From the high of the marriage referendum to domestic and foreign threats, and more Garda controversies, it’s been an extraordinary year for justice and law, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

IT WAS a year when terrorism of different hues dominated Ireland’s crime and security landscape.

On the policing front, it was a year that the state of the Garda Síochána — both in terms of its staffing and resourcing — was made crystal clear.

A damning report into the removal of Garda commissioner Martin Callinan provided us with the now mandatory justice controversy of the year.

And 2015 saw a legal and political revolution, with the passing of the marriage referendum.

Also on the legal front, there were several terrifying trials — not least that of Graham Dwyer — and a landmark shift in drug laws.

Terror

In early January, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan spoke of the “havoc and mayhem that a very small, but a very determined” group of attackers could cause.

She said the face of terrorism had changed, something her officers were “very mindful of”. She said concerns surrounded returned fighters and the actions of “lone wolves”. She made the point — highlighted again with the atrocities in Paris in November — that it is “almost impossible” to keep 24-hour surveillance on suspects.

The murders of Lorna Carty and Laurence and Martina Hayes on a Tunisian beach last June brought home graphically how Irish people were not immune to extremist Islamic terrorism.

At home, dissident republicans continued their own terror throughout the year, but were repeatedly stymied by the success of Garda anti-terror units with multiple seizures of bomb parts, including in the last month.

A political crisis over the existence of the Provisional IRA reached a high point in October with reports by An Garda and the PSNI.

Gardaí said former PIRA members “continued to associate” and used “terrorist tactics”, but said the organisation itself no longer functioned. A “significant number” of PIRA associates were involved in organised crime, and more than 50 of them had paid over €28m in criminal proceeds to the State.

The State, including the gardaí, secured a massive success in December with the conviction of prominent PIRA figure Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy for tax evasion.

Terrorism of other sorts afflicted innocent people across the country with a continuing increase in burglaries in many parts of the country.

This was highlighted tragically with the death of 62-year John O’Donoghue, from Doon, Co Limerick, who suffered a heart attack after disturbing intruders at his home.

But it was the trial of a north Dublin gang for the aggravated burglary of the Corcoran family in Co Tipperary in November 2013 that outraged the nation.

In his victim impact statement, Mark Corcoran said his kids “saw and heard things that night that no child should ever go through”. His wife, Emma, said she had “lost everything” including her “children’s innocence”.

Burglaries, and the fear of them, coupled with a significant drop in police visibility in rural areas, prompted meetings in various counties demanding protection. Legislative measures were introduced and funding was provided for high-powered Garda cars to intercept roaming gangs.

Gangland crime generally was down, most notably homicides, with around eight such killings in the year, dramatically lower than previous years.

One murder that brought the country to a standstill was that of Garda Tony Golden in Omeath, north Louth, in October, at the hands of dissident Adrian Creaven Mackin. Garda Golden was helping Mackin’s partner Siobhan Phillips leave their home when they were shot. She survived, but the 36-year-old unarmed garda, a father of three, was not so lucky.

His death, less than two years after the murder of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe in north Louth, was a sobering reminder of the daily risk gardaí take.

Soon after, the commissioner dispatched the emergency response unit and extra gardaí to the depleted district.

Policing

The issue of staffing dominated the force, as its strength dipped below 12,700, from a height of 14,500 in 2010.

Garda associations cried out for more members, more overtime, and better equipment. The first call began to be answered, with the first recruits coming on stream by spring.

However, factoring in retirements, the recruits have only brought levels, so far, to around 12,800, still below the minimum 13,000 set by Martin Callinan. A further 600 are being recruited in 2016.

In December, the Garda Inspectorate’s Changing Policing report

said just 10,500 gardaí were serving on the frontline, split over five shifts.

It portrayed a service crippled with administrative burdens, archaic technology, a lack of expertise and an “insular, defensive” Garda culture, with a hierarchy resistant to change.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance made stinging accusations of “political policing”

centred on the investigation, arrest, and charging of around 20 people — including three AAA politicians, one of them Paul Murphy TD — in relation to the anti-water protest in Tallaght in November 2014.

The accusation was rejected by gardaí, who pointed to a decision by the DPP to bring charges as independent verification that there was sufficient evidence for prosecution. The creation of the Policing Authority will further test the Garda Síochána as it will now have to report, including in public, to the independent oversight body.

Rule of law

The Fennelly Report in September was the landmark justice controversy of the year — albeit one that failed, despite the damning details, to knock much wind out of Taoiseach Enda Kenny. From any impartial reading of the report, Mr Callinan was removed as commissioner. The legal process governing such a serious power was avoided, or bypassed.

While Mr Callinan was not sacked, he was given little option but to exit. And Mr Kenny was the one showing the door. He dispatched an emissary, department of justice secretary general Brian Purcell, to Callinan’s home at the dead of night in an “unprecedented” visit with the gravest of messages from him. The Taoiseach claimed — before the report was published — he was vindicated. And, bar criticism in certain sections of the media and opposition leaders, he got away with it.

The law and the courts had a busy year. Indeed, the Courts Service warned it had reached a “tipping point” due to the severity of cutbacks, with “increasing and unacceptable delays” to criminal trials.

The high point of 2015 in terms of law was the passing of the marriage referendum. Ireland was the first country in the world to bring in the measure by popular vote. Even if it doesn’t save them in the election, Labour can claim credit for pushing the issue.

There were extraordinary court cases, not least the Ian Bailey civil action, and the prosecution of Graham Dwyer — who was convicted by an impressive combination of dedicated street police work and expert, and exhaustive, technical analysis.

The Victims Directive became law on November 16, placing a legal onus on gardaí and other criminal justice agencies on what must be provided to victims of crime.

Also on the legal front was a seismic shift in drug laws. At year’s end, the Cabinet gave the green light to a medically-supervised injecting centre, where chaotic users could safely, and lawfully, inject illegal drugs.

Not only that, there was a cross-party call from the Oireachtas Justice Committee for the Government to consider the Portuguese decriminalisation model for the possession of any drug for personal use.

Both developments were inconceivable at the start of the year.


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