Garda filing system seems to let us down time after time

Garda filing system seems to let us down time after time
Majella Moynihan in 1988.

Either the standard of Garda record retention is poor or certain files just get lost, writes Michael Clifford.

Why does An Garda Síochána appear so careless when it comes to retaining records that might reflect badly on the force?

The latest example of “missing files” concerns the case of Majella Moynihan. Ms Moynihan’s story of her persecution in the force after she became pregnant in 1984 has had a major impact since it was first aired on RTÉ Radio last Saturday.

One of the more startling elements to her story is from the recent past rather than the 1980s. In 2010, she began seeking her personal file within An Garda Síochána. Eventually, she was furnished with the file but it was heavily redacted with large passages blacked out. This, in effect, rendered much of it useless.

She then attempted to gain access to the full file, but, her friend Susan Lohan told RTÉ’s This Week, Ms Moynihan was told:

We’re terribly sorry, we can’t find your files anymore, they are lost.

So the file from the 1980s was uncovered intact in the force’s archive in the last 10 years. It was then examined closely to determine which sections should be blacked out. After that it was handed over to Ms Moynihan.

Yet when the redactions were challenged, and human rights law cited entitlement to the full file, it could no longer be located. Perhaps that it is just a coincidence that the file only went missing after it would have become apparent how embarrassing it might be.

Unfortunately, a succession of court cases and inquiries have repeatedly highlighted how An Garda Síochána has a poor record when it comes to retaining records. In many of these cases, the missing record had the potential to cause embarrassment to the force.

The Margiotta case, covered in this newspaper in recent months, illustrates the point. Garda civilian employee Lynn Margiotta and her GP brother, Tony, were charged with producing false sick notes. The case was thrown out in court, but the siblings have always maintained it was pursued solely in response to a complaint of bullying Lynn made against a Garda member in 2014 — weeks before she was arrested.

Lynn Margiotta
Lynn Margiotta

Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee last month, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said there was no record of a bullying complaint. An inference might be taken that there was no complaint, but the Irish Examiner has established that a verbal complaint was made and the normal industrial procedure was being followed when Ms Margiotta was arrested. That no written record of that process has been retained is staggering.

After all, the case was unprecedented, and that alone might have ensured that a careful record would be kept. Coincidentally, such a record would go towards the Margiottas’ case that the criminal justice system was used to stifle her complaint against a sworn member.

Failing to retain a record of a bullying complaint is one thing, but how do you fail to retain in custody a blood-splattered garden gate?

Nobody has ever been charged in this jurisdiction with the brutal murder in 1996 in West Cork of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Last month a French court convicted Ian Bailey of the murder. He has always denied involvement.

What we do know from a Gsoc inquiry is that the Garda investigation into the murder was seriously flawed. Last year Gsoc published its report which included the detail that 139 witness statements have gone missing. “These included witness statements from Garda members, forensic scientists and members of the public,” Gsoc reported.

Files on five potential suspects have also gone missing. As has a blood-splattered gate from the scene of the crime. “How does one lose a gate?” Bailey’s solicitor Frank Buttimer asked at the time.

The Du Plantier case presented many and varied challenges to An Garda Síochána and the failure to bring a prosecution is an ongoing sore. How, in such a vital case, could so much have gone missing?

The Maurice McCabe story touched on the tendency of stuff to go missing. A computer seized from a child-abusing priest in 2009 “went missing” in Garda custody. There was a failed attempt to pin the blame for this on McCabe, but how could a computer go missing?

Coincidentally, the warrant used to seize the computer turned out to be defective. That could have been highly embarrassing if the item became central to any trial.

Elsewhere in the McCabe story a number of phones used by senior management in An Garda Síochána also went missing. These phones may have had evidence that would have been of interest to the Disclosures Tribunal.

Yet, they were lost, gone forever and with them any secrets that might have been retained on record. The McBrearty case in Donegal, which led to the Morris Tribunal and a multi-million euro settlement also involved missing stuff.

Frank McBrearty Jr had claimed he was physically abused in Garda custody when he was arrested on suspicion of murder. (It was subsequently shown he had absolutely nothing to do with the death in question).

His solicitor wrote to the gardaí complaining about the alleged beatings. Yet the pages of the letter containing the brutality complaint were missing when a file was sent to the DPP.

Coincidence or carelessness? Who knows?

McBrearty’s cousin, Mark McConnell, was also arrested at that time. Large sections of the interview notes from his time in custody also went missing. The case of the death of Fr Niall Molloy in 1985 remains open. Yet, a Gsoc report published last year found that the file on the priest’s death is defective.

“It became apparent during the Gsoc investigation that many original documents including exhibits are missing,” the report stated. And this was a high-profile, highly controversial case. If that level of carelessness applies to cases like this, what of the normal run-of-the-mill stuff?

As it turns out, files go missing in routine cases also. In 2017, a High Court hearing was told that a file into a woman’s claim that she was raped had gone missing not once but twice. The woman was suing for a failure to properly investigate her claims.

“To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘to lose the file once may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it a second time looks like carelessness’,” her lawyer told the court.

Was it once more a coincidence the missing file could have proved to be embarrassing? Or was it just down to random carelessness?

Now Majella Moynihan has been told that her file has also gone missing. Either the standard of record retention in An Garda Síochána is appalling, or else certain categories of files just tend to get lost.

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