Michael Clifford: Garda superintendent bids to lift suspension after late-night arrest

Almost a year after his arrest, Eamon O’Neill is fighting to have his suspension lifted, writes Michael Clifford

Michael Clifford: Garda superintendent bids to lift suspension after late-night arrest
Superintendent Eamon O’Neill, who spent most of his 30-year Garda career as a detective, has applied to the High Court to end his suspension. Picture: Limerick Leader

On the morning of May 15 last year, Superintendent Eamon O’Neill awoke to find several men in his bedroom. He quickly recognised one of them as a senior detective garda. He was told to get up, that he was under arrest. He says he wasn’t told in any specific terms at that time what he was being arrested for.

“I went into a deep state of shock and distress,” he says. “I was trembling. I experienced an extreme form of palatable fear.” 

His partner, who is a detective, and their infant son, were in the house at the time of the arrest.

He was brought at high speed from his home in Ennis to Athlone. There he was fingerprinted, had a DNA sample taken. He says he was still unaware of the purpose of his arrest.

At around 11.30am, while he was being processed, the news broke on the internet.

“Arrest of garda superintendent and inspector as part of corruption investigation sends shockwaves through the force….” Superintendent O’Neill was interviewed over the course of the day into the following morning. He says he was shown a number of videotapes, but he couldn’t see the relevance.

“The interview process was shambolic,” he says in an affidavit. “The persons who conducted the interviews were poorly briefed and appear to have had a limited insight into what was occurring.” His solicitor, Dan O’Gorman, was present for the interviews.

He was released in the early hours of the following day. At the end of the interviews, one of the gardaí interviewing him concluded by saying: “That is the evidence we wish to put to you.” Supt O’Neill says: 

I recall my solicitor and I looking at each other with no small degree of amazement and my solicitor remarking specifically: ‘We haven’t seen any evidence’.

So began a turbulent departure in the senior garda’s life, the latest docking in which occurs with an appearance in the High Court today. Eamon O’Neill has been suspended since May 16 last year. Last Wednesday he made an ex-parte application – where only one party is present – to have his suspension lifted.

He is facing a disciplinary hearing in relation to an allegation that he was in the company of a garda inspector in a Limerick pub, who, it is alleged, sniffed cocaine in full view of a CCTV camera.

Supt O’Neill states that any basic investigation would uncover that the inspector in question “is the least likely character to take or ingest an illicit substance” and that the CCTV evidence amounts to the man “wiping his nose”.

A third member was in their company on that occasion. He is before the courts on a criminal charge, unrelated to the gathering in the pub. A file on the matter pertaining to the inspector was prepared for the DPP, but it returned with an instruction not to prosecute, according to the affidavit.

Supt O’Neill says he understands he is being investigated for a “Section 62” offence. This section of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 relates to unlawful release of information associated with a member’s work. He says there is no evidence of any such breach. The issue does not form part of the disciplinary action against him.

Apart from those two issues, a third has arisen in recent months. Following further investigation, the superintendent is now facing disciplinary action over cancelling speeding and parking tickets for a number of individuals over a three-year period. These include high profile GAA players and a TV personality.

The superintendent, who has close links to Limerick county hurling, is claiming that these cancellations come under the power of senior gardaí to exercise discretion with good cause.

Eamon O’Neill has spent most of his 30-year career in An Garda Síochána as a detective. In that capacity he had a major role in tackling the gangland crime that blighted Limerick, particularly through the 2000s. He was a central figure in the prosecution of five men for the murder of Kieran Keane in 2000, a pivotal event in the gang war that raged at the time.

File photo.
File photo.

Following the convictions, the detective sergeant, as he then was, spent a year liaising with the family of Owen Treacy, the central witness in the trial, who had been stabbed seventeen times on the night his cousin, Keane, was murdered.

“I allude this particular matter as the successful conclusion of this affair was based exclusively on trust and my reputation as a member of An Garda Síochána,” he attests in the affidavit.

