Facing into another tribunal, change is still evading the gardaí years after the Morris Tribunal was supposed to herald a new dawn for the force, writes Michael Clifford.
Lee Parker was driving home from Raphoe, Co Donegal, when he saw Richie Barron on the side of the road. It was just outside the town in the early hours of October 14, 1996.
Parker assumed Barron was drunk. He had seen Richie earlier that evening coming out of a pub in the town, looking the worse for wear.
Parker stopped and got out. “I was going to tell his son to come and get him but I saw the blood,” he said later. There was a lot of blood flowing from Richie’s head onto the roadway.
Richie Barron had been a cattle dealer in his 50s, who lived in and around Raphoe all his life. Within 48 hours, his death would be classified as a murder investigation. The scene where he was found was not preserved. The State pathologist did not attend the scene.
The focus of the investigation soon turned on an incident that had occurred earlier in the evening in the Town and Country pub. Barron had been in a minor altercation with another local man, Mark McConnell, who was 25 years Barron’s junior.
Six weeks later, McConnell and his cousin Frank McBrearty Jr were arrested and detained in Letterkenny Garda Station. The men would allege they were ill-treated in custody. Therein, McBrearty was alleged to have confessed to the murder. In reality, he had nothing to do with Barron’s death.
Within days, 10 members of the extended McBrearty family or associates of theirs were arrested. Over the following months, there would be further arrests and numerous incidence of harassment of the family, including at its business in the town.
It would take another two years before an internal garda investigation recommended that no prosecution be taken. In 2001, Barron’s body was exhumed. Following an examination by the state pathologist, his death was reclassified as a hit and run. Mr Brearty Jr and Mr McConnell were finally ruled out as suspects in the death.
The following year, the Morris Tribunal was set up to examine the conduct of the gardaí in Donegal arising out of the investigation into Riche Barron’s death and various other activities.
Over the following six years, the conduct and operation of the gardaí in Donegal was laid bare in public hearings. Some of it resembled an episode of Keystone Cops, with officers driving around the county in the company of civilian women, drinking vodka and planting explosives to be subsequently “discovered” by the diligent vodka drinkers.
The stuff that emerged about the treatment of the McBreartys was chilling in places. This was a family that had been targeted and then subjected to severe harassment by the law enforcement agency. Only for Frank McBrearty’s resources, and his astute retention of a private investigator, the whole thing may have gone undetected.
Eventually, the State made settlements with the family running into millions.
Morris was supposed to herald a new dawn for An Garda Síochána. The dirty linen was washed, some members hung out to dry. Reform was all the rage by the time the tribunal delivered its sixth and final report in 2008.
Twenty years on from the death of Richie Barron, what has changed? Not much, according to Frank McBrearty Jr.
“It will never be changed until the political will is there to change it,” he says. He believes that the latest public inquiry — the Charleton Tribunal — will be a waste of time.
“Why do you need a public inquiry if you’ve got a police authority,” he says. “What’s the point.”
Since being drawn into the public sphere, McBrearty went on to be elected as a county councillor for the Labour Party. He believes people like him should have been appointed to the Police Authority if there is to be any prospect of change.
“How can you put the head of revenue in charge of the policing authority. I’m a politician. I should have been asked to go on as an advisor. I should have been invited onto the Policing Authority.”
A few weeks ago, Mr McBrearty says he was visited by two gardaí who wanted to talk to him about his knowledge of who he thinks was actually responsible for the death of Richie Barron. He maintains he knows who the culprit is. The fact that the death is still being investigated over 20 years later probably says it all about how much has changed since 1996.
Three weeks ago, the commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullvan, issued a release in which she said she was leading a force that was now a “beacon of 21st century policing”. The statement followed a suggestion that she might want to consider whether to step aside or not while a tribunal investigates the alleged smearing of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.
There was a problem with whistleblowing in Donegal. Judge Morris identified that if junior officers had been listened to earlier on, much of the fallout could have been avoided. There is still a problem with whistleblowers, as the treatment of McCabe illustrates.
