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 Fail 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.
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 Failte 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 Failte Ireland guidelines.
He added that Cassidy has no previous convictions.
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 Fail 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.
Mr Justice Woulfe insisted his actions did not warrant him losing his job.
Mr Smyth referred to a statement from Mr Woulfe, describing him as one of the “important witnesses”.
“Former attorney general Seamus Woulfe was responsible for the introduction of a number of statutory instruments covering the Covid emergency,” Mr Smyth added.
“Up to about 50 regulations were introduced under his supervision.
“There is a statement from Mr Woulfe in which he said: ‘I was aware from my time as attorney general that the rules contained in statutory instruments, such as those organising social event, were often fleshed out in more granular detail between a particular sector, for example the hospitality sector and governmental authorities, by way of an agreed protocol or guidelines’.”
Mr Smyth said Cassidy took “all appropriate steps”.
He added: “He took all precautions and he was aware of the law and the applicability of the law.
“He would say he is a lawmaker and not law breaker. He made appropriate inquiries and checked the regulations and guidelines.”
He said Cassidy had satisfied himself that he met the relevant guidelines.
Mr Smyth said of the event: “There was a partition wall dividing two suites. In effect two suites were created. That is the position that met the guidelines that had protocol put in place by the Government for the opening of the hotel sector.
He said there is “no case” against his client.
Michael McDowell, appearing for 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.”
Senior counsel Eddie Walsh, appearing for hotelier John Sweeney, said the event was organised in accordance with legislation.
He said guidelines were introduced for the benefit of business people to act and rely on them.
He added: “Unfortunately I have to say, from what (the prosecutor) seems to be saying, presumably on the instructions on behalf of the director of the DPP. There now appears to be an attempt by the director or perhaps by the state to disassociate itself from and to resile from, or to distinguish the guidelines from which the Government sought fit to introduce.”
The trial is expected to take up to five days, with more than 50 prosecution witnesses to be called.