Mick Clifford: Conviction might put brakes on perjury

Mick Clifford: Conviction might put brakes on perjury

Pat Ryan of Limerick celebrates after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Limerick and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. He might consider himself the unluckiest perjurer since the speed camera was invented.

During a break of proceedings at a tribunal, I got talking to a senior garda.

We spoke about one of the issues that were being examined by the inquiry. This man was a rock of sense in the solutions he prescribed and pointing out where things went wrong. He got me thinking that if more people like him were in positions of responsibility there would be no need for expensive and time-consuming inquiries.

Shortly after our exchange, this man got into the witness box to give evidence. I can say with hand on heart that under oath he went on to tell lie after lie after lie. At one point, some of the lies were so transparent the chair of the inquiry looked sceptically at him.

To his credit, the witness kept a straight face. And then he stepped down, exited the room, and rejoined the real world, the whole experience having hardly cost him a thought.

None of this is to suggest that lying under oath is unique to gardaí. It most certainly is not. Over decades covering tribunals and court cases, I have, I believe, seen people from all kinds of backgrounds commit perjury, a criminal offence. The only difference in tribunals is that the offenders — alleged on my part — tended to be from one of the power centres of society, be it in politics, business, the law, or, in a few instances, media.

In courts up and down the country, lies are told on a constant basis with absolutely no repercussions.

Last year, the Department of Justice published a report on perjury which stated that deliberate lying by some people goes on all the time.

“Unfortunately, all too frequently some people have deliberately lied in court or misrepresented the truth in affidavits which materially affected the course of justice and equity,” the report stated.

The problem is that perjury is notoriously difficult to prove.

Rare conviction

Last week, however, there was a conviction, an occurrence that is so rare, and the circumstances of this one so highly unusual, that it is worthy of close examination.

Pat Ryan is 27 and a former Limerick hurler who has won three All Irelands. In 2020 he was caught speeding and issued with a fixed charge notice (FCN), which includes a fine and the application of penalty points. Thousands of citizens receive one of these every week and are faced with a choice. Do you accept a fair cop, including the points, or try to get out of it? Many choose the latter and take their chances that it will get lost in the system. This is a gamble because if it doesn’t get lost you have to go to court with the prospect of having your penalty points doubled and the possibility of a further fine. This is where things get sticky.

Frequently, motorists appearing in the district court tell the judge they didn’t receive the original notice, that the goddamn postal system let them down. In recent years, judges have grown sceptical of this line and now usually ask the motorists to swear in the witness box that this is actually the case. 

And in they go in their droves, and many lie, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be done for perjury because there is no way of confirming that they are not telling the truth

This is where Pat Ryan fell down. Mr Ryan did as so many others do but he hadn’t reckoned with some of the finest minds in crime detection in this country. Officers from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI), which habitually tackles organised crime, armed robberies and murders, have been conducting an investigation into abuse of the fixed charge notice system in Limerick for over three years.

Originally, the lads from NBCI arrived in town from Dublin to probe aspects of the city’s gangland crime, but their investigation veered off course.

Make no mistake, there is abuse of the FCN system. But that abuse has been massively reduced since the problem was first raised by former garda Maurice McCabe a decade ago 

And if the hierarchy within the force believe that a sledgehammer is required to crack this nut, that is their prerogative.

They know how best to fight crime. What is inexplicable is that this high-powered investigation into what is considered corruption is confined to the Treaty City. Can you imagine, for instance, the collection of the great and good which could be nabbed, both within and without the gardaí, if the sleuths in the NBCI turned their investigative powers towards Dublin to investigate abuse of the FCN system? There is no knowing where it might end, but for some reason, it is the people of Limerick, including the local gardaí, who are considered to be particularly susceptible to engaging in this kind of, apparently, serious crime.

Anyway, in 2020, Pat Ryan told the judge in Limerick District Court that he hadn’t received the notice.

The boys in the NBCI, in the course of their investigation, had sight of a social media post showing that Pat had actually received it. They retrieved the digital audio recording from the court and put together their case.

Last Tuesday the hurler pleaded guilty to one count of perjury. Judge Patricia Harney sentenced him to two weeks in prison. “He told a brazen lie in the face of this court,” the judge said to Mr Ryan’s solicitor, Con Barry. “The whole criminal justice system is based on truth given to the courts.”

Pat Ryan is appealing. He is a young man who has a big cloud hanging over his future, particularly should he plan to travel outside the country. 

He can have no complaint about his conviction. He can certainly consider himself to be the unluckiest perjurer since the speed camera was invented

 In effect, he has been caught in the spokes of the big investigation that the NBCI is conducting in Limerick.

Maybe this conviction will act as a deterrent to those who lie daily in courts up and down the country. Maybe the great and the good who habitually lie in sworn inquiries will now think twice before perjuring themselves. Don’t hold your breath though.

Meanwhile, there is great irony in the boys from the NBCI notching up a conviction in Limerick ostensibly designed to ensure that the roads are made safe. For the last two and a half years five members of the local division’s traffic corps have been suspended as a result of the bureau’s investigation. The capacity to police the roads in the mid west has thus been reduced.

These five have not been charged with anything or subjected to any disciplinary action. If they did wrong they should be held accountable, but why the delay? Surely these individuals are not being scapegoated? Surely if the sleuths have stumbled on any senior figures involved in abuse of the system they are not looking the other way. Surely the high powered investigation is, in the best traditions of policing, being conducted without fear or favour in a fair and proportionate manner. Let’s hope so, anyway.

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