Mum and garda the true heroines of Morris inquiry
Both women endured garda pressure and one even underwent electroshock therapy, writes Eamon Keane
"The ultimate act in upholding the truth has been that of Roisin McConnell..."-- Justice Frederick Morris, Report of the Morris tribunal, May 2008
"You are a dirty lying murdering bitch ... " -- Detective John White to Roisin McConnell, Raphoe Garda Station, Donegal, December 1996
Raphoe, Donegal, October 14, 1996: Richie Barron a local cattle dealer has a slight altercation with another local man Mark McConnell, at the Town and County Pub. Words are exchanged and Mr Barron later goes to another pub, the Suile Tavern. Just after 12.30am he leaves to walk home. Shortly after 1am his body is found lying on the road outside the town. Mr Barron later dies in hospital.
The local garda on duty is drinking in a pub as the alarm is raised. The scene is not preserved until seven and a half hours after the first arrival of the gardai at 1.40am. By this stage an ambulance taking Mr Barron to hospital has left. One garda finds human tissue at the scene, lifts it up and then just leaves it there. The next morning well-meaning neighbours, concerned that spilt blood would upset children on their way to school, clean away potential evidence.
Crucially the state pathologist is not called. Six years later on April 12, 2002, Dr Marie Cassidy re-examines the medical evidence in the case and concludes that Barron wasn't struck with a weapon. Cassidy says that the possibility of a violent attack was "highly unlikely". All the available evidence to date suggests a hit-and-run incident.
Despite this, a number of local gardai, with the aid of Wille O'Doherty a garda informer and thief, concoct a theory that Mark McConnell and his cousin Frank McBrearty Junior killed Mr Barron. There is absolutely zero evidence to support this. In fact the story emanates from a rumour at Richie Barron's wake. Nevertheless the gardai plan to arrest Mark McConnell's wife Roisin. Their aim is to get her to implicate Mark and herself in the cattle dealer's alleged murder.
'As a matter of simple humanity a mother should never be left in a state where she does not know with whom her child is and whether that child is being properly cared for.'" --
Justice Frederick Morris
Donegal, December 4, 1996, 7.45 am: Mother of an 18-month-old baby Roisin McConnell is driving to her job at the Fruit of the Loom factory. Roisin sees a garda checkpoint: ''They stopped our car. Detective John White came round to where I was. I thought somebody in the family was in an accident or something. White says to me, 'You are being arrested for the murder of Richie Barron'."
Roisin's husband Mark is arrested that morning. The young mother is then taken to Raphoe garda station. In the station Roisin's two principal 'interviewers' are Det Garda John Dooley and the aforementioned Detective Sergeant John White. Roisin has five interview sessions in all.
From the outset her principal concern is for her 18-month-old baby Dean who is being cared for locally. She is not informed until teatime about his care. In the interview room Roisin sits on a chair as the two detectives stand over her.
As the questioning progresses Detective White becomes increasingly aggressive according to his fellow officer Detective Dooley: "It commenced after she (Roisin) was ordered to stand up and after her chair had been thrown across the room and before the post-mortem photographs of the late Richard Barron were shown to her. At the time I was standing to the right of Roisin McConnell and Sergeant White was standing to her left. Without warning Sergeant White shouldered Roisin McConnell into me. I shouldered her back to him and this was repeated on three to four occasions.''
Roisin is by now terrified and to add to her distress she is told her child will be taken from her and that she will get seven years' jail. She is forced to look at pictures of Richie Barron's dead body. Roisin recalls how Detective White told her that her husband Mark was allegedly having an affair: ''They brought the girl's name that my husband was [allegedly] ... riding ... John White, he lifted the photo, the postmortem photographs, up ...then Dooley, he was looking at White and he was nodding to the table like that there, and White lifted the photographs and started to push them into my face and I started to close my eyes tight and every time that I opened my eyes, I could get a glance of blood so I had to close them tight again. White said about it being the work of my husband and that I was telling nothing but lies all day and that I was Satan and I was the devil.''
