The Message: Something's Rotten In The State of Ireland

The head of the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, may have been duly delivered on a plate – but the rot in the administration of justice runs far deeper than any one individual...

Late in 2011, Edward Boylan Jnr was imprisoned in Mountjoy jail, on the north side of Dublin, for a minor offence. Having been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic in 2002, in many ways he was a victim of a terrible cocktail of genetic bad luck and the chronic inability of society to deal with mental illness.

Life had been very difficult for him over the previous decade. More than anything else now, at the beginning of 2012, he needed medical help, as well as understanding, care and support. In fact, he needed them desperately. Unfortunately, the Irish prison system is not designed to provide anything of the kind. Or so it proved.

Edward was housed in a special wing of the jail; no one disputes that prison medical staff were aware that, during the course of his incarceration, he was hearing voices, which is a symptom of schizophrenia. He later said that, while he was in Mountjoy, he pleaded for the drugs necessary to treat his illness. For reasons that remain unclear, the necessary medication does not seem to have been provided. His family noted a dramatic deterioration in his medical condition while he was in Mountjoy. Aware that he would have nowhere to go on his release, they sought help from the authorities. Neither Edward Boylan Jnr.’s pleas, nor those of his family, made any difference.

Edward Jnr. was released from prison without any form of supervision, without medication  – and, shockingly, without anywhere to go. Turfed out onto the streets, in effect, he was just another homeless man, brutalised by the system – except for what the voices in his head were telling him. Anyone familiar with the illness with which Edward was wrestling will recognise the pattern: he was in a deeply paranoid, psychotic state, as a result of his schizophrenia, when he went to the flat in Crumlin, a working class area on the south side of Dublin, where his father lived...

There, some time between January 6th and 7th 2012, Edward stabbed the 74 year old Edward Boylan Snr. thirteen times in the chest, using a family heirloom – a 100 year old bayonet – to carry out the killing. Later, Edward Jnr. bought lighter fluid and matches and set fire to the apartment. Charged with the murder of his father in the Central Criminal Court, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Following the court case last week, he has been moved to the Central Mental Hospital and a report on his future treatment is being prepared...

In a week of high political drama, this gut-wrenching story of family tragedy might have been missed by many. But in fact it was hugely relevant to events that were unfolding in and around the Department of Justice, under whose watch Irish prisons are run.

The Boylan case was being heard, when, after months of relentless controversy, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny made the announcement in the Dáil that the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, had resigned. Two days later, the Guerin Report was published: it delivered a withering assessment of the response of various arms of the State to allegations of corruption in the Gardai that had been made, over a period of years, by the whistleblower, Sergeant Maurice McCabe of Baileboro station, in Co.Cavan. 

Under its terms of reference, Sean Guerin, senior counsel, could examine only the response to Sergeant McCabe’s complaints, not the substance of those complaints. Guerin found that the Minister, the Garda Commissioner, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and the Department of Justice were all guilty of failing to treat the complaints made by Sergeant McCabe with the seriousness that they so obviously merited. 

Given these findings, Alan Shatter’s position had become untenable: there was no way around that. Through a series of crises, he had stuck firmly to the lines supplied to him by the Garda commissioner, Martin Callanan (recently ‘retired’), and by the Department of Justice. And now, that stance had been exposed as wholly inadequate and wrong. 

There were nevertheless reasons to be sympathetic to Alan Shatter. Because what was even more striking, reflecting on the report, was the extent to which the malaise in the administration of justice in Ireland, and in particular the malaise in the Gardaí, was – and is – systemic. It long predates Alan Shatter’s time in government. And it runs far deeper than can be laid at the door of any individual politician. 

The Minister’s biggest failure, therefore, was in allowing himself to be misled on matters which were of far graver importance than his advisers acknowledged. Complaints were put to him as Minister. He turned to the Department for answers. They turned to the Gardaí. And when the evasions and the platitudes came back from the Commissioner’s office, the Department accepted them at face value and in turn informed the Minister that the necessary investigations had been completed. He stood up in the Dáil and repeated the mantra handed to him. It was a grievous error of judgement for which he has paid the ultimate political price. 

It is hard to believe that a man of Alan Shatter’s instinctive reforming zeal could have fallen into the trap. An experienced solicitor, he wanted to make a mark, and in many ways did so as a Minister, introducing a raft of new legislation. So how did he get it so wrong in this instance?

