorised to inform Patrick McLaughlin and Thomas Joseph Ainsworth
“(1) that the Government have lost confidence in them as Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner, respectively, in the Garda Síochána:
“(2) that on that account the Government proposes to consider removing them from those offices;
“(3) that any representations they would wish to make in reference to their proposed removals from office should be made within such reasonable time as the Minister may decide for consideration by the Government;
“(4) that alternatively they would be allowed to retire or resign from those posts as appropriate.”
However, the final draft of the decision was toned down considerably and there was no reference in it to the Government having lost confidence in the two men. That decision carried the same heading, "Garda Síochána: Removal of Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner from Office", but the wording was quite different. It read: "The Minister for Justice was authorised to inform Patrick McLaughlin and Thomas Joseph Ainsworth that if the interviews which the Minister was to have with them developed on the lines that suggested to him that it would be necessary or appropriate to do so he should –
“(1) indicate to them that a situation might develop where their continuance in office could come into question and
“(2) invite them to make any comments that they might wish to make in that context.”
Change in wording
The cabinet files do not record what was said in the conversations Mr Noonan had with Mr McLaughlin and Mr Ainsworth on the evening of January 18th but they clearly had an impact on the change in the wording of the government decision agreed early on January 19th.
Mr McLaughlin wrote to Mr Noonan the following day: “Having regard to our conversation of last night, it is apparent that you and the Government feel that I have not lived up adequately to my responsibilities. In particular I am thought by you not to have measured up in the exercise of control relative to the matters discussed. In the circumstances it would not be appropriate for me to try to continue in the post of Commissioner and accordingly I have decided to retire as from 1st February, 1983.”
'No other active involvement'
He stressed: "Taking this course of action does not mean that I am in any way culpable in the controversy about 'telephone tapping' beyond signing the application for a Postal Warrant for Bruce Arnold. I had no other active involvement and in fairness to both you and myself I want to place it on record that you did not suggest otherwise.
“The investigation carried out by Deputy Commissioner [Laurence] Wren established:
“(a) the Gardaí had no information at any time that either Bruce Arnold or Geraldine Kennedy had any connection with criminal or subversive activities or with persons so involved, and
“(b) the requests for warrants to intercept conversations on their respective telephone lines were not initiated from within the Force, and
“(c) such requests were, in fact, proposed by the then Minister Mr Seán Doherty and
“(d) Copies of the recorder [sic] telephone conversation from these lines were supplied to the then Minister for Justice.
“Regarding the supplying of a ‘tape recorder’ to the former Minister for Finance, I had no knowledge of this until I learned of it at your office on 18/01/1983. If we are requested to supply something to a Government Minister we have very little option but to comply.
“In view of the allegations and insinuations in the media, I want to absolutely reject any suggestion that I have been personally involved with anybody to obstruct the course of justice in any way whatsoever to act wrongfully.”
On the evening of January 20th the cabinet met again. The minutes, headed “Garda Síochána Retirement of Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner”, record the Government noted the intentions of Mr McLaughlin and Mr Ainsworth to retire.