Roisin is now crying under this persistent abuse. Worse is to follow as Detective White breaks wind close to her and forces her to pray to her father who had died five years previously: ''I was standing and he said 'Bless yourself', so I blessed myself and then he went ballistic altogether, then ... because he started to roar and shout 'you're nothing but a dirty murdering bastard' and 'you're nothing but a lying murdering bitch' and he spit on the wall twice and he lifted his leg and passed wind twice. It was him suggested that I pray to my father and he would say a wee prayer for Richie Barron ... Because whenever he started he was really roaring and shouting and the froth was coming out of his mouth and after he had passed wind my mind was just going in a blank.''
Roisin was eventually released from garda custody at 10 minutes past eight that evening .
''What the f**k is happening? What's happening to this family?'' --
Christmas Day 1996
After the arrest the gardai harassed the McConnells by calling to their house at all hours with spurious summonses. Roisin's character began to change as Mark recounted to me this week: ''She became silent and very fearful. Things got so bad we had to put her into a local psychiatric hospital.'' For Roisin it was a living nightmare: ''Detective John White had said that Richie Barron was going to come back and haunt me. So I used to sit up every night, like I couldn't sleep anyway and I could hear noises in the house. I went into hospital on the 14... I remember different parts of being in the hospital, but then there's parts that is just totally blank to me. I remember thinking that I was the devil, you know, while I was in there ... I had it that they were all detectives and guards [that is how I regarded the medical staff].''
Christmas Day 1996 and Mark McConnell is trying to create a family atmosphere as he goes to visit Roisin: ''Christmas Day was the worst. We drove to the hospital. I had the wee wane Dean. I brought him into Roisin. She didn't seem to recognise him. I drove home and came back to a house with Christmas decorations and unwashed dishes stacked up. I sat in the middle of the room and thought what the f**k is happening? What's happening to this family?''
After nine weeks and with no improvement they took the decision that Roisin would have ECT treatment which gives shocks to the brain. Roisin recalls the controversial treatment which helped bring her back to some degree of normality: ''I never went through anything like it ... I was never in hospital all my life, only apart from having my first child. My whole head was sore and down the back of my head it felt like there was a big lump in it .''
Today Roisin McConnell still has to see a psychiatrist. She is still on medication. Detective John White repeatedly denied Roisin's version but accepted the majority of her testimony after Detective Dooley admitted that Roisin was telling the truth. The Tribunal accepted the accuracy of the full account of Roisin's evidence.
Several of the gardai under the Morris tribunal's scrutiny have since been promoted or pensioned off or transferred. Justice Frederick Morris has identified that corruption flourished because of management deficiencies. The McConnells represented themselves during the Morris hearings as the State would not pay their costs. The gardai have had their costs paid for by the Garda Commissioner.
There is hope. The chief whistleblower in Donegal was a female garda, Tina Fowley. This is the type of garda we need.
Roisin McConnell is the type of citizen that this State does not deserve but let's thank her as Justice Morris did in this week's tribunal report: ''She has described in detail how this garda brutality and mistreatment was followed shortly after by a lapse into mental illness and the hospitalisation of an innocent and decent woman. To maintain these lies an airtight conspiracy was needed. It has cracked and the repulsive nature of what occurred to Mrs McConnell and the shocking nature of the conspiracy to publicly maintain that she was a liar in defence of the reputations of those who wronged her have been exposed as horrible. Some of those involved hoped that her strength and courage would fail her and that she would not attend and might be discouraged for medical or other reasons from attending the tribunal to give her evidence. Mrs McConnell found the strength to come and give her evidence to the tribunal.
"The ultimate act of courage in upholding the truth has been that of Mrs McConnell.''
Eamon Keane presents the Lunchtime Show on Newstalk 106-108FM