FERGUS FINLAY: Was Dónal de Róiste disgraced because he wouldn’t tell a lie?

Donal de Roiste may have been the youngest ever public servant in Irish history to have retired.

He was just 24 at the time. Except he didn’t voluntarily retire. He “was retired”. That’s a rather odd way of describing what happened to him, but it’s the term that was used. He was “retired” by the President at the behest of the Government.

What did he do wrong? We don’t know. What crime was he charged with? None. Who gave evidence against him? No one, at least not to his face.

Not charged, no witnesses, no accusations, no evidence. Just retired.

De Róiste may be the victim of the greatest unresolved miscarriage of justice in Ireland.

What he says happened to him lacked all semblance of natural justice. In 1968 he was a young army lieutenant. Out of nowhere, he says he was taken to military headquarters, put under confinement, interrogated for several days and eventually dismissed from the army.

Because he was never charged with anything, he was never court-martialled.

For the rest of his life, de Róiste has been a bitter man. I would be too in his circumstances: alienated from his father, who couldn’t believe he had done nothing wrong, a stain on his character that could never be removed, a mark of shame because he had been drummed out of the army he had always wanted to join.

What was his real crime? Don Mullan sets out some possibilities in his compelling new book, Speaking Truth to Power, including the possibility de Róiste was disgraced because he wouldn’t tell a lie.

The power of Mullan’s book lies in his meticulous research, which is of the quality you’d expect from the author of Eyewitness Bloody Sunday.

It is, I suspect, impossible to read the book without coming to the conclusion that de Róiste’s dismissal was essentially the result of a conspiracy, and that the entire establishment has simply been unable to admit ever since what a shameful thing was done.

But is such a conspiracy possible? Do such things happen?

Having read Mullan’s book, I can’t help but draw parallels between de Róiste’s case and that of Alfred Dreyfus at the end of the 19th century.

Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French army, falsely accused of spying and treason and locked up for years on Devil’s Island.

The similarities arise from the fact that almost as soon as Dreyfus was convicted (by a secret court martial) everyone involved with the case came to know the identity of the real culprit. But rather than admit a mistake, cover-up after cover-up was perpetrated.

Eventually, the famous French writer, Émile Zola, became convinced of Dreyfus innocence.

He wrote and published a famous open letter to the president of France, highlighting the injustice involved. His letter was known as “J’Accuse” (I accuse) and in it he set out an entire list of people who were involved in the original injustice to Dreyfus, as well as others who knew and did nothing to prevent it.

He accused seven senior officers of being involved, three handwriting experts of contributing to the deceit, and he accused the French department of defence of using media manipulation — spin, we would call it nowadays — to cover up its own involvement in the destruction of Dreyfus.

Zola’s accusations were so outrageous that he was put on trial for slander and defamation. But, guess what? They all turned out to be true. The Dreyfus case was one more example of a system unable to admit an injustice, because to admit it would reflect badly on the system.

I have a funny feeling that sooner or later, Don Mullan will be seen as a modern Zola.

I DON’T think I’ve ever met de Róiste. He is the brother of Adi Roche, one of the people I admire most.

When Adi was running for the Presidency some years ago, some fairly vicious people resurrected the story of her brother’s “disgrace” (which would have happened when Adi was about 14) as part of the dirty campaign against her — a campaign that is now fairly widely acknowledged as being one of the dirtiest ever seen in Ireland.

I advised Adi throughout that campaign, and was foolish enough to believe the Irish media would not use the Dónal de Róiste story. But use it they did, and, to this day, some of them haven’t suffered a pang of shame.

In the years since that campaign, I’ve been asked a few times to join the campaign to clear de Róiste’s name.

I never have, to my shame, because it would have meant too much research, and there were always other campaigns going on. But it is clear there needs to be a campaign.

I have to conclude that De Róiste is owed an apology by the Irish State.

He should be offered reinstatement in the army, a clean and clear record, and the sort of pension he would have received had he progressed normally through the ranks. Until that happens, he is entitled to feel a deep sense of injustice.

And, what’s more, we’re entitled to wonder — could it happen again?

The law has been changed a dozen times since de Róiste’s day. The courts have emphasised again and again that the principles of natural justice must entitle every man to know the charges against him, to know his accuser, to be entitled to a defence.

But de Róiste’s case would appear to underline something we already know: that the defence of freedom and justice requires eternal vigilance.

We’re lucky to have people as vigilant as Don Mullan.

In his famous letter, Émile Zola said: “When truth is buried underground, it grows and it builds up so much force that the day it explodes it blasts everything with it.”

I believe there is a truth buried underground here. Some day it will explode.

I received a considerable sum of money in the post the other day, in response to an article I wrote here about illegal money-lending. It seemed to me (and I hope I’m wrong about this) it was sent by someone who could ill afford to part with it, but who was willing to share the little they had with someone in trouble. I can neither return nor acknowledge the money, because it was sent anonymously. So I would like to thank the person who sent it, and to assure them it has been sent exactly where he or she would want it to go.


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