Michael Clifford: Fear and loathing as gardaí set to be charged over 'fixing' tickets

The case before Limerick District Court will be the first in which gardaí are charged with perverting the course of justice for fixing road traffic tickets, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Fear and loathing as gardaí set to be charged over 'fixing' tickets

Among Limerick city's complement of gardaí there is fear and loathing at ongoing investigations. Morale in the division, according to three separate sources “is on the floor”. File photo of Henry Street Garda Station in Limerick. Dan Linehan

Tomorrow, a retired superintendent and four gardaí are to be charged in Limerick District Court with perverting the course of justice. The day they were arrested, RTÉ reported the charges as emanating from a “corruption probe”. 

Terms like “perverting the course of justice” and “corruption probe” give rise to impressions of serious criminal activity. In reality, the charges relate to “fixing” tickets for road traffic offences. 

The case will be the first in which gardaí are charged with perverting the course of justice for fixing road traffic tickets. Should a trial take place, it will be potentially sensational. Prominent people, including some with celebrity status, may well be drawn into it.

The charges emanate from an investigation conducted by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI), which ordinarily probes murder, gangland and organised crime. Initially, their sleuthing on road traffic offences in Limerick was confined to the retired superintendent, Eamon O’Neill. But it wasn’t possible to fence off that investigation. 

Now the bureau finds itself examining over 300 cases, apart from those forming tomorrow’s charges. It has been reported that up to 150 gardaí are currently being interviewed. Dozens of civilians, including high-profile GAA people, have been interviewed, many under caution, which is the process for potential suspects in a criminal investigation. 

Eamon O’Neill is prominent in GAA circles and was involved with Limerick’s All-Ireland-winning 2018 senior county hurlers. Last week, the Irish Examiner understands, a close relative of a high-profile sportsperson was interviewed under caution about a parking ticket.

Inspector Arthur Ryan

Elsewhere in the city, a Garda Inspector has been told that it is recommended he be dismissed from the force. Inspector Arthur Ryan was named in a High Court action last year. The disciplinary charge against him is that he ingested cocaine in his local pub, the Hurlers’ Bar, in January 2019. He vehemently denies that he ever ingested cocaine.

The DPP has ruled that there is no evidence for a criminal charge, yet he still faced an internal disciplinary panel. The only evidence against him is CCTV footage, seen by the Irish Examiner

In it, he appears to take a handkerchief-type matter from his inside pocket and run it across his nose. The footage is relatively grainy. There are no banknotes, lines, spoons, bags or any of the paraphernalia associated with snorting cocaine. There is no care taken by Inspector Ryan in his gestures or with his hands as might be expected if handling a substance that is expensive and illegal. 

The incident occurred at 5.30pm. Inspector Ryan was in the company of then Superintendent Eamon O’Neill and another garda, who shall be referred to as Garda A. Two other customers were sitting at the bar, which is about eight to 10 yards away. The footage also shows more customers passing through into an adjoining toilet.

Garda morale in Limerick

The respective plights of Eamon O’Neill and Arthur Ryan have ignited widespread sympathy and some anger across sporting circles in Limerick. (Ryan has close connections to Munster rugby). Among the city’s complement of gardaí there is fear and loathing at ongoing investigations. Morale in the division, according to three separate sources “is on the floor”.

One city-based garda who contacted this newspaper put it like this: “The bewilderment, disillusionment and upset that exists among garda members in the city is palpable. 

Fear, worry and paranoia has now spread to rampant levels in rank-and-file members. It is a pandemic in its own right.

Outside those quarters, an increasing number of people are raising concerns about what is going on.

Officially, the Dublin-based NBCI is conducting normal investigations and the internal disciplinary action against Inspector Ryan is as per the rules. Officially, the investigation into ticket fixing is a reflection on policing today. 

Five years ago, this stuff would have been ignored. In other divisions today, it could be expected to attract internal disciplinary action. Yet, in Limerick, multiple charges of perverting the course of justice is the result.

Serious questions about power, accountability and the application of the law arise. Is it plausible that Eamon O’Neill was the only senior garda allegedly attempting to fix tickets in Limerick? 

Is a similar thorough investigation going to be conducted in, for instance, Cork, and particularly Dublin? If not, why is an apparent zero tolerance policy being applied to Limerick? Why is the primary crime fighting agency in the State investigating ticket fixing? Would any outside agency, including a court, come to the same determination about the actions of Arthur Ryan as has the internal Garda process?

The arrests of O'Neill, Ryan and Garda A

The biggest question of all, on the lips of many, is whether all of this is really related to an event on May 16, 2019, in which both men were the subject of high-profile, career-threatening, arrests, for which there now appears to have been a highly dubious basis.

On that morning O’Neill, Ryan and Garda A referred to above were all arrested in their respective homes. They were taken to separate stations for questioning by the NBCI. The bureau had been in Limerick since the previous Autumn, investigating allegations of corruption against Garda A. The High Court heard last year that a listening device had been installed in Garda A’s car.

Garda A was questioned that morning in relation to alleged corruption offences. Eamon O’Neill was told he was suspected of tipping off Garda A about the listening device. The superintendent denied doing so. He was shown some footage of criminals moving about and listened to a recording of two men in conversation.

Initially, the investigation by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation on road traffic offences in Limerick was confined to the retired superintendent, Eamon O’Neill.
Initially, the investigation by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation on road traffic offences in Limerick was confined to the retired superintendent, Eamon O’Neill.

O’Neill’s solicitor, Dan O’Gorman, was present for the interviews. At the conclusion, the interviewing garda said: “that is the evidence we wish to put to you.” According to an affidavit sworn by O’Neill: “I recall my solicitor and I looking at each other with no small degree of amazement and my solicitor remarking specifically: ‘We haven’t seen any evidence.'” 

Two years later O’Neill has still not seen any evidence that he compromised a serious criminal investigation. The file went to the DPP last August, 16 months after the arrest. There has still been no result. 

Garda A was charged with corruption-related offences in September 2019. Any case that could have been built against O’Neill would be far more straightforward than anything relating to Garda A. Yet there has been nothing.

At a High Court hearing last year the NBCI was adamant that it is doing everything according to the book. The court was also told that the principal evidence the agency had obtained against O’Neill was the word of an informant.

The fall-out

The arrest and subsequent suspension devastated the 53-year-old superintendent. He had had a distinguished career, particularly in relation to fighting gang crime in the city. The fall-out for him resulted in a prolonged stay in St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin. He retired earlier this year.

O’Neill was only the second superintendent of AGS arrested in connection with criminal offences in the history of the force. The other was David Taylor, who was heavily criticised in the Charleton Tribunal report which examined the treatment of Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

O’Neill and Ryan are friends and both are friendly with Garda A, as was evidenced by the three meeting for a drink in the Hurlers in January 2019. The only basis for Ryan’s arrest was the alleged drug-snorting in the bar.

If O’Neill’s arrest was based on anything other than solid evidence, there would be major fall-out for the gardaí, including reputational damage and financial implications. The same applies to the arrest of Inspector Arthur Ryan if the internal disciplinary process found that he had no case to answer in respect of the CCTV in the Hurlers’ Bar.

At the High Court hearing, which was an unsuccessful attempt by O’Neill to have his suspension at the time lifted, a retired chief super gave evidence that amounted to a peer review of the NBCI case. Gerry Mahon stated that he had “serious concerns that a major miscarriage of justice is being perpetrated and that the good name of An Garda Siochana will be reduced not only in the public mind but also in the rank-and-file members.” 

Another retired chief superintendent, John Kerins, submitted an affidavit of a similar character.

The ticket fixing investigation

When O’Neill was arrested in 2019 his phone was seized. The NBCI subsequently found evidence which suggested that O’Neill may have “squared” road traffic offence tickets. One thing led to another. Dozens of people were interviewed. The investigation into ticket fixing opened in the Summer of 2019 and is ongoing. Last November, eight gardaí were suspended as a result of the investigation.

It’s all a long way from the “corruption probe” that the NBCI arrived in Limerick to investigate in the Autumn of 2018. By now, the agency detectives have spent nearly three times as long investigating the ticket fixing as they did anything to do with the original corruption probe.

What the ticket fixing investigation has uncovered is that despite reforms enacted in the wake of the controversy about the practice in 2014-15, it persists. According to informed sources, it still occurs but on a hugely reduced frequency. O’Neill, for instance, is suspected of 30 cases over four years. The four gardaí to be charged tomorrow are alleged to have been involved in a handful of cases each.

After tomorrow’s court appearance all questions will be silenced. Cases will be before the court. Any other action in relation to the burgeoning affair will have to be stayed. Justice, as interpreted by the courts, will take precedence. Further charges against other guards, and possibly civilian also, are expected. Estimates vary, but it will most likely be at least be two years before any of these matters go to trial.

If questions do arise at a later stage, about lost careers, personal impacts, implications for the organisation, then accountability will rest solely with the taxpayer. Everybody else, in all likelihood, will have moved on.

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