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The rumour-mill that tore the sole out of an Irish country town

It began with a cattle dealer getting knocked down by a car while walking home on a deserted country road. But rumour built on rumour and it escalated into a murder inquiry. Twelve innocent people were arrested and abused so badly in custody that some of them had to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Others saw their businesses almost disappear as the cloud of suspicion hung over them.

And the town of Raphoe in Donegal became bitterly divided -- and may still not have recovered to this day.

Before the death of cattle dealer Richie Barron in October 1996, the town was similar to any other in rural Ireland. It had a vibrant pub culture, a chipper and a church -- it was a close community of 1,400 people where everybody knew each other's business. But the garda on duty on the night of the hit-and-run was drinking in a pub in a neighbouring town -- and the gardai that did arrive failed miserably to preserve the scene of Richie Barron's death.

There were wild tales at his wake that he had been murdered and the gardai were stupid enough to believe them. They began to focus their suspicions on two men -- Young Frank (the son of the local nightclub owner Old Frank McBrearty) and his cousin Mark McConnell. They had a "eureka" moment when a local man called Noel McBride came forward with a statement which implicated both men in the "crime". But the investigation team never properly cross-checked his statement with the 500 other witness statements until a year later. To their horror, they discovered that there was not a single witness who mentioned seeing him in the village -- because he was at a christening elsewhere.

But that was yet to come and Raphoe was still convulsed with conspiracy theories. In December 1996, the gardai arrested Young Frank McBrearty as he drove his children to school. Mark McConnell was picked up too on the same morning along with 10 other innocent people.

The Gardai were convinced they were on the right track, but they had failed to do their basic police work. It was all eerily similar to the opening line of Franz Kafka's The Trial: "Somebody must have made a false accusation against Joseph K for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong".

This story has almost been lost because it became the subject of the Morris Tribunal, which ran for six years. For those like me who reported on it, the daily headlines were almost always focused on the shocking Garda misconduct uncovered. The real human suffering was often missed in the long-drawn-out process. But Gerard Cunningham, who covered every day of evidence at the tribunal, has written a devastating new book which redresses the balance.

And Chaos and Conspiracy is at its most powerful when it details the awful consequences of the wrongful arrests. Take for example, the wife of Mark McConnell who was taken into custody at the same time. Roisin McConnell was shouldered back and forth by two gardai like a shuttlecock in her cell. She was accused of having an affair, and called a slut and a whore. She spent eight weeks afterwards in a psychiatric unit over Christmas 1996 and got three electric shock treatment sessions.

Then there was her sister Katrina Brolly. She had horrific post-mortem photos of the bloodied corpse of Richie Barron shoved in her face by gardai.

Another of their sisters, Edel Quinn, suffered after she was released. She was punched in the stomach in a local pub and told she wouldn't get out of Raphoe alive. She moved to Dublin.

These were ordinary people who had never seen the inside of a garda station and were suddenly being shouted at, abused and told they were involved in a murder which they knew nothing about. And Gerard Cunningham carefully catalogues their stories, which had previously been lost amidst tens of thousands of pages.

Life in Raphoe was becoming just as unbearable for Young Frank McBrearty and his cousin Mark McConnell. A group of young men in the town began a campaign of harassment. One of them printed business cards saying "The murdering McBreartys -- contact the McBreartys for all your murdering needs". He was also heard boasting that he painted an abusive road sign saying: "House for sale, owner moving to Mountjoy, contact Frank McBrearty".

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But the lying could not last and eventually the garda investigation collapsed. As the book shows, that was in part due to the work of diligent Donegal gardai who did their jobs properly. There was an internal garda inquiry and then the Morris Tribunal, which brilliantly exposed what had happened. Judge Frederick Morris found the garda investigation was "corrupt in its leadership, tendentious and utterly negligent in the highest degree".

In his conclusion, Mr Cunnigham argues that the system did work by finally clearing the innocent, but he also points out that not everyone would have had the financial resources of the McBrearty family.

Chaos and Conspiracy is a gripping account which will be read most avidly in Raphoe. But it should also be obligatory reading for the 14,000 members of the gardai and for those of us tempted to argue that the end justifies the means when it comes to combating crime.

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