But that is just symptomatic of a wider malaise within the force. Despite a changing of the law in the wake of Morris to incorporate reform, the culture of the force remains the same. That culture ensures that any mistake or ineptitude is not properly addressed if it reflects badly on senior officers.
Such a culture feeds all the way down into the maw of an organisation where the ethic seems to be to get by and keep going with the least amount of fuss.
This was evident in the latest story to emerge from the force. An audit by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety found that there was a major discrepancy in the number of road disposable mouthpieces used to test for drink driving, and the recording of breath tests on the Pulse computer system.
In a survey in the Cork/Kerry area, there were 17% more tests recorded on Pulse than mouthpieces used. This could only be down to either sloppiness, or an effort to make it look like more work was being done on road safety than actually was the case.
Similarly, when another outside agency — the Central Statistics Office — began examining crime figures, further questions were raised about how crime is measured.
Why is it that these types of issues only emerge when an outside agency examines what’s going on in the force?
One mid-ranking guard operating in the Munster region told the Irish Examiner that the problems inherent in the force stem from a failure in management.
“Most of it is down to a disconnect between management and what is happening on the ground,” he said.
“I’ve worked in the city too and it’s a bit different there. Supers and inspectors in city stations will come down and see what’s happening, even in custody areas. They know if anything goes wrong it will go wrong big so they stay in touch.
“That’s not the same outside the cities. The super will lock himself in his room, and make sure not to rock the boat. If there’s problems, they might get into a tangle with the representative bodies and if seen to be rocking the boat that could affect chances of a promotion back to the city.”
Undoubtedly, within the senior ranks there are many who do the job as diligently as possible, but the theme of management managing primarily to avoid hassle pops up repeatedly.
This was touched on by deputy chief inspector of the Garda Inspectorate Mark Toland at an Oireachtas committee hearing last October.
“The current garda culture is inhibiting change,” he said, pointing out that recent scandals and inquiries could have been avoided if recommendations from the Inspectorate and Morris had been implemented.
“While staff identified positives such as a ‘can do’ culture and a sense of duty, many described the organisation as insular, defensive, with a blame culture where many leaders are reluctant to make decisions and to speak up.”
The mid-ranking garda in Munster points to the most basic of operational issues in this regard — the duty roster. For the last few years, the gardaí have been on 10-hour shifts, from 10pm to 8am, 7am to 5pm and midday to 10pm.
The overlap in shifts between midday and 5pm often finds some members twiddling their thumbs, or looking for something to do. As of now, there is no sign of any urgency to tackle what appears to be a basic problem.
On a macro level, there are other obvious problems. Retired Chief Supt John O’Brien points to the regionalisation of the force that was initiated in the mid-90s.
This was in response to controversies around the murders of two people in the Clare/Galway region, amid claims that there had been poor communication between neighbouring divisions in the region.
“That regionalisation introduced another tier of management,” O’Brien says. “There was six or seven more assistant commissioners brought into the guards. The effect was to increase the vertical orientation of the organisation.
“The aim is to have it as flat as possible. You don’t need intermediate steps, that lessens communication and changes responsibilities. So that was one of the most significant changes.”
O’Brien says that following Morris, the gardaí produced an analysis of the issues tackled in the report, but after that nothing much happened.
“The missing bit was the political will to drive the changes on,” he says.
“There is an impetus to push the guards over the line in making the changes that are required. The last reforming minister in that respect was Michael McDowell. There has been no real drive to change since then.”
Drive from the top of the organisation itself is another matter. The current commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, certainly talks the talk when it comes to change.
Now, however, the top management, including herself, will be up to their necks in dealing with the Charleton Tribunal while trying to grapple with the desperately needed change within the organisation.
At a public meeting with the Policing Authority recently, Ms O’Sullivan was asked repeatedly how she will manage to drive change while the tribunal will be in full flow, raking over uncomfortable issues for the guards.
She repeatedly reverted to polished management speak. What was missing through was the slightest hint that anything had really changed beyond the construction of a myriad of management structures.
Twenty years on from the events that led to the biggest exposure of garda practices in the history of the State, we have another tribunal which will examine whether garda management organised a smear campaign against a member who was highlighting malpractice within the force.
The more things change…
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