More than seven years ago, Shane O’Farrell was killed in a hit and run. The Dáil has backed a commission of investigation into the incident. The family last month wrote to the justice minister seeking action. Why is this being put on the long finger, asks Michael Clifford.
ON August 7, the family of Shane O’Farrell wrote to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.
The letter pointed out that their son and brother Shane “was unlawfully killed on August 2, 2011, when he was violently struck and killed by a defective, mechanically propelled vehicle while out riding his bicycle on the N2 public road near Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan”.
The letter went on:
The O’Farrell family has not been alone in this respect. Through their persistent efforts, the case of Shane O’Farrell was debated in the Dáil last June.
The motion called for the Government to establish a commission of investigation into the circumstances around Shane O’Farrell’s death. That motion in turn came on foot of publication of a report from the Garda ombudsman (Gsoc) which failed to answer many of the questions posed by Shane’s family.
The Dáil motion was passed by a majority of two to one, with the minority-government benches opposing it.
So why is the Government stalling? Why does Mr Flanagan not either establish a commission, as per the will of the Dáil, or refuse to do so if he believes it is unwarranted and the Dáil motion undeserving of action?
The circumstances around the 23-year-old’s death raise a number of alarming questions about the criminal justice system.
He was out for a cycle on August 2, 2011, a break from studying for his final exams in UCD. A few miles outside the town, he was struck by a motorist, 38-year-old Zigmantas Gridzuiska, a native of Lithuania who had been living in this country for some years.
Gridzuiska had a history of drug abuse and he should not have been driving a vehicle on that day. He had a number of convictions in his native country before arriving in Ireland.
On January 11, 2011, seven months before he killed Shane, he was convicted of theft in Monaghan Circuit Court but his sentence was adjourned for a year. The judge said if he got into trouble with the law in the interim he would be immediately put in prison.
On May 9 at Ardee District Court, Gridzuiska was convicted of theft yet was not brought back before Monaghan Circuit Court where he would have been immediately imprisoned.
Two days later, he was convicted in Dundalk District Court of speeding. On June 8 at Carrickmacross District Court, he was convicted of possession of heroin. Just over a month later, he was in Newry District Court charged with theft. And then, on July 25, he was back in Monaghan, the district court convicting him of failure to display a tax disc.
By August 2, Gridzuiska was on bail for a number of these offences. He had been ordered to sign on three times a week, but at one stage he’d been detained in the North and quite obviously couldn’t have signed on.
He had breached bail a number of occasions, had been in receipt of suspended sentences which should have been activated, yet he remained free to go about his business, irrespective of the law.
After he struck Shane, Gridzuiska failed to stop and was only apprehended after an intervention from his girlfriend.
By that stage, he had 42 convictions in courts between his native country and this jurisdiction. Seven of those convictions were for possession of heroin.
At a subsequent trial, he was ultimately convicted on a charge of failing to stop and remain at the scene, for which he received a suspended sentence on condition he leave the country.
Had the law taken its course, Shane O’Farrell may well be alive today. His family is certainly of that opinion and of a mind to get answers as to why their son died violently.
The O’Farrell family first made an official complaint to GSOC in 2012. Two years later, then justice minister Alan Shatter asked the ombudsman to open a public-interest investigation into the matter.
At issue were 56 allegations against the conduct of various members of An Garda Síochána at various points in the narrative leading up to the hit-and-run incident.
THE publication of the report prompted the Oireachtas motion for a commission of investigation, which was passed by the two-to-one majority.
During the Seanad debate in June, senator David Norris put it thus: “What state of mind was this person in driving a car — an untaxed, uninsured, untested car? That car was subsequently tested and it was found that when one turned the wheel to the left, it continued to the left until it stopped and the same when it was turned to the right.”
Senator Pádraig MacLochlainn pointed out that the Dáil had given the justice minister a democratic mandate to set up an inquiry and the case “must now be put in the hands of a wider public inquiry because this is a whole-of-justice system failing.
In the days before that debate, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he wasn’t ruling out a public inquiry. During the debate, Mr Flanagan said he wasn’t either, but would have to wait until GSOC had completed the disciplinary investigation.
This line was echoed in a response that his office gave to the O’Farrell family’s letter last month.
“It would be improper of the minister to preempt the findings of the current active investigation by commenting where he is not permitted to do so,” wrote the minister’s private secretary.
“It, therefore, remains the position that, when the investigation of these events are completed, the question of what further action might be taken will be considered.”
So now, seven years after their son was killed, the O’Farrell family are being told the answers to the questions they seek will have to be further long-fingered.
Gsoc’s criminal investigation took four years to complete (six from the time the O’Farrell family first made a complaint). That is not unusual. The ombudsman’s office is under-resourced, a reality that the government has been reminded of
The law under which Gsoc operates is restricted. There are narrow parameters within which it must operate. For instance, its brief is to determine whether criminal or disciplinary charges are justified, not what exactly happened.
Even in the event that Gsoc had, for instance, determined that criminal charges should have been brought against a member, that would not fully inform the O’Farrell family as to how there was a breakdown in the criminal justice system that left them bereaved.
It is not fanciful to suggest that any disciplinary process could take at least another two or three years. And there is also the possibility that no disciplinary action will be recommended.
Irrespective of all that, the O’Farrell family will still not receive the answers to which they are entitled.
The position of the justice minister on the issue is curious, to put it at its mildest. In June, he was under political pressure to set up the inquiry. This came from both the democratic mandate in the House and the campaign by the O’Farrell family to have their concerns addressed.
In a mature democracy, Mr Flanagan would either have complied with the wishes of the Dáil, or taken the political heat and explained why, as minister, he was of the opinion that a commission of investigation was not warranted.
Instead, he kicked the can down the road. The excuse he offered has little weight.
There would be absolutely nothing to stop the establishment of a commission at a time when Gsoc is conducting its investigation.
In 2014, the Oireachtas set up the O’Higgins commission of investigation into complaints of malpractice made by Sergeant Maurice McCabe. At the time there were outstanding disciplinary actions against at least one member in relation to one of the cases to be examined by O’Higgins. The commission went ahead regardless and there was nothing controversial about doing so.
To use an outstanding disciplinary matter as an excuse not to proceed is little short of insulting to the O’Farrell family.
All of the indications are that the minister is merely putting off the day when he would have to decide. And in all likelihood the dreaded day won’t arrive this side of a general election — and who knows who might have their shoes under the minister’s desk after that.
If Mr Flanagan believes that the threshold for holding a commission has not been reached, he should be obliged to say so and, preferably, provide reasons and context.
If he should so choose, he might explain why, in this instance, unlike many similar cases, he did not even bother with a scoping inquiry to determine whether or not to press ahead to the statutory inquiry level.
It may well be that the minister or his officials are of the opinion that a commission would not further the understanding, or uncover more facts about the case. But there is an obligation to state the case as to do otherwise leaves the O’Farrell family in the dark.