In 2016, he was promoted to superintendent and left detective work. Prior to his suspension he was based in Roxboro Road station in the city.

Away from his work, O’Neill is a prominent figure in Limerick GAA. He represented Ireland in handball and played underage hurling and football for Limerick.

In 2017, when John Kiely was appointed manager of the Limerick senior hurling team, the superintendent came on board as part of the backroom team, and was there for the county’s All Ireland win in 2018.

He says that his sporting background is of consequence to the allegation that he would consort with anybody who would take drugs.

“It is a statement of the obvious, to say that, by reason of my career and my sporting life, I do not mix with, or do I socialise with, persons who take recreational drugs. On the contrary, my social circle is exclusively confined to members of An Garda Síochána and persons involved in sporting activities.

"These aspects of my life could have been readily ascertained by an investigator upon the most cursory inspection of my life and my activities. It is also a statement of the obvious to say that I have witnessed at close quarters the effect on the community that illicit drug taking has had. Therefore, the matters which now form the substance of the discipline allegations are preposterous and are mischievous in the extreme. 

I say they serve no worthwhile purpose and are completely spurious and are nothing other than an attempt to malign this deponent.

The allegation about drugs relates to an occasion last January when Supt O’Neill met the inspector in the Hurler’s Bar in Castletroy on the Dublin Road.

O’Neill says that the inspector was newly promoted and he missed a gathering to celebrate it the previous December as he was readying himself for a trip to Mexico with the Limerick hurling squad.

On the evening he met the inspector a third member was also present for at least some of the time. This man is currently before the criminal courts. The Superintendent is adamant that the inspector did not ingest cocaine, saying “he is the least likely candidate to take or ingest an illicit substance. I have no hesitation in stating that he is a person of impeccable character. I say there are an infinite number of garda colleagues who would be quite prepared to confirm his impeccable character and to their revulsion as it relates to the allegations.” 

He says the inspector merely put his hand to his nose and that he, the inspector, was in his local bar and “the event in question was taking place in the open and in full view of the CCTV cameras and in full view of other patrons.” 

Another element of the disciplinary process relating to that event was an allegation of drinking while on duty.

Superintendent O’Neill says he knows the member now before the courts and has served with him but was unaware of any criminal allegations against him.

The affidavit states that the superintendent believes the Section 62 allegation against him relates to an investigation the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI) was conducting into this member.

File photo
File photo

O’Neill says that “I reputedly reported the existence of a listening device” in this garda’s car and then telephoned the garda to advice him of the device’s presence.

“Simply put, I was not aware at any time of a device in his car or elsewhere. I did not therefore phone him or contact him in any manner to alert him.

"Despite the fact that a period approaching one year has now elapsed it is clear that if such evidence ever existed it would have been unearthed by the NCBI in a matter of moments.” 

Supt O’Neill is now claiming that a failure to definitively conclude that investigation has been followed by a “trawl for some information that may disparage or implicate me in a disciplinary setting". This, he says, has led to members of the senior Limerick hurling panel being interview about the “quashing of speeding summons and the like”.

“This is clearly a bid ex poste facto to find some material on which to hang an allegation,” he says. “It is also clear that the persons in NBCI who are conducting this form of inquiry are unaware of the O’Mahony report as it relates to the exercise of discretion.” 

The O’Mahony report was an investigation in 2013 into allegations about fixing speeding tickets made by then sergeant Maurice McCabe.

A board of inquiry set up as part of the disciplinary process against Superintendent O’Neill was due to sit on April 20 but had to be postponed because of the current health emergency.

The garda says that he “ought not now be suspended” and “there is no grounds to justify my suspension”.

Last Wednesday’s hearing was on an ex-parte basis so the garda commissioner was not represented. Judge David Keane granted Louis McEntagart SC for Superintendent O’Neill permission to serve the garda commissioner and the state at short notice proceedings seeking to lift his suspension.

At today’s hearing the commissioner will have the opportunity to present a replying affidavit to contest the claims by Superintendent O’Neill or to decide on any other course of action.

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