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Captain James Kelly’s family phone was tapped

By David Burke.

The family phone of Captain James Kelly and his wife Sheila, in Terenure, Dublin, was tapped by the gardai in 1970. Captain Kelly was one of the Arms Trial defendants who went on trial 50 years ago this week. He was acquitted.

It is inconceivable that Mícheál Ó Móráin, who served as minister for justice until early May 1970 would have permitted such an intrusion on an officer of military intelligence.

Equally it is impossible to believe that Des O’Malley, who succeeded him, would have done any differently unless – as is sadly possible – the Garda presented him with compelling information from their valued ‘informer’ Seán MacStíofáin. Unfortunately, MacStíofáin was a peddler of deceit who spun the most amazing yarns which his gullible Garda handlers swallowed whole. Hence, if O’Malley signed a warrant, he did so in good faith. Perhaps O’Malley will clarify this issue should the State permit him to address the issue.

It is more probable that there was no warrant and none of the politicians was aware of what was afoot.

I will provide some additional details about the tap in ‘Deception and Lies, the Hidden History of the Arms Crisis’ next week. I will be able to show that tape recordings were made of an unhinged individual who set out to terrify the children who answered the phone. The tapes of the horrific things he said to them were reviewed by the gardaí in charge of the surveillance. To their credit, they admitted the tapping was taking place unofficially and helped identify the culprit.

The Kelly family is entitled to know when the tap was placed (and possibly renewed) and if it was continued after their father was acquitted at the second Arms Trial of October 1970.

If it transpires that there was no warrant it means that officers of the gardai were tapping phones illegally behind the back of their minister.

The late James Downey described in his biography of Brian Lenihan how, after the Arms Crisis had erupted, ministers were placed under surveillance. “For the Lenihan family”, Downey wrote, “this was a terrible time. Anyone associated with Haughey and Blaney came under suspicion … Telephones were tapped…”. Downey’s source was a “senior official of the Department of Justice” who informed him that the Special Branch had “filled an entire room in Dublin Castle with tapes of tapped conversations, mostly involving ministers”. According to Downey, “Men, presumably from the intelligence services, lurked outside Lenihan’s house. He was ‘shadowed/ on his way to work and social functions”.

A few years later, the dilapidated RIC toilets at Garda HQ at the Phoenix Park were packed with files which were burnt on the orders of the then Assistant Garda Commissioner Ned Garvey who was in overall charge of Garda Intelligence. This was in either 1974 or 1975. It is likely that the transcripts of the phone-tap targets were destroyed at this stage along with other records and files.

However, there is no reason to suspect that the original warrant for any legal tap was destroyed in Garvey’s bonfire. The originals would have been kept in the Department of Justice.

The Department should still hold any of the warrants issued to permit the tapping of the phones described by Downey.

It is looking increasingly likely that the State will finally apologise to the family of Captain Kelly for the many wrongs occasioned to him. Whether the tap on his phone was legal or not, any such apology should include this invasion of the privacy of the entire family. The level of intrusion was so intense that – in a repeating vignette illustrative of the seamy side of Irish political life in the 1970s – Mrs Kelly often had to ask the Garda tappers who she could hear chatting to each other on the line to go away while she rang her mother.