Mick Clifford: Curious Garda probe leading to suspended lives

Good policing includes the application of natural justice and proportionality. Neither appears to be present in the case of the gardaí in Limerick who have been suspended since November 7 last year as part of an investigation by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation into fixing road traffic tickets, writes Mick Clifford
Mick Clifford: Curious Garda probe leading to suspended lives

One senior garda was interviewed about the matter in the salubrious environment of his solicitor’s office, which contrasted greatly with the junior members being subjected to questioning in Garda stations. File picture: Denis Minihane.

Last Saturday, the Irish Examiner published a story in which reporter Ann Murphy interviewed a garda who has been suspended from his organisation. There was a time when suspension from An Garda Síochána signalled a grave offence. 

This would probably have included being charged with assault, or maybe corruption of some sort, or, at the very least, a conviction for drink driving. There were, in the past, incidents in which a garda charged with a grave offence was not suspended until the day he appeared in court to answer the charge.

Those days are thankfully gone. A high standard of propriety has to apply to the guardians of the peace for obvious reasons. Since the current commissioner, Drew Harris, took office in 2018 he has made it known he would stand for nothing less.

Yet, anybody reading Ann Murphy’s interview would have to wonder what exactly is going on in Limerick, the division where this garda and a number of his colleagues who have also been suspended, are based.

“Me and my colleagues are in a state of distress,” he said. “Our identities ripped from us, our rights ignored, reputations ruined, family lives left in tatters. We are honest decent members of An Garda Síochána. We are not looking for sympathy.”

This man was one of eight gardaí suspended on November 7 last year as part of an investigation by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI) into fixing road traffic tickets. Since then, three of them have been charged. 

The other five, including Ann Murphy’s interviewee, are not charged at all. They have not been interviewed since their suspension. They are simply being left in limbo. 

The garda interviewed by Ann Murphy claims his alleged “crime” was to use discretion in his role policing the roads. There is understood to be a handful of cases at issue in relation to each of the gardaí who are suspended. The investigation which led to their suspension began in October 2019.

The suspensions have led to anger and plummeting morale among rank-and-file members in Limerick. Apart from that, between the eight members who were suspended, hundreds of cases involving road traffic offences – some most likely serious – cannot and have not been advanced. 

Unless there is some resolution to the plight of these members soon, the various offences they were prosecuting will presumably be thrown out. The case of these gardaí was highlighted at last week’s Garda Representative Association annual conference, in a motion concerning reasons for suspension.

“On November 7, 2020, honesty died in An Garda Síochána with the suspension of our colleagues in the southern region,” delegate Cathal O’Gorman told the conference. “One of those members suspended was back at work just three hours after a long illness… and what has happened in the intervening period? Nothing, no interview, no arrest, no phone call, no text message, not a word or not one shred of evidence has been put to these members. One wonders what is going on?”

Good policing includes the application of natural justice and proportionality. Neither appear to be present in the case of these gardaí but perhaps this is just a case of the commissioner instigating a zero-tolerance approach to policing road traffic offences. 

Crackdown?

Perhaps these members are being made examples of in a wider crackdown – by the NBCI which usually investigates serious crime – into the use of discretion in this area. Perhaps it’s all about stamping out what the commissioner regards as corruption.

One problem with that theory is that squaring of road traffic offences usually begins with senior members, and not a single senior garda has been suspended in this operation. One senior member was interviewed about the matter in the salubrious environment of his solicitor’s office, which contrasted greatly with the junior members being subjected to questioning in garda stations.

So is it a crackdown at all? If it was, surely by two years into the investigation the spotlight would have been turned on places like Cork and Dublin to root out similar waywardness. Unless, of course, there is no crackdown and the whole investigation is about something else. Many observers in Limerick believe that to be the case.

Eamon O’Neill and Arthur Ryan

In 2019, two senior officers in the city, Superintendent Eamon O’Neill and Inspector Arthur Ryan, were the subject of high-profile arrests by the NBCI allegedly associated with investigations into corruption and drug-taking respectively. Neither investigation came to anything. 

Separately, the DPP ruled there should be no charges brought against either man. Yet by then, their respective careers were badly, in the case of O’Neill fatally, damaged. He retired last year. Ryan is now the subject of a disciplinary action against him. The prospect of either or both men going to the High Court in search of justice is very real.

As part of the investigation in 2019, O’Neill’s phone was seized. From that, it was discovered he may have a case to answer with regard to squaring some tickets, which was a world away from the initial premise of a corruption investigation. As a result, the sleuths from NBCI opened up the extensive and long-running probe into fixing tickets in Limerick. 

O’Neill and three of those who were suspended on November 7 last year face charges in relation to these cases, but the investigation has persisted and hundreds of officers have been interviewed. 

Is there any connection between what now appears to be the completely erroneous arrests of the two officers in 2019 by the NBCI and the same unit’s zeal for an extensive probe into squaring tickets by junior officers? 

Were that to be the case, it would represent a real scandal as it would involve an abuse of power, the scapegoating of young officers and a gratuitous blow to morale among rank-and-file gardaí. Hopefully, particularly for the sake of the reputation of the commissioner, that is not the case.

Unfortunately, the commissioner has done nothing to assure his members that the investigation is being conducted without fear or favour in pursuit of higher standards. He has hidden behind the claim that he can’t comment on “operational matters”. 

In doing so, he is resorting to the kind of rhetoric that was deployed in the bad old days to deflect from serious issues within the force. That is not a good look from somebody who was brought in from the outside to ensure the bad old days were all disappearing in the rear view mirror.

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