Shane Phelan: Shatter must get to grips with this shocking mess
THE schism which has emerged between two of the country's most senior medico-legal figures is an extraordinary and unprecedented development.
Ireland only has three full-time state pathologists. So the fact that there is considerable tension between two of them, the state pathologist herself, Prof Marie Cassidy, and one of her deputies, Dr Khalid Jaber, is deeply worrying, to say the least.
The Office of the State Pathologist is a crucial part of the criminal justice system. It deals with around 200 cases a year, determining the cause of death in all manner of suspicious circumstances.
Evidence given by pathologists is the basic cornerstone of any prosecution for murder or manslaughter.
Dr Jaber has been suggesting in correspondence with a number of bodies for some time now that Prof Cassidy is not sufficiently qualified to hold her position. It is an astonishing allegation to make against any leading public official, especially one who has been doing the job for almost a decade.
In one letter seen by the Irish Independent, Dr Jaber wrote: "These concerns have been outlined to the Department of Justice on several occasions."
So what has the Department of Justice, and in particular its minister Alan Shatter, been doing to sort out this row? The answer is: we don't know, but it doesn't look like much has been done. Certainly, if Dr Jaber's letters are anything to go by, Mr Shatter has sat on his hands. Either Dr Jaber's concerns have substance and must be dealt with or else they have no substance and Mr Shatter must tell him so. But there is no sign that either of these things has happened.
"The Department of Justice is aware of this issue and has opted not to act and remained silent," wrote Dr Jaber.
The Irish Independent contacted the Department of Justice about the issues raised in Dr Jaber's letters. We asked the department to clarify what qualifications Prof Cassidy has and whether it was satisfied with these qualifications. The official response was: "It would not be appropriate for the department to make any public comment."
We resubmitted these questions and got no response at all the second time.
This is hardly the sort of ringing endorsement Prof Cassidy would have hoped for.
We asked if what Dr Jaber says is correct, were there any concerns for the safety of criminal convictions? Again, no comment. We also pointed out that, to put it mildly, there appeared to be considerable disharmony at the Office of the State Pathologist. We asked had Mr Shatter or the department intervened in any way in an effort to remedy this situation?
Again, no comment.
Nobody knows where this will end. But one thing is for certain, the situation cannot be allowed to fester any longer, especially now that it is out in the open. It is time Mr Shatter sorted things out for the good of the criminal justice system.