One of the questions that was never fully cleared during the so-called Golfgate case in Galway was when the event was actually organised. The invitation email for the two-day event was written by former senator Donie Cassidy, the president of the Oireachtas Golfing Society. But there was no date on the copy opened in court.
What was not disputed was that it was written quite some time before the event, perhaps in early or mid-June when the first wave of Covid-19 had passed and case numbers were plummeting and society seemed to be returning to some semblance of normality.
The problem for the organisers was there was no guarantee that the benign scenario was going to last. In mid-August, cases began to surge again and Kildare was effectively put into lockdown by the Government in the days running up to the event.
With fears of a second wave of Covid-19 occurring, the Golf Society’s dinner and presentation at the Station Hotel in Clifden on August 19th was on a collision course with the public mood.
In evidence heard over three days, it is now clear that the society did not set out to breach the regulations. Just before the event occurred, Cassidy actually moved the dinner from the golf club in Ballyconneely to the larger hotel in Clifden, to comply with the regulations. He also took advice from the Irish Hotels Federation.
There were 81 people at the dinner, separated into two groups by a wall-to-ceiling partition that had two openings. The first allowed serving staff to go from one space to the other during service. The second was at the top of the room near the rostrum. It effectively allowed people on both sides of the dividing partition to see the speaker and presentations.
At the time, the guidelines allowed a maximum of 50 people at an indoor event. A hotel was allowed multiple events as long as they were held in separate spaces. So the simple question that Judge Mary Fahy had to decide was whether what happened in the hotel that night was one event or two events? If it was one event, it would have been in breach.
In a decision as categoric as it was concise, Judge Fahy ruled two separate events had taken place in the hotel that night and there was no breach of the laws.
On the political level, however, the verdict was never going to be as clear-cut. When you look back at the coverage of the week, it’s clear those at the gathering had a tin ear to the mood music.
While it was billed as the Oireachtas Golfing Society, Kathy Sheridan noted in her column that only two of the attendees were serving TDs (out of 166) and a further seven were Senators (out of 60). So, few who were present had been at the coalface of the political response to the pandemic in the previous months. They did not know but they should have known that an event like that in a busy hotel in a busy holiday destination at the height of the season was not a good look.
Some of the reaction at the time was hysterical, with Twitter’s army of Klaxons at full flow. As our political editor Pat Leahy wrote at the time: “The hyperventilating about closed golf gatherings of the elite who run Irish society was faintly ridiculous when you looked at the list of attendees.”
He did make the valid point that the outpouring of public anger was less – to his eyes – a lynch mob than a genuine and spontaneous expression of the public’s view on the matter.
Which was true. But long after the anger subsided, and in the round, what happened in Clifden was not remotely as heinous as it was portrayed to be at the time. Cassidy set out to comply rather than breach – that much is clear from the evidence.
And you wonder how proportionate it was for those who attended who found themselves at the receiving end. Phil Hogan and Dara Calleary both walked the plank, though Hogan’s end had more to do with his handling of the matter subsequently as anything else. Seámus Woulfe had to initiate a judicial mutiny to prevent the same thing from happening to him. Seán O’Rourke was poised to become the new presenter of Saturday View but was frozen out by RTÉ. There was a frenzy to find out who else attended (accompanied by some banal conspiracy theories).
And for four people – those who were prosecuted – the after-effects of Golfgate dominated their lives for 19 months.
The English journalist Jon Ronson has written extensively about the enormous psychological impact being caught in the middle of a national media firestorm has on individuals. It was like that for both Cassidy and Noel Grealish.
Cassidy talked of trying to remain sane during that time. Grealish’s solicitor Shane MacSweeney remarked the Galway West TD had “found the last two years stressful with this hanging over him”.
Cassidy spoke hopefully about a way back for some of those who had lost their jobs. As a politician, he should know when a career comes to a grinding halt like this, there is no such thing as instant restitution. If there is a way back, it’s going to be a long haul.