Michael Clifford: Is the long arm of the law extending too far?

Michael Clifford: Is the long arm of the law extending too far?

There are serious reservations in many quarters about the nature and length of criminal investigations into two senior gardaí in Limerick, writes Michael Clifford.

CRIMINAL investigations into two senior gardaí in Limerick have caused some major waves in the city.

Superintendent Eamon O’Neill and Inspector Arthur Ryan are both well known. Both served as detectives at the time of the murderous gang feud involving the Keane, Dundon, and Collopy families.

Both are highly regarded in sporting circles. O’Neill was in the backroom team for the Limerick senior hurling All-Ireland win in 2018. Ryan has associations with Munster rugby.

Both were arrested along with a third ranking garda on May 15, 2019. The arrests caused shock throughout the city, the sporting spheres, and in the force.

In recent months, there has been growing unease in these quarters about the case. Over a year on from their arrests, neither man has been charged with an offence but both remain suspended.

The third garda who was arrested with the pair was charged with criminal offences last September. The alleged offences in these charges are unrelated to the respective investigations into the superintendent and inspector.

Insp Ryan was investigated over an incident in the Hurler’s Bar in Castletroy on January 9, 2019. He, Supt O’Neill, and the third member were at a table in the bar around 6pm.

Gardaí from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI) claim that CCTV shows Insp Ryan putting his hand to his nose at one point. This, they alleged, showed him snorting cocaine. Supt O’Neill, according to this version, just sat by and watched his colleague shovelling coke up his nose.

Garda Superintendent Eamon O'Neill
Garda Superintendent Eamon O'Neill

The criminal investigation into Insp Ryan for this incident is completed. The DPP has ruled he has no case to answer. He is still facing a disciplinary process on the matter but this has been repeatedly delayed. He is understood to have acquired expert forensic evidence to support his defence.

Supt O’Neill is still under criminal investigation. He has taken a High Court challenge against his continued suspension. Apart from the Hurler’s Bar affair, he is being investigated for an alleged breach of section 62 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005. This concerns the release or sharing of information about a criminal investigation.

The High Court has heard that the specific allegation is that he tipped off the third garda that there was a listening device in his vehicle, placed there by the NBCI. The basis for this allegation, the High Court has been told, is information gleaned from a “confidential source”.

Supt O’Neill has told the High Court that nothing put to him in interview after his arrest amounted to evidence that he had tipped off this third garda.

“I reputedly reported the existence of a listening device in this garda’s car and then telephoned the garda to advise him of the device’s presence.

“Simply put, I was not aware at any time of a device in his car or elsewhere. I did not therefore phone him or contact him in any manner to alert him. Despite the fact that a period approaching one year has now elapsed, it is clear that if such evidence ever existed it would have been unearthed by the NBCI in a matter of moments.”

The NBCI, through its head, chief superintendent Walter O’Sullivan, has, in affidavits, repeatedly stated that it has acted completely in compliance with the law, regulations, and practice in pursuing this investigation.

The case sent a frisson through the GAA in Limerick last autumn when a number of well-known GAA figures were interviewed by gardaí about the cancelling of fixed charge notices (FCN) for road traffic offences.

The High Court has been told that Supt O’Neill is being investigated for over 30 cases of FCN over a three-year period. This matter came to light when the superintendent was being investigated over the two other issues.

A criminal investigation into a superintendent for FCN offences is an interesting development. In 2013, former sergeant Maurice McCabe complained about what he said was corruption in this area with some senior officers fixing FCNs at will.

An internal Garda inquiry, under assistant commissioner John O’Mahoney, disputed many of McCabe’s claims. It did, however, find that a superintendent and two inspectors had acted outside their powers and should be subjected to disciplinary action. Ultimately, this action amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Two subsequent reports, from the Garda Inspectorate and the public accounts committee, backed up Mr McCabe’s claims. Major reform of the system was instigated and the rules are now much tighter.

The NBCI’s Mr O’Sullivan told the High Court that each FCN case requires “considerable investigation”.

Other gardaí, some of them of senior rank, are understood to be part of this investigation but have not been arrested or suspended.

Both men were highly regarded to the extent that neither would lightly submit what amount to effective peer reviews of the investigation unless they felt strongly about it.

Gerry Mahon, in his affidavit, is scathing of how the investigation has been conducted. (John Kerins’ affidavit was not opened in court due to time constraints).

For instance, Mr Mahon states that “the purported events in the Hurler’s Bar, in my professional opinion, brings into disrepute the whole disciplinary process. There appears to be no evidence of any illicit substance taking and it is not surprising that the Director of Public Prosecutions would not being charges against the plaintiff’s colleague, Inspector Arthur Ryan.”

He also points out that while one reason for Supt O’Neill’s continued suspension is the FCN matter, no other garda being investigated in that investigation is subjected to the same treatment.

“It is, in my professional opinion, inappropriate and in breach of good practice and procedure to purport to suspend the plaintiff (Supt O’Neill) on foot of this investigation, but not suspend any other member of An Garda Síochána who is equally placed under investigation in relation to the same subject matter.”

Mr Mahon, who swore that he was not a friend of Supt O’Neill, also stated that he had “serious concerns that a major miscarriage of justice is being perpetrated and that the good name of An Garda Síochána will be reduced not only in the public mind but also in the rank and file members.”

It has also emerged that he has written to Garda commissioner Drew Harris to express concern about the manner in which Supt O’Neill’s case is being dealt with and the toll it is exercising on him and his family.

Again, the NBCI is adamant that everything is being done by the book, as it would in any other investigation.

That is the background against which 10 days ago, in the course of a Garda interview about the FCN issue, Supt O’Neill was shown a photo of his two-year-old son.

The interviewers immediately stated that this was an error. However, Supt O’Neill reacted with extreme emotion.

The High Court has been told that, late last year, he spent 100 days as an inpatient in St Patrick’s psychiatric hospital as a result of the stress from his case.

Being under criminal investigation would be stressful for anybody, not to mind a senior garda.

The law must take its course, but two elements of the cases are causing serious concern.

One is the proportionality of the actions taken against them in light of the quality of evidence, or lack therefor, to suggest any wrongdoing.

The second is the protracted nature of the investigations, both criminal and disciplinary. Why is it taking so long to reach conclusions?

Again, the NBCI has asserted in court that it is pursing the cases in a proper and expedient manner.

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