“Good afternoon to you” – sitting in the Liveline chair.

Working in RTÉ has afforded me many experiences as a journalist I would not have gotten elsewhere. Seeing history unfold for myself in the Balkans or the Middle East; a variety of challenging investigative projects; translating personal passion for food and farming into prime time documentaries and more besides.

Sitting in the Liveline chair for the last month now goes high up in the short list of memorable moments.

“But you’re a journalist, Philip. What are you doing refereeing that chimpanzee’s tea party?”, asked a sniffy friend after my first day on the job. It’s taken me a month to come up with a coherent response (I’m slow like that) but it’s obvious really that Liveline is one of the most fundamental journalistic processes;  Getting real people into a space where they can comfortbly relate personal experience that illuminates national debate.

Analysis of media organisation’s woes; the focus of journalism courses in a time of digital platform proliferation; debates about what journalism should be doing tend to overlook this one simple truism. Journalism is about telling people’s stories, and it’s at its most compelling when you find a platform that allows people to tell those stories themselves.

Much of our media is a starchy diet of comment, analysis (yes, like this piece) and political reaction. Media by wonks, on wonkish issues, to be consumed by wonks with a second course of the trivial hyperventilated over by the inane. So when you come across the person whose recent scrape or whole life story illustrates the bigger point they’re better than ten policy wonks or a month of Sunday morning panel shows.

Joe has created a space on a radio station that tends towards the cerebral where people are comfortable relating the most private details publicly. Yes, of course there are show offs and pub bores among the callers but the vast majority want to make a sincere contribution to the public discourse, and the national conversation is the better for it.

It is also for a presenter about as thrilling an hour and a quarter you’ll spend in front of a mic. When Joe Duffy shuffles off this mortal coil his adrenal gland needs to be donated to science. For it is either a tiny shrivelled pea having produced more adrenaline every lunchtime for the last 15 years than any other broadcaster has in a lifetime. Or he is a freak of nature with superhuman capacity to absorb the hormonal rush Liveline sends coursing through your veins.

There is no other programme I know where you will routinely walk into studio knowing you only have about twenty minutes worth of calls. You place your faith in those people to be sufficiently interesting to generate more calls. You place your faith in the call takers to make a quick assessment and turn around of what’s come in. You place your faith in the producers to have a Plan B … and a Plan C and D just in case. Because if they don’t you will literally be whistling Dixie to 400,000 people, and that is a lot of faith for an atheist and professional sceptic to be placing in anything.

And as the conversation unfolds there is another piece of mental gymnastics at which Joe proves himself particularly supple day after day. Working off a two or three line written brief about the caller you have to give them your complete, whole and undivided attention. It’s not a real conversation if you’re doing anything less. Except you’re also reading the briefs on the other callers, talking with the producer, watching the clock and counting your ad breaks, while dredging up facts from the murkiest recesses of your brain on topics you never expected to be talking about that or any other day. Syringomyelia in Cavalier King Charles show dogs anyone?

I’ve a new found respect for what Joe does and what he and the team have built Liveline into. His choice in ties is dubious at best and he walks around the office painfully slowly causing traffic jams wherever he goes. But the programme is the best kind of journalism in its class and it has been a privilege to babysit it for the summer.


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Tuam: New understanding

I’ve pulled in on the road back from Tuam in response to demand for a blog from those who missed this evening’s report on Drivetime.

That report (which I can’t podcast just yet) revealed new evidence that has emerged in Tuam about the nature of the burial sites in the grounds of the old Mother and Baby Home.

The most significant aspect to which is that at least one of the two plots possibly used by the Bon Secours nuns was not a septic tank as previously thought.

A woman has come forward who has related to me a credible first hand account of falling into a burial plot at the rear of the home in in the mid 70’s where she discovered a large amount of infant remains wrapped in swaddling.

Her interview suggests that one of the two spots where baby and child remains were placed could not have been a septic tank.

The Mail on Sunday has identified two sites side by side each other in its radar survey. Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney discovered one as boys in 1975. The Mail called it Plot B.

Plot A is the square shaped one Mary Moriarty says she fell into in the 1970’s when the ground subsided. A child was found playing with a baby’s skull and when Mary and neighbours investigated she discovered a large underground space with shelves from floor to ceiling stacked with infant bodies. She says she saw in excess of 100 tiny figures swaddled and guessed from the size they were newborn or stillborn.

Subsequently she talked to a woman called Julia Devaney who had been a resident of the home and later an employee. By then in her late seventies she told Mary how she had assisted the nuns carrying dead babies along a tunnel running from the back of the home to this vault.

Now obviously it will take excavation to confirm any of this but her description of the space and the possible existence of a tunnel used to access this burial plot would suggest that plot A (whatever of Plot B) at least was not a septic tank.

Albeit untested and unproven this is significant anecdotal evidence from within the home that the nuns were burying children in these sites. That a skull was found with teeth suggests not all were stillborn.

It also raises more questions – why weren’t the nuns using the cemetery just on the other side of the road? Even if these were unbaptised remains there was an angels plot in that graveyard so it is perplexing why they wouldn’t have used it.

But it is yet more evidence that these remains were from the mid twentieth century and not from the famine era.

It still doesnt explain why so many died in Tuam and where they are buried.

But the most significant aspect to this information is this – whatever cruelties you could lay at the nuns feet, however harsh or medically incompetent the regime they ran was, it was always hard to believe that they would have knowingly put babies in a septic tank. Because there may have been a tunnel running up and into this vault/crypt/space – this one at least is highly unlikely to have been a septic tank.


The tireless Catherine Corless has found documentary evidence proving the existence of a tunnel (WWII era proposals to use them as air raid shelters) and Frannie Hopkins has clear memories of playing in a tunnel as a child but not one that extended as far as the burial sites. So there is limited corroboration for Julia Devaney’s posthumous testimony but Alison O’Reilly of The Mail on Sunday tells me their GPR Survey showed no tunnel.

The other burial plot we cant say that of yet because the plans do indicate the presence of a tank in the vicinity.





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Cooke Report: Why it doesn’t support the “nothing happened” headlines


The die has been cast and the first news cycle after the publication of retired Judge Cooke’s report on alleged bugging of #GSOC produced a wealth of “nothing proved so nothing happened” type headlines.

Read it and you can’t come to the same conclusion.

The Wifi Threat

GSOC’s boardroom has a lot of audio visual equipment including microphones. Contained within this equipment was a device which had been tampered with and original manufacturer parts were found to have been replaced. This device – called 4B throughout the report – was repeatedly trying to connect with the wifi network in a nearby cafe. The significance of this was in the belief of Verrimus that an …

“eavesdropper could gain access to the microphone-enabled units connected on the network in the Boardroom and the Media Room and use them to listen to conversations in those areas.”

Further alarms were raised when during Verrimus’s security sweep Device 4B was observed to be connecting to the cafe’s wifi – with which it “exchanged 121 data packets.” One of GSOC’s officers was present when the data exchange occurred. He said …

I was told that the display that I was watching was a visualisation of data moving in and out of GSOC. …and data was coming into GSOC via the same device. I saw that and it went on for an extended period.”

Verrimus wasn’t asked to prove bugging was taking place only assess what threats existed. So the didn’t prove beyond all doubt that recordings of conversations that had taken place in the boardroom were being smuggled out of GSOC via a neighbours wifi. With the benefit of being able to review Bitbuzz’s own log of data exchanged on that network Judge Cooke says that nobody has provided him proof that that there was any content in those Data Packets. He says that it is possible that Device 4B

“could have continued repeatedly to probe for connection thus generating what appears to be a high number of data packets without necessarily transferring any corresponding high volume of actual data.”

The White Van

While Verrimus was conducting its second survey in GSOC one of GSO’s officers noticed a white van with blackened out windows parked in the street with a direct line of sight to the GSOC Boardroom. The officer who had extensive experience of counter surveillance walked around the block and saw two men walking together on three separate occasions. His evidence to the judge was that he “considered this to be a possible indicator of a surveillance operation in the vicinity of GSOC”

At the same time that this was happening the Verrimus operatives detected a fake UK GSM/3G mobile telephone signal which they concluded was an IMSI catcher capable of decrypting phone signals and stealing data. This was only ever detected by Verrimus when the White Van was present.

