Mick Clifford: So many questions about the Limerick garda probe that a TD brands 'a witchhunt'

Among the puzzling aspects of the internal investigation is the treatment meted out to some gardaí — and it's anybody's guess why the probe hasn't been extended to other cities
Mick Clifford: So many questions about the Limerick garda probe that a TD brands 'a witchhunt'

Cathal Crowe floated the idea that the Limerick investigation may represent a different type of policing culture imported by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. However, that theory doesn't explain much of what has been happening.

On Wednesday evening, Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe addressed the Dáil on the Garda Síochána (Functions and Operational Areas) Bill 2021. He strayed from the substance of the debate to address goings-on in Limerick. 

“One could almost call the Limerick Garda division ‘Salem’, because a form of witchhunt has been ongoing there for the past two years,” he said. 

"Eight members have been suspended, 60 garda phones have been confiscated, and morale has never been lower. Of the eight members suspended, some have been waiting up to two years to be interviewed by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation [NBCI]. "

Mr Crowe was referring to an investigation by the NBCI into the quashing of tickets for motoring offences, known as squares. This was a major issue of malpractice in the force for years until allegations about it surfaced through former sergeant Maurice McCabe and former garda John Wilson in 2012. Reform was implemented that reduced its occurrence hugely, but didn’t eliminate it. Squaring still goes on but on a much-reduced scale.

An investigation like no other

The investigation in Limerick is like no other previously conducted by the organisation into internal matters. There are major questions about its proportionality and possible misuse of power and the reason why it is being conducted at all. Morale among gardaí in the division is indeed, as the TD from Co Clare pointed out, on the floor.

Mr Crowe said that what was at issue was the use of discretion by gardaí when detecting a motoring offence. 

“We must move way beyond the model of squaring off a ticket for a monsignor, a politician, or a county hurler,” he said: 

Everyone agrees we must get beyond that, but we do not want a witch trial, which has been happening in Limerick in the past two years. We are talking about putting more gardaí on the streets but we have taken a lot off the streets. They are sitting at home and morale is low. 

"This has placed stress on, and caused anguish for, wives, husbands, and children because of the shame that it carries. People have not been afforded the opportunity to clear their names.”

A short time after that contribution in the Dáil, Independent TD for Limerick County, Richard O’Donoghue, rose to echo the sentiments.

'...an injustice on the scale of Maurice McCabe...'

Last February, Irish Examiner Political Editor Daniel McConnell tweeted that junior minister Niall Collins told a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting that two gardaí in Limerick were being treated like Maurice McCabe:

I have spoken to senior legal personnel, figures in civic society and sporting circles in Limerick, and retired senior gardaí, who have all expressed concern, and in some cases alarm, at what is going on. In July, the president of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), Frank Thornton, described the investigation as a “witchhunt rather than a legitimate investigation”.

Maybe they are all wrong. Maybe the investigation is being conducted without fear or favour by a crime-fighting unit lifted from Line Of Duty, cracking down on corrupt cops.

Young frontline gardaí treated differently to senior officers

'One could almost call the Limerick Garda division ‘Salem’, because a form of witchhunt has been ongoing there for the past two years,' Clare TD Cathal Crowe said in the Dáil this week. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
'One could almost call the Limerick Garda division ‘Salem’, because a form of witchhunt has been ongoing there for the past two years,' Clare TD Cathal Crowe said in the Dáil this week. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

In the Dáil, Mr Crowe proffered the theory that the investigation was an example of a different, less community-based, culture of policing that Commissioner Drew Harris may want to import from the North. The theory is worthy of examination, but it doesn’t explain what’s going on here. 

For instance, frontline gardaí, most of them young, have been visited in their homes and interviewed in stations. Squares usually originate with senior officers, yet the senior officers in this probe have been treated with kid gloves. At least one was interviewed in the salubrious surroundings of his solicitor’s office. Garda HQ is aware of senior officers being caught up in this — yet no senior serving officer has been suspended.

Equally, if this was redolent of a new dawn opened up by Commissioner Harris, there would be a similar investigation in Dublin or Cork. 

Imagine the big fish that could be caught in the capital if the NBCI went gung ho after squares? How depleted would the ranks of management in Dublin be if the same standard was applied to senior officers there as is being to junior officers in Limerick?

Those who have examined the affair speculate whether it is an exercise in deflection from another investigation conducted by the NBCI. That one was into serious crime in Limerick and involved the high-profile arrest of two senior officers in May 2019. The arrests were presumably in good faith, but no charges ever resulted.

Questions have been asked about the quality of evidence that informed the decisions to arrest and effectively end the careers of those two gardaí. People in Limerick wonder whether the current investigation acquired its wings in order to deflect from what appears to have been a major misstep by the sleuths down from Dublin.

Parallels with the fate that befell Lynn Margiotta 

There are parallels between what is going on in Limerick and what befell Lynn Margiotta and her GP brother, Tony. 

Lynn was a civilian member of An Garda Síochána who in 2014 made a complaint of bullying against a sworn member. Five days later, she was the subject of an early morning arrest in her home and questioned on the alleged forging of sick notes, which she had presented while absent from work in the months after her mother’s death. 

Lynn and Tony Margiotta were charged with the offence. Repeated delays meant it was five years before their trial commenced. During that time, the gardaí discovered evidence that would have gone a long way to exonerating the siblings, but it wasn’t given to the defence until the last moment.

In court, the judge threw the case out, directing the jury to find the siblings not guilty. As with Limerick, a question arises about the proportionality of the legal pursuit of the Margiottas. (The siblings maintain they did nothing untoward and certainly not illegal). 

Whether it was necessary to use the full force of the law, rather than a disciplinary mechanism to deal with an internal matter is another aspect common to both. And then there is the coincidence that both investigations occurred at a convenient time in terms of deflecting from another, highly embarrassing, issue.

Such musings are in the realm of speculation. What we do know is that members of An Garda Síochána, and particularly those in specialist units, have awesome powers and the exercise of such powers must be subject internally in the first instance to constant monitoring. Proper policing should take account of proportionality, necessity, and legality when pursuing any matter. 

Is the investigation proportionate, or even necessary?  

There is no suggestion that members of the NBCI are using their powers to do anything illegal. But is the investigation in Limerick proportionate to any alleged infringements? Is it necessary?

Meanwhile, we await the crack crimefighting unit turning its attention, without fear or favour, to senior officers organising squares in Dublin, Cork, and let’s throw in Galway and Waterford also. We’ll be waiting until the cows come home.

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