Friday 24 January 2020

Gene Kerrigan: 'It's not about justice, it's about tidy desks'

Poor police work, rumour and expediency have denied justice to Sophie Toscan du Plantier and Ian Bailey, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

There was a time when our forces of law and order beat information out of people. I don't know if they're still at that, I hear they moved on to filing imaginary breathalyser checks.

The gardai always denied they beat anyone up. Sometimes they denied it in courts of law, on oath.

Still, prisoners were bruised. Where did the bruises come from?

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The prisoners bumped into doors, gardai said, or they got thumped by a cell-mate, so they could make false allegations. If they were alone in the cell, they must have beat themselves up.

Such explanations were accepted by judges, and innocent people went to jail.

A former minister, Conor Cruise O'Brien, knew what was going on. A garda had cheerfully told him about beating someone up. And O'Brien approved.

When I later mentioned the beating incident in this newspaper, O'Brien wrote to the editor, claiming he never said anyone was beaten. Seems it was an incidence of "fake news".

A serious libel case beckoned.

At which point we disclosed to O'Brien the astonishing feat of investigative journalism which substantiated my exclusive - I read his 1998 memoir.

In the book, O'Brien admitted a garda told him that a prisoner was taken from a police car in mid-journey, and, in his words, "when at first he refused to answer, they beat the s**t out of him".

He didn't tell other ministers about this. It would worry them, he wrote. "It didn't worry me."

It appears poor Conor forgot he'd already publicly admitted that which he was now staunchly denying. I never heard anything more about the matter.

When it was revealed that the Garda admitted no fewer than a million make-believe breath checks, we were all staggered. Then we found out that figure was wrong. It was two million.

The flow of Garda revelations became a flood. One county - Co Donegal - provided a scandalous torrent of corruption all of its own.

From time to time, we get evidence of exemplary police work, and it's clear there are many capable gardai, with real commitment to public service. Yet, the standards seemingly acceptable to some senior officers - and to politicians - have long been dreadful.

What can we conclude from decades of scandal?

Firstly, there are competent gardai, there are outstanding gardai - and there are under-trained, blundering gardai. There are also gardai willing to bend and break rules - and laws.

Secondly, ministers flinch from confronting Garda scandals. What matters is getting this mess off their desk. They reject any suggestion there's anything wrong. Results matter, meeting targets, not justice.

Good cops are disheartened by this; bad cops thrive on it. Eventually, results matter so much they may invent some - two million of them.

One Garda scandal has persisted for more than 20 years - and last week the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case was back in court.

Successive governments have behaved with cowardice towards this case.

Two days before Christmas 1996, Sophie was brutally murdered at her cottage near Schull, west Cork.

It was reasonable for the police to question Ian Bailey. He had twice beaten his partner, Jules Thomas. He had scratches on his hands.

Bailey had cut down Christmas trees, he had killed turkeys - the scratches were credibly explained.

He agreed to be forensically tested. And despite a very bloody killing, there wasn't the slightest forensic connection between the murder and Bailey.

Then, a local woman, Marie Farrell, said she saw Bailey near Kealfadda Bridge in the middle of the night, though he said he was home in bed.

From that day to this, the State has tried to get a result from Bailey.

Farrell later claimed she'd been pressured by gardai to invent evidence. They denied it. I don't know what the truth of that is. But her "evidence" was worthless.

Farrell said she saw someone on the night of the murder for "a split second". The description she gave didn't match Bailey.

Kealfadda Bridge isn't on the route between Bailey's home and the murder scene.

Another local claimed gardai offered him money and drugs to implicate Bailey.

Gardai taped phone calls - on one of them, gardai discussed possibly rigging evidence in a minor part of the case.

Drinking, bitter, Bailey's black humour about the case was characterised as "confessions".

Gardai spread rumours about Bailey. There was an improper attempt to bring political pressure on the DPP to charge him. Legal officials, including DPP Eamonn Barnes, stood up against this.

Judge Adrian Hardiman, on the Supreme Court, summed up: "The fruits of the investigation have been considered not once, but several times by the DPP, who has concluded and reiterated that there is no evidence to warrant a prosecution against him".

Gardai lost five files, 139 statements and a blood-spattered garden gate. You have to wonder, was all of it lost, or was some "lost"?

It took police eight months to produce 32 witness statements to a Gsoc inquiry. Before they delivered a single file, Bailey gave Gsoc 623 statements.

Who is eager to have the case examined? Who seems not so eager?

The case against Bailey - such as it was - is in shreds. There isn't any credible evidence he did it. When the "evidence" was tested, it fell apart, so the DPP wouldn't prosecute.

Yet, when the French authorities asked, the Irish authorities scandalously gave them the file on an active case.

The French used that same evidence, untested, to "convict" Bailey in his absence, and sentenced him to 25 years.

The Supreme Court gave long, detailed judgments on why it would be unjust to extradite Bailey.

But, the Irish authorities, embarrassed by the actions of the gardai, co-operated with French attempts to prosecute Bailey. To do this, they've treated the Irish legal process with contempt.

Once upon a time, Conor Cruise O'Brien was an internationally renowned liberal. He was impressed when gardai "beat the s**t" out of a man - and got the information they needed. Beatings can get results.

What O'Brien didn't ask was how many innocent people were beaten before the police got the right one.

He dodged the reality of State torture - if it's okay to beat prisoners, is it okay to use implements? If your suspect won't talk, might you get a result if you torture his wife? Or his kids?

A suspect will surely crack if you threaten to have his sister's children taken into care? It gets results, yes?

And, of course, if torture or threat is to be of any use, the police must deny on oath, in court, that any of this happened. The police and the courts become literally valueless sentencing tribunals.

This is why police conduct must be methodical, impeccable, trustworthy.

O'Brien was wrong, obviously. Politicians today are little better. They turn a blind eye to the fact that the du Plantier case went off the rails decades ago - the police, in short, made a balls of it, picked a suspect and proceeded in blinkers.

Acting on gut feeling and the need for a result, few in authority appear to give a damn about who killed Sophie Toscan du Plantier - they just want a result.

The French authorities are no better. If you can't get the killer, well, a man against whom there is zero credible evidence will do. To a system that's been corrupted, it's not justice that matters, only results, and a tidy desk.

Sunday Independent

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