Judge Cooke finds an innocent explanation though. He made contact with a mobile phone operator who indicated to him it was “highly likely that the detection was caused by the testing of a new 4G installation by that network which is confirmed as having been taking place over the period of weeks during which the detection was made.”

As for the physical surveillance he concludes that Verrimus’s presence in Ireland could have raised suspicions about who they were selling their technology too and it might have been them and not GSOC who were being snooped on “such surveillance (if that is what it was) was directed at the activities of Verrimus operatives rather than at GSOC personnel.”

The Landline

The second threat to GSOC’s security identified by Verrimus was from the hands free landline telephone in Simon O’Brien’s office called a Polycom because it is used for conference calls. Verrimus conducted many tests on it but the final one was to send a burst of music down the line at a quarter to two in the morning with the express intention of letting anybody who might be listening know they had been rumbled. Verrimus then claimed the following happened …

“The test device was still connected and neither operator was touching the device. The device received a call in of around three rings’ duration. Meaning a person must have made a call to the device direct, as the organisation’s switchboard was on out-of-hours service.”

Their opinion of this was “The likelihood of a ‘wrong number’ at that time to that exact unknown number at the time of an alerting test is so small it is gauged at virtually zero.”

Who made the call then and why? Verrimus speculated that “the ‘listener’ found the intermittent music on the line at 01.40 hours an odd occurrence and without thought or consideration to the possibility of a counter surveillance operation decided to test the call line to ensure it was working. Assuming there would be nobody there at that time.”

Judge John Cooke’s finding on this middle of the night call back with a coincidence factor of virtually zero is very far removed from this morning’s headlines of “No evidence of surveillance found”. The judge can find no explanation for this occurrence and does not attempt to come up with a hypothesis.

It remains the case however that this ‘ring-back’ occurrence has not been explained and further extensive tests in conjunction with the device’s manufacturer would probably be required to advance the matter further.


In summary then the judge notes about the wifi that packets of data may have been exchanged between the device in the boardroom and a wifi network outside GSOC but it has not been proved to his satisfaction that that those data packets contained audio recordings of conversations that took place. He considers the legitimate testing of a 4G network as the “likely” but not proven explanation for a fake GSM network. And he cannot provide any explanation for why a phone with an unlisted number should receive calls in the middle of the night just moments after it has been tested for a tap.

Under the circumstances Judge John Cooke says he can only conclude “it is ultimately extremely difficult to determine with complete certainty whether unexplained anomalies of the kinds identified in this instance were or were not attributable to unlawful intrusion.”

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Judge Cookes terms of reference asked him to establish whether it was proved bugging took place. He could not establish that. The terms of reference did not ask him was there a sufficient amount of unexplained and coincidental activity to give rise to the justifiable suspicion that somebody was attempting surveillance. The headlines would be very different today if it had.

Separate to the technical anomalies there are now new questions raised in the report about the conduct of unidentified agencies possibly connected to the security services if not the security services themselves. When leaving Ireland via Dublin Airport two Verrimus operatives reported to Judge Cooke that having checked in and passed through security a man stood directly in fromt of them as they were seated and produced a camera from his shoulder bag.

They turned away to avoid being photographed but “the individual waited and when they turned back he photographed them. Mr described this as a “trade craft procedure” known as being “burned” which is a strategy used by the “opposition” to let them know that they are aware of their presence and that, in other words, “their cover has been blown.”

Verrimus was also contacted twice by a businessman who appeared to be attempting to influence the evidence that Verrimus would give to the inquiry. In a conversation recorded by Verrimus this man claimed that efforts were being made by the security services to place somebody inside the inquiry.

Caller: Well, you know, there is work going on behind the scenes there to put in a man in there who may understand the whole significance of it. Right. And I know that the boys in green are trying to get a man who is, let me say.

Verrimus: Is in to advise?

Caller: Someone who would know what he was on about, he would know exactly who I would be talking about right.

