Lessons from report must be heeded

THE fatal shooting of John Carthy in Abbeylara six years ago should never have happened.

That’s the heart-rending conclusion of former High Court Judge Robert Barr’s damning report on the tragic incident.

A manic depressive, 27-year-old Carthy, armed with a shotgun, was killed by gardaí on a country road, outside his Co Longford home, after a 25-hour siege in the spring of 2000.

Clear, concise and hard-hitting, the 700-page report of the Barr Tribunal is scathing in its criticism of garda failure to manage the emergency. Following blistering criticism of corruption in Donegal, this will deliver yet another serious blow to garda morale.

While the report concludes that the killing was not unlawful, it highlights a litany of garda mistakes, negligence and bungling. Significantly, it holds the commanding officers at the scene primarily responsible for John Carthy’s death.

This weighty document will constitute a baptism of fire for ex-US policewoman Kathleen O’Toole, newly appointed head of the Garda Inspectorate, as it will be the first report to land on her desk.

According to Mr Justice Barr, one of the most important issues to emerge is the need to restructure the command of the garda Emergency Response Unit. Echoing the public’s concern over the fatal shooting, he suggests Taser stun guns rather than lethal weapons be used in future when dealing with armed sieges.

The inescapable conclusion is that John Carthy’s death could have been avoided if non-lethal weapons were used. Moreover, the force should be equipped with trained dogs, noise generating devices and electrical equipment. These observations underline widespread misgivings over the Abbeylara siege. On the face of it, this was a classic example of how such an incident should not be handled.

What most people find incomprehensible is that gardaí denied John Carthy access to other members of his family, particularly his sister Marie who was close to him. Nor was advice sought from his psychiatrist, the family doctor, his closest friend or local people.

Incredibly, they even refused to give him a cigarette. If anything, that was calculated to antagonise someone under severe stress, especially a heavy smoker.

In a perceptive insight, the report links his aggressive attitude towards the gardaí, who came under fire around 30 times, with the fact that two years earlier, two named gardaí had assaulted him after a wrongful arrest.

Amazingly, the commanding officers at the Abbeylara scene had no contingency plans for dealing with John Carthy’s exit from the house. So, when they shot him, they were firing towards other members of the force, the media, neighbours and onlookers. Surely, as Mr Justice Barr observes, the road should have been cleared and sealed off.

Astonishingly, gardaí were not trained to deal with people suffering from psychiatric illness even though it is a commonplace condition in Ireland. One garda at the scene had two weeks’ training in negotiation techniques. Another had been a psychiatric nurse.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell has conceded the State owes the Carthy family an expression of profound regret. This will lend weight to any civil action by the family against the State and the Garda Siochána in search of justice.

Surprisingly, despite complaints over the level of co-operation from garda witnesses, Mr Justice Barr recommended that the State should meet the €18 million cost of the inquiry.

Meanwhile, it is mind-boggling that gardaí remain in denial, attributing his death to a split-second decision to open fire. That does not mitigate his killing.

From senior officers to rank and file members of the force, major lessons must be drawn from the Barr Report to ensure another Abbeylara never occurs again.

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