By Cate McCurry, PA
Guests who attended a controversial golf society dinner later dubbed 'Golfgate' told a court they were assured by organisers that the event complied with Covid laws.
The trial of two politicians and two hoteliers, who face charges of breaching coronavirus regulations, was also told no-one at the event expressed any concerns that the gathering broke rules around indoor gatherings.
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, are on trial accused of illegally holding the Oireachtas Golf Society event.
All four face a single charge that, on August 19th 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 offence relates to a dinner which took place at the Station House Hotel, Clifden, County Galway, which was attended by 81 people.
The trial is taking place at Galway District Court and is likely to run for a number of days.
Former captain of the guards in Leinster House John Flaherty, who attended the event, was among those who gave evidence.
Before the event, he spoke to organisers who assured him it was in “consultation” with Failte Ireland guidelines, he said.
“I rang and spoke to the hotel,” Mr Flaherty said. “Not only did I ring a number of weeks before but also around two to three days beforehand.
“They assured me that all precautions would be taken.”
'Kept to the table'
Mr Flaherty told the court he was directed to his seat and sat at a table with former TD Michael Harty, Senator Paddy Burke and broadcaster Sean O’Rourke.
Mr Flaherty said there was no movement of people in the room and that guests “kept to the table” they were assigned to.
He said the dinner finished at around 11pm. It was his view guidelines were being observed at all times, he told the court.
“I wouldn’t have participated if I knew it broke the rules,” he added.
“I was personally satisfied that it was being conducted to the guidelines. I felt safe.”
Rod McAuliffe, who was a guest of Mr Flaherty, said: “(Staff) were very forceful in the wearing of masks and there was no bar service.
“Everything was table service. I was told to wear a mask and the staff wore masks.”
Mr McAuliffe said there was a partition between the two rooms but he could not see or hear anyone in the other room.
He said it was partially opened for a number of speeches by Mr Cassidy, Mr Grealish and Phil Hogan.
He said no-one expressed any concern about whether the event breached Covid guidelines or regulations.
“Everything was so strict about Covid,” he said.
“Mr Sweeney was supervising the dinner and it was impeccable management and carried out in a very satisfactory (way).”
Cait Hayes, a member of the Oireachtas Golf Society, said she checked the room before the event started as she was there with a friend who was “medically compromised”.
“It looked absolutely fine and I felt very happy with it,” she said.
Ms Hayes said she sat a table with seven others, including boss of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland Brian Hayes.
She told the court there was no socialising between tables.
Fianna Fáil Senator Aidan Davitt said he thought the event was “extremely professionally run”.
“They were on top of their game at the hotel. They had politicians and a commissioner attending, and they wanted to put their best foot forward,” Mr Davitt said.
“There was no mixing of the tables and it was taken extremely seriously.”
Paudge Connolly, a councillor in Monaghan County Council and member of Oireachtas Golf Society, said the room was “exceptionally well laid out”.
“They were two separate entrances. If you wanted to go to bathroom there was a separate area,” he added.
“I was very reassured. I stayed for the prize-giving and there was a PA system, and it was letting you know what was happening in the other room.
“You couldn’t see what was happening. The only thing they were missing was a screen.”
'Hysteria whipped up'
Earlier, the court was told “hysteria was whipped up” following the event.
A barrister for one of the defendants told Galway District Court “everybody jumped on the bandwagon” to suggest the accused ignored Covid rules because they “occupied a particular status in society”.
There was a legal argument about the interpretation of guidelines for indoor gatherings, particularly those that were published by Failte Ireland.
Senior counsel Colm Smyth, representing Mr 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.”
Mr Smyth asked Judge Mary Fahy to make a ruling on the status of the Failte Ireland guidelines.
Mr Grealish, of Carnmore, was the golf society’s captain, while Mr Cassidy, of Castlepollard, County 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.
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.
Michael McDowell, appearing for Mr Grealish, told the court his client was not involved in organising the event.
“He had no part in making arrangements for the president’s dinner,” Mr McDowell added.
“The outing of the society was divided into two days. My client, as captain, was responsible for some aspects of the first day.
“The second day was the president’s day and the president’s dinner.
“The court will be satisfied that, on all of the evidence, he did not organise it within the definition. This was not organised by him, he did not publicise it, arrange it, or manage it.”