Not long after the inquiry had commence Judge Cooke says that the Department of Taoiseach passed him a letter which contained an offer of unsolicited help from someone who had worked in the Irish Defence Forces as an Intelligence Officer for over twenty years. Judge Cooke reports that “The Offer was not taken up.”

Who? Why? To what end? Prompted by who? Why did the Department of Taoiseach think it appropriate to pass this on?

All this leads you to the inescapable conclusion that while GSOC bugging was not proven there is far more to this episode than we yet understand.


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Tuam: Commission of Investigation announced

A first few sketchy thoughts on this afternoon’s announcement before I go on air.

The Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan said today the object of the Commission of Investigation will be “to seek the truth, to catalogue the facts and to explain exactly what happened in Mother and Baby homes.” So is a Commission of Investigation the right vehicle and will it have the power to do exactly that?

Can it for instance conduct excavations of the site at Tuam?

The 2004 legislation doesn’t specifically mention archaeological investigations but it does say that the Commission can “remove for later examination or copying any documents, or information in any form, that the authorised person has reason to believe may relate to a matter under investigation”. So the commission could argue if it felt exhumations and forensic examinations were necessary that they have the authority to conduct them.

But are exhumations really necessary?

I interviewed Toni Maguire an archaeologist specialising in the remains of marginalised children, this afternoon. She appears in my report here, but in essence she says yes. This inquiry will have to establish the facts on the ground or under it to answer the questions most troubling the public. And it was her unfortunate experience in dealing with similar digs in Miltown Cemetary in Belfast that when dealing with the religious orders you have to go the extra mile in obtaining corroborative facts.

Can people be forced to give evidence to a Commission of Inquiry?

The overriding intention of Commissions of Investigation was to be scaled down versions of Tribunals without the public hearings and without the Phalanx of Barristers and Lawyers standing behind every witness. And alarm bells should ring when the Dept of Justice’s own website emphasises that a Commission “must seek and facilitate the voluntary co-operation of people whose evidence it requires, and it must conduct its proceedings in private, except in exceptional circumstances.”

But while the legislation says that attendance should be voluntary the commission will have the powers to compel testimony and discovery of documents should that be necessary and can trot off to the High Court to achieve that. And if anybody is found to have lied to the commission that is an offence. So it has teeth – it just has to chose to use them.

But what will the commission investigate?

That Irish society, church and state permitted and indeed fostered attitudes towards pregnancy outside marriage that we would now find offensive is the stuff of social history not quasi judicial investigations. What are the specific issues that a commission is needed to make findings of fact on.

Off the top of my head the issues that need to find their way into the terms of reference are:

Adoptions – The extent? How many and why were numerous adoptions conducted outside the state regulated process? Who profitted financially and by how much?

Vaccinations – Authorised by who? Conducted on how many? To what medical effect? Who profitted and by how much?

Burials – Who was buried where? Can a comprehensive record be established? Why were apparently unregistered sites in use?

There is enormous volumes of information on what went on that can be established from public records in places like land registry, coroners offices, courts system, HSE, County Councils and various other archives. Where the Nuns record keeping might have been poor the Church’s own records or those of the County Council might prove to be substantially better. This paper trawl could establish a much greater appreciation of what went on and teh scale of it before ever having to put anyone through the trauma of reliving their time there.

One of the most valuable could be a trawl through the land registry to see where there are covenants on land use attached to sales that might indicate burial sites.

Will the commission make findings of fact?

Can it? Yes. Will it? Well …

It has the authority to make such findings. And where evidence is contradictory it has the authority to offer its own opinion on that dispute. Experience shows though, that the extent to which that is excercised will depend on who the government puts in the chair.

Whoever gets that job is going to have to be ever mindful of the senitivities of those who still feel stigmatised by their time in The Homes. So there will be a lot of black pen and a lot of Child A and Nun B. That will leave some feeling unsatisfied with the process, but we should all remember it is the victim’s process more than it is ours.


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Tuam: What lies beneath?

A firm specialising in the use of Ground Penetrating Radar surveyed the site this morning. Locals assumed that this was the start of the states investigation. But I contacted The Department of  Justice who said, “no, it’s not us”, and the Gardai who haven’t responded yet – but it turns out that it was the Mail on Sunday who paid for this team to be there.


