Michael Clifford: Time to scratch beneath the surface of garda 'corruption' probe

The recent suspensions of gardaí could lead to allegations of widespread corruption, but scratch beneath the surface and a different picture emerges, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Time to scratch beneath the surface of garda 'corruption' probe

The suspensions come two years into a corruption investigation by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The eight suspensions, the largest number of gardaí ever suspended in one action, brings to 11 the total number of gardaí suspended in this investigation, including a superintendent and inspector.

The news that eight gardaí have been suspended in Munster is, by any standards, sensational. That the arrests are in connection to what a Garda statement described as “corruption in public office” adds to the spice.

The suspensions come two years into a corruption investigation by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI). The eight suspensions, the largest number of gardaí ever suspended in one action, brings to 11 the total number of gardaí suspended in this investigation, including a superintendent and inspector.

Taken at face value, this action could lead to allegations of widespread corruption of gardaí, particularly in Limerick City where the investigation is focused. But scratch beneath the surface and a different picture emerges, one that includes serious questions for those carrying out the investigation.

It kicked off with the launch of a corruption investigation in Limerick by the NBCI in late 2018. This revolved around alleged associations between a member of the force and organised crime elements.

Early on the morning of May 15, 2019, groups of NBCI gardaí arrested Superintendent Eamon O’Neill and Inspector Arthur Ryan at their respective homes where each resides with family, including young children. O’Neill had a high-profile role in Limerick GAA. Ryan has close associations with Munster rugby. Professionally, both men played major roles in garda operations against organised crime in the city in the 2000s. 

Both were questioned and suspended. A third garda was also arrested that morning. He had been the primary focus of the NBCI investigation and is a friend of Supt O’Neill and Insp Ryan. In September 2019, he was charged with criminal offences. His trial has yet to take place.

Supt O’Neill was suspected by the NBCI of tipping off this third garda that the NBCI had a listening device in his car. Earlier this year, the High Court heard the basis for this was information from a confidential informant. Eighteen months after his dramatic arrest, Supt O’Neill has not faced any charges. A file has been with the DPP since last April. 

O’Neill swore an affidavit in April this year stating he knew nothing of a listening device and couldn’t have tipped off the other garda. “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,” he said.

There was another issue facing the two senior gardaí. The NBCI was investigating whether Inspector Ryan had ingested cocaine in the Hurler’s Bar in the city in January 2019 in the company of Supt O’Neill and the third garda. The basis for this investigation was CCTV that showed Inspector Ryan at one point putting his hand up to his nose. The three gardaí were in the pub at 6pm, having a few pints.

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A file was prepared for the DPP on that incident and came back saying there was no basis for prosecution. Inspector Ryan faced a disciplinary investigation over the matter, which was repeatedly delayed. The outcome to his hearing is expected imminently.

Senior ex-members of the force believed the evidence in the cocaine episode to be flimsy. This was reflected in an affidavit filed by retired chief superintendent Gerry Mahon, who knew both O’Neill and Ryan but was not friends with either. He was giving what amounted to an unofficial garda peer review of the case based on the documentation. He stated that “the purported events in the Hurler’s Bar, in my professional opinion, brings into disrepute the whole disciplinary process”. 

He added: “There appears to be no evidence of any illicit substance taking and it is not surprising that the Director of Public Prosecutions would not bring charges against the plaintiff’s colleague, Inspector Arthur Ryan.” 

The former chief superintendent had what he described as “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”.

The NBCI has told the High Court that everything was done by the books, according to regulations and best practice. Supt O’Neill failed in his High Court challenge to have his suspension lifted when Mr Justice Senan Allen ruled it was justified. But 18 months after the arrests in relation to corruption and drugs offences, there are no charges. Did somebody jump the gun? How sound was the basis for making a move that, irrespective of the ultimate outcome, was going to have a massive impact on the lives and careers of two senior gardaí?

Supt O’Neill had an additional problem. In the months after his arrest, while investigating him, the NCBI discovered that he may have been involved in ’squaring‘ fixed-charge penalties for road traffic offences for GAA personnel. This is alleged to have occurred over a three-year period.

In November 2019, GAA people and other gardaí were interviewed about the matter in Mayorstone Park garda station in the city. Most of the gardaí were of ordinary rank but senior members were also interviewed. 

At that time, the Irish Examiner understands, there were admissions in relation to squaring tickets, but nobody was suspended. Inspector Arthur Ryan was not involved whatsoever in this aspect of the investigation.

Last June, Supt O’Neill was interviewed about the fixed-charge penalties. By then, he had been suspended for over a year, had spent time in a psychiatric hospital and had been treated for stress. At the interview, he was shown a photograph of his two-year-old son. The interviewee immediately stated that this had been accidental, but O’Neill reacted with extreme emotion.

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File picture

On Sunday night, Supt O’Neill took early retirement from An Garda Síochána on what are understood to be health grounds. This means internal disciplinary actions against him will be dropped. The previous day, the eight ordinary ranking gardaí, most of whom are understood to be serving with the traffic corps, were suspended. Aside from O’Neill, no senior garda are understood to have yet been served a suspension in relation to the matter.

Questions arise in the first instance about proportionality. The line put out about the suspensions is that they are part of an ongoing investigation into “corruption in public office”. But the initial investigation focused on alleged links with organised crime. Squaring speeding offences is wrong, but it’s a long way from the original premise for an investigation.

What is the NBCI, which investigates serious crime, doing looking into speeding tickets? The last time the NBCI examined this area, senior members were dispatched to Co Cavan to, as characterised in the Charlton Tribunal, “dig the dirt” on Sgt Maurice McCabe, who had complained about the practice.

Why were the eight gardaí suspended at the weekend, and not over a year ago when the issue was first discovered? What has changed?

One might also ask whether any of this would have become the focus of an NBCI investigation if the high-profile arrests of a superintendent and inspector had yielded some result in terms of charges, or even, it would appear, some evidence beyond an informer’s word.

How widespread is ticket-fixing, six years after the Maurice McCabe affair that exposed systemic malpractice? Would a detailed investigation by the NBCI in other divisions yield as many transgressions and a corresponding slew of suspensions in each one? Is it all down to ordinary ranking gardaí? Is it conceivable that no senior member ever puts a traffic cop under pressure to square a ticket?

In light of headlines around corruption and the outcomes for the two senior gardaí arrested in May 2019, these questions should be addressed. Investigating the investigation might be a good place to start.

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