Michael Clifford: One central premise for Disclosures Tribunal no longer exists

Few would ever have to endure their personal lives being exposed to the public glare as Marisa Simms did yesterday, writes Michael Clifford.

Michael Clifford: One central premise for Disclosures Tribunal no longer exists

She spent the day in the witness box at the Disclosures Tribunal relating an extremely difficult time in her life.

Even more stark than the evidence of her personal life was her admission o that she no longer alleges the HSE or Tusla acted in any improper manner, or was influenced by the gardaí to investigate the welfare of her children. The allegation, as noted by the lawyer for Tusla, Paul Anthony McDermott yesterday, was “why we were here… and is no longer being pursued”. Many who were in attendance at the Dublin Castle hearing yesterday might have arrived at the same conclusion.

Ms Simms is the partner of Garda Keith Harrison. In 2009, he arrested a colleague for drink-driving in the Midlands and appears to have suffered a backlash as a result.

One fall-out from that was his transfer to Donegal in 2011. By then, he was in a relationship with Ms Simms, an old flame from college. Since their student days, both had married but their respective marriages didn’t last. And so they found themselves together in Ms Simms’ native Donegal, where she lived with her two children from her marriage.

There was a further complication. Ms Simms’ brother, Martin McDermott, was convicted in 2011 of the manslaughter of Garda Gary McLoughlin, 24, who died in a car-ramming incident.

Garda McLoughlin had served in the same Buncrana station where Garda Harrison arrived in 2011.

Harrison did not inform his colleagues to whom he was romantically linked, and when it emerged a few months later, he was transferred to Donegal town.

Fast forward two years and the relationship was in some trouble.

The tribunal heard that Ms Simms’ family did not approve of Keith Harrison. Some had approached the gardaí to complain about his behaviour. In the summer of that year, Ms Simms suffered an ectopic pregnancy.

During this period, Garda Harrison, the tribunal heard, was engaged in various infidelities, some of which were sourced on dating websites such as Plenty Of Fish. One was conducted while Ms Simms was in hospital recovering from the ectopic pregnancy.

Garda Harrison was drinking a lot at the time and between that and the infidelities and the lost pregnancy, there was serious conflict in the relationship. This culminated on September 29, 2013, in an incident in which Ms Simms and her two children hurriedly left the home she shared with Garda Harrison following a row.

A week later, she gave a statement about the incident in Letterkenny station over the course of an eight-and-a-half hour interview. She made allegations about threatening and “obsessive” behaviour by her partner, including aggressive action in front of the children on the night in question.

Much later, Ms Simms would allege she was coerced or manipulated by the interviewing gardaí into making some of the allegations against her partner. The gardaí vehemently deny this.

In January 2014, she withdrew the statement, although reiterating everything in it was true. A week or so later, Tusla contacted her on the basis of a referral from gardaí arising from the statement.

Ms Simms and Garda Harrison alleged influence was brought to bear on Tusla from the force related to hostility directed at Harrison from within the gardaí.

There certainly were incidents associated with alleged hostility towards Harrison — including death threats — that might well merit investigation, but the tribunal is solely concerned with allegations of improper links between the garda and Tusla.

The main allegation about improper links between state agencies was that a Tusla social worker visited the Harrison/Simms home as a result of prompting or pressure from a member of the garda.

Ms Simms was asked whether she had any evidence to back up the allegation.

“Are you now making any connection with the guards on the house visit [by Tusla]?” tribunal lawyer Kathleen Leader asked her.

“No, that was my assumption,” Ms Simms said.

Chairman Judge Peter Charleton intervened.

“Where did you get that assumption? The impression I was getting from your statement was that the gardaí was manipulating with the HSE/Tusla and that the social worker said on the phone we have to come because the gardaí told us we have to come, that all of this was manipulated by the gardaí.”

Ms Simms replied that she found it was a coincidence that Tusla had contacted her a week or so after she withdrew her statement against Garda Harrison.

Later, a lawyer for the gardaí who interviewed Ms Simms in Letterkenny in 2013 vehemently disputed her allegations that she had been manipulated into making the allegations against Garda Harrison.

He pointed to a solicitor’s letter on behalf of Ms Simms which stated “she was coerced into making a statement with a threat that if she didn’t, there may be repercussions for her and her children”.

Ms Simms was asked would she now withdraw that allegation on the basis that she accepted that the content of the statement was true. She replied that she would not withdraw it.

One happy outcome to the narrative publicised at the tribunal is that Garda Harrison and Ms Simms are now in a stable relationship. A more arresting outcome yesterday is that a central premise for the tribunal examining the issues at hand appears to no longer exist.

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