This morning Frances Fitzgerald gave teh Gardai a very public nudge to go and do something. She said she wants a report on the sum of their knowledge. And at the very least they appear to have moved to sort out in their own minds that the grave is not the “famine era” dig which was excavated back in 2012.

A Garda Detective did visit the site of the septic tank and what is believed to the burial location of some or all of the 796 children who died while in the nun’s care. While there the he interviewed Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney who in 1975 found scores of corpses in a disused septic tank, but all of this was understood by those two men to very “unofficial”.

But somewhat incredibly although this scoping excercise was announced on Wednesday nobody anywhere in officialdom has yet contacted the local historian Catherine Corless who has all the documents that indicate the possibility of as many as 800 burials there. She’s done a lot of groundwork, why not learn what she knows you’d have to wonder?

So so far it would seem that this scoping excercise doesn’t extend to establishing facts on the ground. And nobody in government is still able to tell me how it is going to be conducted. Are they just going to look at documents in their possession or are they going to interview members of the Bon Secours order and former residents of the home?

Yesterday the Bon Secours nuns broke their silence to issue a statement that neither confirmed nor denied they knew anything about the burials.


I have sent them a list of questions – asking them what they knew about the site and about any possible burials? Was it a registered burial site? And if the 796 children and babies who died whi8le in their care weren’t put by members of the order in the disused septic tank where did they put them?

They haven’t responded to any of those questions … but what has turned up today is their records from the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. I was passing fruitlessly around the houses yesterday to see what if any records the nuns had kept. Today though the new Child and Family Agency Tusla told me that they had found them.

It would have been hoped that they would give an indication of who was sent there, who was born there. And then when they left did they go to a foster home, adoptive parents or an early grave? But I gather from a first look the records are incomplete, handwritten, patchy and will give a far from comprehensive overview of the Nuns activities.

So as things stand the Government’s scoping excercise of the paper trail doesn’t look like it is not going to uncover anything new. The only way now to find out whose are the bodies in the septic tank will be to exhume them. The only way to find out what the nuns did with the bodies of 800 children will be for the Gardai to interview any who may still be alive.

Meanwhile some people have started tying children’s dolls to the gates of Leinster House to register their protest at what they see as insufficient action to date on the part of government.




Update to the update
As of six this evening the official Garda position has changed from “there is no investigation” to “we will provide any information and assistance we can to the Government’s interdepartmental group set up to investigate the issue.”

Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s polite instruction has had the desired effect.


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Tuam: Nothing to see here, move along now please.

Yesterday the Gardai told me the remains in Tuam were famine era and they were not conducting an investigation.

So this morning I sent them this helpful map of the site.


It shows that, yes indeed, 48 famine era bodies were discovered in 2012 on the site of the old workhouse. But that archaeological dig was about 50 or more metres away from the septic tank where the 796 children’s bodies are believed to be buried.

If it sounds confusing I promise it’s not if you’re there. The rawest recruit on his or her first day out of Templemore would grasp it straight away if they visited the site.

I also asked the Gardai should the modern era grave not be examined to conclude all deaths were of natural causes before making public declarations that “no impropriety” occurred here? I threw in a few other obvious questions which I won’t bore you with because I have no answers to them. There has been complete silence from Garda HQ today.

This episode is going to be an interesting test of Acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan’s mettle. There are no legacy issues involving her predecessor, this cock up has happened on her watch and it is entirely up to her to resolve it. Which she must do for fear the Gardaí earn the reputation of being the kind of police force that cherry pick what they do and don’t want to investigate.

The silence from Gardai was matched by lack of specifics from government about its inter-departmental scoping excercise. Normally chatty handlers and pols weren’t returning my calls and when Minister for Children Charlie Flannagan took the Topical Issues debate in the Dail this afternoon it was easy to see why. He had nothing concrete to add to the sum of human knowledge whatsoever. There’ll be scoping … which will inform a review for government … which will help cabinet decide on the next step … which will come in a month.

My attempts too to track down who might now have the Bon Secours documents from The Home were passed from agency to agency inconclusively. Which was much more successful than my fruitless ringing around members of the religious order.

I will use today in the future when talking to journalism students as a pretty good illustration of Stonewalling.

But things are moving within the Catholic Church beyond the prying eyes of the Fourth estate. A newly retained PR called me to say he had just been hired by the Bon Secours nuns but had nothing to say and didn’t envisage having anything to say on behalf of his clients any time soon. Roughly an hour later Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called on the nuns to do the right thing. Within a half an hour of that the public relations man had become gainfully employed and this statement popped into my inbox.


The nuns are being a bit Jesuitical I couldn’t help but notice. There’s no denial of knowledge of the burials. Why not? Can we infer some knowledge of the practice from this? If there is some awareness of what was going on that then makes the absence of any promise to cooperate with the government inquiry even more notable.

The promise to engage with the local committee is potentially problematic too. All that the majority of them I have met and spoken to want to achieve is erecting a plaque with all the names of the 796 children on it and then leave the site undisturbed. They are uncomfortable with the thought of their community becoming the locus of a major exhumation and forensic investigation and can you blame them. If the Bon Secours order wanted a veil quietly drawn over the past the very people who brought this to public attention may be their best allies.

Meanwhile the world wants to know what we are doing about the Tuam babies. I have tried to answer the same question in the last 24 hours on Australian, French, British and Dutch radio and to journalists calling from Brazillian, Indian, American and Swedish newspapers. I know nobody listening can have been impressed.


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Tuam Babies: The evidence

Tuam Home

My brushes with officialdom on the subject of this scandal in the last 48 hours suggest that many still feel there is little or no evidence to support the claims the Bon Secours nuns buried 796 infants and children in a disused septic tank.

This is wishful thinking. Although the evidence falls far short of what would be required in court it indisputably makes the case for a Garda or state investigation.

1) The testimony of Frannie Hopkins


Seen here standing on the site of the burials Frannie and his friend Barry Sweeney uncovered the grave in 1975. You can listen to his testimony about three minutes into a podcast of my report on Drivetime from 4/6/14. He is credible, has no reason to lie and is supported by other eye witnesses. It suffices to say his evidence proves there are bodies there. But how many and belonging to who?

2) Births, Deaths and Marriages own records.


Asked to retrieve records like the death certificate above for all the deaths that occurred there while the nuns were running it this state agency came up with a list of 796 names. So this figure of 800 dead babies (which incidentally excludes the stillborn) has been generated, and double checked, by an arm of government.

3) How do we know they’re all buried in the septic tank?

We don’t. But local historian Catherine Corless cross checked the list of 796 with Tuam and other local cemeteries. None of the 796 appear on any other list. So some or all are either on the site of the home or they vanished into thin air. Catherine took me through her documents on her kitchen table this afternoon – her interview is about 6 minutes into the podcast.


4) How do we know the burial site was a septic tank?

Look at the south west corner of the site from this 1892 map. You will see a “Sewage Tank” clearly marked in the south west corner of the site.


And now look at it overlaid with a map of present day Tuam.


That is the same site where Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney made their ghastly discovery in 1975.

This does not prove, as some have alleged, that the nuns negligently let children starve to death. But it does establish what some seek to deny – that there is every reason to believe up to 800 bodies could in the literal sense of the word be unceremoniously discarded there.

That is not the view of the Gardaí though. They have set their faces against an investigation without apparently considering any of this evidence. They sent me the following statement this afternoon, even after the government had made its own announcement about a review of the evidence.

Hello Philip.

The grounds in Tuam were being surveyed in 2012 and bones were found, they are historical burials going back to Famine times, there is no suggestion of any impropiety and there is no Garda investigation. Also there is no confirmation from any source that there are between 750 and 800 bodies present.

There was a discovery of famine era bones in the vicinity in 2011 as “The Home” was a workhouse up until the turn of the century. The location of that site is about 100 yards away from the septic tank burial site. So the Gardaí are misinformed on this or have decided to find a reason not to investigate any closer. Because to claim that there is no source confirming the presence of any bodies there is to wilfully ignore myriad evidence in the public domain.

More in the coming days.





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