Maurice McCabe was not the only whistle blower. I listened to Garda John Wilson, speaking on the Marian Finnucane show on RTE on Saturday. He came across as a good, decent, well meaning, idealistic sort of policeman. There was an immensely likeable honesty about the way he spoke.

He watched TV when he was growing up, he explained, and loved shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Kojak. The image of the good cop going out there to solve crimes and protect citizens against the bad guys might have been simplistic, but it appealed to him. A visit to his school by two gardaí was the clincher.  He was hugely impressed with them, and it inspired him to join the force. He went to Templemore at the age of 19. He had been a Garda all his adult life, until he retired recently, totally disillusioned, at the age of just 50. 

Like Sergeant McCabe, Wilson had spotted that crimes were not being properly investigated. He saw the interests of the ordinary citizens of Ireland being sacrificed either for expediency, because of connections – or just because the Gardaí could get away with doing whatever they wanted to. He made his superiors aware of his concerns. He was ignored. Worse still, his peers began to treat him like a pariah. The deeper he looked, the more aware he became of the extent to which members of the Gardaí were themselves treating the law as their own personal playground, and in many cases breaking it with impunity  Worse, the culprits in serious crimes were being protected. And people were being endangered as a result.

A campaign of intimidation began against him. The lowest point was reached when a dead rat was nailed to the front door of his isolated rural home. His family were terrified. Far from making him back off, the intimidation steeled his resolve: he would not give up. Even if it was from outside the force, he would continue to demand the truth.

Why were Sergeant McCabe and Garda John Wilson not listened to? The consequences, it turns out, were horrendous.

Jerry McGrath, a  23 year old from Tipperary, had been responsible for a shocking attack on the taxi driver Mary Lynch in Cavan in April 2007. In October the same year, he attempted to abduct a child from her home and was caught. That the prosecution of these cases was inadequate is clear: he was given bail on both of these charges and in December 2007, he murdered Sylvia Roche Kelly, in a hotel in Limerick. It was a case to which Sergeant Maurice McCabe attempted to draw the Minister’s attention – and was crushed for his trouble.  

It is important for us to try to understand why a man like Alan Shatter, who should instinctively have been open to their stories, refused to engage with the whistleblowers? 

One of the most difficult issues that faces any government Minister is to decide: to what extent should I trust the civil servants? The flipside is: just how aggressively do I need to assert my own independence from the ‘permanent government’? Every politician is warned that if you set yourself on a collision course, then you will be deliberately stymied at every turn. But it is equally true that if you let the mandarins have their way, then you will be putty in their hands.

The balancing act can be a difficult one. But in the end, every Minister has to take responsibility for making his or her own decisions. It is not good enough to defer to the in house 'experts'. You must know and understand the brief well enough to stand over every serious call that you make. 

Overall, the current government gives the impression that it is simply not strong enough in this regard. The junior Minister for Health, Alex White, is a case in point. First in relation to the fluoride issue, and again in this issue of Hot Press on drugs policy, he has shown himself to be a prisoner of the public servants in the Department of Health. His over-reliance on them suggests that he is not on top of the brief: if he was, why would he not do an interview on this issue with Hot Press? His predecessors had no complaints at all about how they were treated. Instead, like Alan Shatter, we are fed a load of platitudes...

In a similar way, the former Minister for Justice was, I believe, a victim of too great a willingness to take what he was told by the Garda Commissioner and by the Department of Justice at face value, when they – separately and together – were protecting their own vested interests.

The truth is that the administration of Justice in this country manifestly falls short of the standards that citizens are entitled to expect. The most glaring examples relate to the maverick culture within the Gardaí, as a result of which individuals like Sergeant McCabe and Garda John Wilson, who wanted to do the right thing were isolated, intimidated, bullied and humiliated.

But the treatment of Edward Boylan Jnr and the tragic killing of his father result from the same fundamental failure to address deficiencies in the system in an honest, direct and responsible way, and from an attitude that – in terms of money and investment – the service being provided to the public is at the very bottom of departmental priorities. 

It is, therefore, not only the culture in the Gardaí that Frances Fitzgerald has to address in her new role as Minister for Justice. It is the culture in the Department of Justice. And that is part of a wider issue about the self-interest, defenciveness and prujudice that are too often at the heart of the way in which Ireland's public servants interpret their role. 

On the face of it, it seems that many have forgotten that the citizens come first. It is up to politicians now to take up that mantle, and to go beyond the self-serving evasions, half-truths and hypocrisies which too often are the basis for public policy-making in Ireland.

 

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