Case for radical reform of Garda now unequivocal

From the ‘heavy gang’ to Maurice McCabe, questions on accountability persist

Forty years ago, on St Valentine's Day 1977, this newspaper broke the story of a "heavy gang" within the Garda whose role was to "assist" suspects in making confessions. It was denied by the then Fine Gael/Labour government.

The Garda authorities appeared to enjoy an immunity unique in Irish life. They understood why. Official Ireland saw them as the blue line holding off a green IRA threat to this State.

That “heavy gang” affair was one of many where gardaí were not sufficiently held to account in public for their behaviour. It has left them open to accusations that, particularly at senior level, some within still believe they enjoy such immunity.

Almost a year prior to those 1977 Irish Times revelations, in March 1976, armed men robbed a train near Sallins, Co Kildare. The IRA later admitted responsibility, twice.


Six men were charged with the robbery: four were tried, three convicted and two were released on appeal, leaving Nicky Kelly. In 1984, Kelly was released from jail on "humanitarian grounds" by that Fine Gael/Labour coalition. In 1992 he was pardoned by then president Mary Robinson, as though he had never been charged in relation to the crime.

There was no evidence linking Kelly or his co-accused to the robbery, just confessions. Evidence that they were badly beaten while in custody was found in court to be “consistent with these allegations”. Gardaí strenuously denied responsibility for the beatings and argued that the defendants had beaten each other when placed in cells after being charged (against procedure).

Beaten himself up

One defendant, hospitalised after his confession, was never in a cell with anyone else. Gardaí claimed he had beaten himself up. The courts accepted this. It was never explained how these innocent men confessed to a crime the State later accepted they had no part in.

In December 1980, the Supreme Court released Dubliner Christy Lynch from prison. In September 1976, Lynch was convicted of the murder of Vera Cooney at Sandymount. He had confessed and served three years.

The Supreme Court found he had been subject to “harassment and oppression” and that the murder victim was alive when he claimed to have killed her.

It was never explained how he came to confess to her murder.

In 1982, the DPP dropped charges against Amanda McShane in connection with a robbery in Tallaght when it was discovered gardaí prepared a written confession in advance for her to sign.

Gardaí strenuously denied responsibility for the beatings and argued that the defendants had beaten each other

McShane’s solicitor found the preprepared confession on visiting her in custody. He copied it. Her interrogation continued when he left and she signed another preprepared statement admitting the crime. While there was no suggestion of violence against McShane, the preprepared confession was never explained either.

Similarly, in June 1983 Michael Ward confessed at Naas Garda station to 26 counts of burglary. His solicitors established that he was in jail when, according to his confession, he burgled houses in Naas. One burglary he admitted to never happened.

When these facts emerged, the DPP dropped the case. It was never explained why Michael Ward made a false confession.

Kerry Babies

Then there were the Kerry Babies. In April 1984, two dead infants were found in Kerry. A baby boy with stab wounds was discovered at Cahersiveen. Two weeks later the body of another baby boy was found 30 miles away on the farm of Joanne Hayes at Abbeydorney.

Gardaí suspected Hayes was mother of the Cahersiveen baby. She confessed to having stabbed it. Her family signed statements supporting her confession.

Charges were later dropped when DNA evidence found the blood group of the Cahersiveen baby was different to Hayes’s and the father of the baby found at Abbeydorney. Gardaí proposed that Hayes had twins with two different fathers with two different blood types.

A tribunal sat for 77 days, heard 109 witnesses, and found that gardaí were not responsible for Hayes’s false confession or the statements by her family. It was never explained who was responsible for Hayes’s false confession or the statements by her family.

The Morris tribunal in its reports, last in 2008, found that gardaí in Donegal had invented an informer, made bombs, and claimed credit for finding them. They also attempted to frame Frank McBrearty jnr for murder. Innocent, he secured a €1.5 million settlement from the State.

No garda was jailed in connection with these events.

In 2006 the Barr tribunal reported on the fatal shooting of John Carthy by gardaí at Abbeylara, Co Longford, in 2000. It found the shooting was "avoidable" and that "negligence of those in command led to the tragedy".

When the Barr report was published on July 20th, 2006, Carthy’s sister Marie said it was regrettable the Garda still refused to accept responsibility for her brother’s death. A day later, the Garda issued a statement saying the force regretted loss of life in any circumstances.

Commissioner’s apology

On July 27th, 2006, then garda commissioner Noel Conroy wrote to the Carthy family apologising for the shooting dead of John Carthy. The letter was sent three days after then minister for justice Michael McDowell said he believed An Garda Síochána would issue an apology once senior members had fully considered the report of the Barr tribunal.

The Smithwick tribunal investigated allegations of collusion following the 1989 killing by the IRA of two senior RUC officers as they returned to Northern Ireland after meeting gardaí. Its December 2013 report was "satisfied there was collusion in the murders" and that "evidence points to the fact that there was someone within the Garda station assisting the IRA".

The report criticised two earlier Garda investigations into the murders as “inadequate”.

Garda handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations was criticised in the 2005 Ferns report, the 2009 Murphy report and the 2011 Cloyne report. Bishops resigned. No garda did.

The list above indicates a pattern evident in other cases as well. Now, and for eight years, we have had the Sgt Maurice McCabe saga.

It is unequivocally clear that An Garda Síochána needs deep, radical reform, not the band-aid solutions attempted to date.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent