Mick Clifford: Gardaí must be held  responsible for catastrophic errors

Garda commissioner Drew Harris has apologised for Martin Conmey’s pain and suffering, but without any reference to the culpability of gardaí for causing it
Mick Clifford: Gardaí must be held  responsible for catastrophic errors

Martin Conmey, with his wife, Anne, in 2014. His conviction for the manslaughter of Una Lynskey in 1971 was a miscarriage of justice.

Last Friday, a Garda sergeant appeared at the home of Martin Conmey in rural Co Meath. 

He asked Martin to identify himself as the homeowner and then he handed over a letter. Inside was a written apology from the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris.

Fifty years previous, another garda appeared at the door of Martin’s parents’ home, asking to speak to the then 20-year-old. 

A young neighbour of the Conmeys had gone missing. 

Una Lynskey had disappeared minutes after disembarking from a bus nearby on her way home from work. She was 19 years of age. 

Her family and the Conmeys were part of a close-knit community in the area, most of whose people had moved there from the west of Ireland in the 1940s.

What unfolded was a horror story. 

Una Lynskey’s body was found in the Dublin mountains. Martin Conmey and his friends, Dick Donnolly and Martin Kerrigan, were questioned by the gardaí about the matter. 

The two Martins made admissions following what they claim was severe intimidation and assault from the interrogating gardaí. 

Martin Kerrigan was abducted and brutally killed by Una’s brothers and cousin. 

Martin Conmey and Dick Donnolly were convicted of the manslaughter of Una Lynskey in 1973, although Mr Donnolly’s conviction was subsequently quashed. 

Martin Conmey spent three years in prison.

Twenty years ago, private investigator Billy Flynn introduced me to Martin Conmey and Martin Kerrigan’s sisters. Billy had uncovered new evidence about the case that was to prove crucial.

I wrote about it in the Sunday Tribune but unfortunately Billy died before the fruits of his labour were harvested. 

In 2010, the Court of Criminal Appeal overturned Martin Conmey’s manslaughter conviction.

The court was highly critical of the gardaí, particularly in how witness statements were changed without explanation and documents went missing. 

One crucial witness at the appeal was another young local man at the time, Seán Reilly. 

He testified how he had given a statement to the gardaí, but after being intimidated and assaulted he gave another four days later, implicating the three men.

Martin Conmey was awarded a certificate of miscarriage of justice in 2014. Nobody from the gardaí apologised for the manner in which members of the organisation had handled the matter. That was until eight days ago when a sergeant appeared at the Conmey home.

Last Monday, RTÉ One television aired a new series, Crimes and Confessions, which examined the case and will deal over the next two weeks with the Sallins mail train robbery in 1976 and the Kerry Babies case in 1983. 

So the commissioner decided the weekend before the airing of the Conmey case that an apology was in order. Was the bad publicity for the force — albeit based on a historic matter — the motivation for apologising? 

One would have to assume so on the basis that there was no apology forthcoming for the last seven years or so.

The other issue is what exactly the apology was for? From the 1970s right into the 1990s, there were a number of cases in which confessions were extracted from suspects that subsequently were shown to be highly flawed. 

In each and every case allegations surfaced that the confessions were given after sustained intimidation or assault by gardaí. 

There has never been an acknowledgement by any representative of the force that this stuff went on. 

Commissioner Harris is now apologising for Martin Conmey’s pain and suffering, but without any reference to the culpability of gardaí for causing it. 

So what exactly is he apologising for, beyond engaging in a PR exercise?

An ongoing case that was also back in the headlines this week raises similar issues. 

Shane O’Farrell was killed near his home in Co Monaghan in August 2011 when the bike he was cycling was hit by a vehicle driven by Zigimantas Gridziuska. 

The Lithuanian national had a string of convictions for theft and drug possession and had received custodial sentences which were not served. 

If the law had been enforced properly, he would not have been at liberty at the time of the accident.

Shane’s mother, Lucia, has over the last decade spearheaded a family campaign to find out where exactly the justice system went wrong in dealing with Gridziuska. 

There is no question but that there were multiple errors and oversights, but, beyond the nebulous “systems failures”, who was culpable?

Currently a retired judge is examining whether the whole case merits a full statutory inquiry.

However, another strand of the O’Farrells’ campaign did yield a protracted investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc). 

The outcome of that was a recommendation that three gardaí be subjected to a disciplinary process on the basis that they had been negligent. 

The commissioner followed through, disciplined the three and fined them around €200 each for negligence.

Last week The Sunday Times reported that the fines and findings have now been withdrawn after two of the gardaí brought judicial review proceedings against the commissioner. 

In most workplaces, there is a disciplinary process and, if that is not deemed satisfactory, there is an appeal. 

Within the gardaí, any disciplinary action can be fought all the way to the High Court where faults can be found in the minutiae of the procedure.

A succession of judges chairing various tribunals have heavily criticised this system in which it is nearly impossible to discipline a member of the gardaí. 

In 2005, Judge Frederick Morris reported: “Members of the gardaí against whom any wrong is alleged have the dubious, and often exploited, benefit of procedures that compare to those in a murder trial.”

In 2018, judge Peter Charleton reported: “Those gardaí accused of ill-discipline should be subject to correction by senior officers, without the need to resort to the elaborate structures that constitute what is, in effect, a private trial, using procedures akin to our criminal courts.”

During her tenure as chair of Gsoc judge Mary Ellen Ring spoke on more than one occasion about the “maze” involved in the Garda disciplinary structure.

The result is that nobody is responsible for anything. The “system” is to blame for a succession of errors that contributed to the circumstances in which Shane O’Farrell lost his life. 

People like Martin Conmey had their youth shattered and their psyche damaged for decades, if not a lifetime, as a result of what happened in Garda custody. 

Their pain and suffering have been acknowledged by the State, yet nobody was apparently responsible.

The public deserves more than that from a modern police force. 

The many, many gardaí who do their job to the best of their ability are also entitled to a system that recognises failures in order to learn and aspire to proper standards. 

As with much of the issues that have arisen with An Garda Síochána down through the years, the primary failure is with political masters who have consistently lacked the stomach to effect proper change.

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