Hysteria whipped up over golf dinner but no Covid rules broken, Golfgate trial told

A barrister for one of the defendants said “everybody jumped on the bandwagon” to suggest the accused ignored Covid rules because they “occupied a particular status in society”.
Hysteria whipped up over golf dinner but no Covid rules broken, Golfgate trial told

Senior counsel Colm Smyth, representing Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy (pictured), said his client is “a lawmaker not a law-breaker”. Picture:: Ray Ryan

The trial of two politicians and two hoteliers over an alleged breach of Covid restrictions in organising a golf society dinner has been told “hysteria was whipped up” and no guidelines were broken.

A barrister for one of the defendants told Galway District Court on Thursday that “everybody jumped on the bandwagon” to suggest the accused ignored Covid rules because they “occupied a particular status in society”.

Galway East Independent TD Noel Grealish, 55, former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy, 75, John Sweeney, 60, and his son James Sweeney, 32, who own the Station House Hotel, face trial related to organising the Oireachtas Golf Society event.

Charges

All four face a single charge that on August 19, 2020 they organised an event that contravened the Health Act 1947, as amended, to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19.

The alleged offences relate to a dinner which took place at the Station House Hotel, Clifden, Co Galway, on that date which was attended by 81 people.

The prosecution alleges the four defendants fell into the legislative definition that prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people.

The court heard guidelines relating to gatherings at indoor events within the hospitality sector were published by Fáilte Ireland around the time of event.

Senior counsel Colm Smyth, representing Cassidy, said his client is “a lawmaker not a law-breaker”.

Mr Smyth told the court: “These were emergency guidelines to get the hotel sector out of lockdown.

“These guidelines were introduced in consultation with Government. The guidelines that were published have the logo of the state and that insignia of the official department.

“This is an official department upon which the sector relied on.

“Those 81 people were accommodated in two separate rooms. This was an event that was not a spur of the moment event. It was not a frolic. This had been worked out a couple of years in advance.

“It has been impressed on the public that these were people of social standing, former members of parliament. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon to suggest that these people were ignoring (rules) and because they occupied a particular status in our society, that the rules did not apply to them.

“All of this started when the Government had an emergency meeting in relation to bring in further restrictions. The press assumed that what the Government had decided the night before had legal effect and meaning to this event.

“It did not because regulations were not introduced for a considerable time and did not become law for 10 days after.

“The press became involved, as they are entitled to do, but public sentiment was whipped up and hysteria was whipped up about this and a lot of very good people then had to resign.” 

He asked Judge Mary Fahy to make a ruling on the status of the Fáilte Ireland guidelines.

He added that Cassidy has no previous convictions.

Resignations

Grealish, of Carnmore, was the golf society’s captain, while Cassidy, of Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, was its president.

The public backlash over the event led to the resignation of then agriculture minister Dara Calleary, while a number of other Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael senators lost the party whip. Cork senator Jerry Buttimer was one of those, and he also stepped down as leas-chathaoirleach of the Seanad. 

European Commissioner Phil Hogan also resigned over the matter.

Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe, now Supreme Court Justice, who also attended the event, came under pressure to resign his position.

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