The Irish government has launched an inquiry into allegations that the national police force carried out a widespread bugging operation over many years.
Incoming and outgoing telephone calls in a large number of garda stations were routinely recorded and the practice was only discontinued in November.
The revelation came hours after the head of the Garda resigned after dismissing claims by whistleblowers – which later turned out to be true – as “disgusting”.
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan had criticised an active police officer and a retired officer after they claimed that senior officers had illicitly wiped off the penalty points from the driving licences of well-connected individuals.
He told a parliamentary committee that the claims were “disgusting”. However a report by the independent Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), the police watchdog, agreed with the whistleblowers and recommended the penalty point system undergo reform.
Mr Callinan had been facing mounting pressure over issues including allegations that the GSOC itself had been bugged. A specialist police drug unit had also turned a blind eye to Kieran Boylan, a convicted drug dealer, in exchange for information on his rivals, it was claimed.
In a statement yesterday the Irish government said the practice of making recordings had been in place for many years.
It added: “A system was in place in a large number of garda stations whereby incoming and outgoing telephone calls were taped. It is not yet clear why this practice was in operation. The government is extremely concerned about this information.”
The government has asked for a detailed report from both the police and the justice department and said a judge-led investigation would be carried out.
In his resignation statement Mr Callinan said he had taken the decision to retire from his post “in the best interests of An Garda Siochana [Irish police] and my family”.
He said: “Having joined An Garda Siochana in May of 1973, it has been a great honour and privilege to have spent 41 years as a member of this tremendous organisation, serving the people of Ireland.”
The whistleblowers – Sergeant Maurice McCabe and now retired John Wilson – had claimed that senior police officers had inappropriately wiped the penalty points from the driving licences of contacts.
The pair made the allegations to the public accounts committee of the Irish parliament.
Last week, transport minister Leo Varadkar said he would describe the two officers as “distinguished” and the garda commissioner “was not above criticism”.
However, the Irish government had previously sought to downplay the allegations and had been forced to act after an opposition backlash against the commissioner’s comments.
Yesterday, Mr Wilson said that while Mr Callinan had served his country during his long career, “his position had become untenable and his decision to resign was the correct one”.
A dossier of alleged police wrongdoing gathered by the whistleblowers is being investigated in a government-appointed inquiry led by a senior lawyer.
Mr Callinan had been due to retire in August but justice minister Alan Shatter changed the prohibition on officers serving over the age of 60 in order to allow the commissioner to see through an array of difficult cutbacks, including the closure of 100 police stations as Ireland struggled to cope with its economic crisis.
However, since then he has had to deal with high-profile cases of police corruption.
Last year, the Smithwick Inquiry, led by a high court judge, said the garda remained a force where “loyalty is prized above honesty” after it concluded that two garda officers had colluded in the murder of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers in 1989.
The Association of Garda Chief Superintendents paid tribute to the outgoing commissioner. It said: “In the course of a long and distinguished career in An Garda Siochana, Commissioner Callinan served the people of Ireland with commitment and dedication at all times.”