That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, that is to say, the facts and circumstances surrounding the death in Garda custody on 30th May, 1967 of Liam O'Mahony.
Most Deputies will probably have seen the statement that I issued on Tuesday last concerning my intention to move this motion. I felt it necessary to issue that statement for two reasons: first, so that my intention to move it would be known, thus putting an end to speculation, and secondly, so that the reason for proposing an inquiry should not be misrepresented.
In the public statement, I said that I would give details of the proposal in the Dáil. My intention is to appoint a Tribunal of three persons, namely, a Judge of the Supreme Court, who will be chairman, a Judge of the High Court and a Judge of the Circuit Court. I have asked and secured the consent of Mr. Justice O'B. Fitzgerald, Mr. Justice Murnaghan and Judge Conroy to act on the Tribunal.
The object of the inquiry, and therefore the Tribunal's terms of reference, will be to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Liam O'Mahony while in Garda custody. It will be for the Tribunal themselves to decide what is or is not relevant to that inquiry.
That, then, is my proposal. In view of what has already been said in this House, and outside it, I think it is right that I should be very specific as to why I am asking the House to approve of this motion, seeing that I recently rejected suggestions that such a Tribunal be set up. It is all the more necessary that I should do this because, if some of what has been said, here and outside, goes unanswered, there is a real danger that the purpose and value of one of our traditional institutions—an institution that this House decided in an enactment passed as recently as 1962 to preserve—namely, the Coroner's inquest, will be undermined. I therefore have to give, not only reasons that weighed with me but also the reasons that did not weigh with me.
I think it is essential that I should, first of all, correct certain statements that have been made about some aspects of this matter. It was said here, for instance, that the function of a Coroner's inquest is limited by law to ascertaining the cause of death, the implication being that this means cause of death in the medical sense. That is not correct and in the present context it is gravely misleading. It is the function of an inquest to determine how, where and when the death occurred and, in the present instance, the jury's verdict said specifically that they had insufficient evidence to determine how and where—I repeat, how and where—the injuries were received.
Deputy Barrett objected, here and in a daily newspaper, to my saying that some Deputies opposite did not adopt an impartial attitude. Perhaps they were not deliberately partial but Deputy Barrett himself clearly stated that the deceased man received his injuries in the Garda station—a statement which the ordinary listener would certainly take to mean that the injuries were inflicted by the gardaí. The jury on the other hand had explicitly said that they—who had heard all the evidence—could not say where the injuries were received. Perhaps Deputy Barrett had not adverted to this, but, objectively speaking, his comment was not impartial. Neither were the comments of some other Deputies who sought to discount the jury's verdict on the basis—which I have shown to be misconceived—that the jury were not empowered to investigate how the injuries were received.
There is another major misconception which I feel it is essential to correct. Deputy Barrett took me to task for what I had said about the absence of a stenographer at the inquest. He said that I, as a lawyer myself, must know that a shorthand note is regularly taken in civil proceedings in court, where there might be an appeal. And he went on to suggest that it was equally important, at an inquest, that there should be a verbatim account so that, as he puts it later in his letter, it should be possible—here I quote—"at the highest—that is, Ministerial— level to assess the facts on all the evidence before the Coroner's Tribunal".
I do not want to exaggerate but I think that the implications of this— coming from a man who is a lawyer —are startling. We are speaking of an inquest at which there was a jury. The jury not only heard every word of the evidence but had the opportunity to observe the demeanour of witnesses and they reached a verdict. Yet, it appears to be seriously suggested by Deputy Barrett that I, as Minister for Justice, could have some kind of appellate jurisdiction in relation to their verdict —that it would be open to me to reexamine the written record of the evidence and possibly substitute my own opinion for the unanimous verdict of a jury of ten.
May I say that some of the Deputy's colleagues who have, in the past, gone out of their way to defend the value of juries' verdicts would do well to ponder the implication of what has been said on this occasion? If the day ever comes when, on a factual issue, the conclusion of one man—even a Minister acting as such—is given greater weight than the unanimous verdict of a jury of ten on the very same evidence, then we will have reached the stage when our jury system might as well be abandoned altogether.
Some of the critics did, apparently, see the implications of what they were saying and they realised that, unless they were to attack the entire jury system, the only way to undermine the jury's verdict on this occasion was to undermine confidence in the jury members themselves. I dealt with that already in the House but I would like to clear up just one point: Deputy Dillon seemed perturbed at my suggestion that the Garda went out of their way to select jurors whose character, reputation and general standing were such that nobody could question either their impartiality or their competence. The Deputy thought that any such selective process is illegal. I am glad to assure him that it is not. Coroner's juries are not, and in the nature of things cannot be, assembled in the same way as juries in ordinary court proceedings. There is always some element of selection—for instance, the Garda obviously will not select somebody they know to be mentally retarded—and there is certainly nothing either illegal or objectionable in their taking more care than usual in this case to select men whose verdict ought to be accepted as a true verdict.
In view of the criticisms, direct and implied, that have been directed at the jury, I should like to put on record not only my own complete acceptance of their impartiality but the Coroner's opinion of them as expressed to me in writing: he said that they were intelligent, conscientious and hard-working —above average; that he could not see how any inquiry more exhaustive could be held; and that the criticisms directed at the limitations on their powers under the Coroners Acts appeared to him to be futile as he was unable to see how, no matter how much their power was extended, they could, on the evidence, have brought in any other verdict.
What, then, has changed? Public agitation has developed. I do not accept, and I would not ask this House to accept, that it is in any way representative but what I do say is that, largely through a distortion of the facts, the agitation itself has created public unease and the stage has now been reached where a failure to hold a further inquiry is open to grave misrepresentation. It is on that basis that I come to the House and ask for approval of this motion.
Mr. G. Goldberg, a solicitor who took part in the inquest proceedings, has made certain suggestions as to what the Tribunal might be asked to inquire into. As far as I am concerned, and I am quite definite about this, the Tribunal is being set up to investigate the full facts and circumstances of a man's death. Whether any particular point will or will not be covered will depend on the Tribunal's decision as to its relevance to that investigation. What I am not going to do is to cloud the central issue by asking the Tribunal to refer specifically to particular points which might or might not turn out to be relevant. And the judge of relevance will be the Tribunal, in the light of the facts before them.
There is one thing more that I would like to say about my position in this matter. I have already pointed out that the accusation that my Department was dilatory in not having a stenographer at the inquest was based almost entirely on the assumption, which is totally a false one, that it would be desirable or possible for the Minister for Justice to set himself up as a judge of facts superior to the jury who sat in the case. In saying this, I am not to be taken as saying that I, as Minister, had no interest in or concern with what went on before and at the inquest. Of course I had. My concern and the concern of the Garda authorities in this matter have been as follows: first, to ensure that every possible avenue was explored to secure every relevant item of evidence; secondly, to ensure that the evidence was presented in advance to the solicitor for the next-of-kin and, in due course, at the inquest; thirdly, to ensure that if anything new and relevant transpired at the inquest it would be brought to my notice and, fourthly, to ensure, by a subsequent check, that everything that ought to have been done was done. To fulfil these functions, however, it was wholly unnecessary to have a verbatim account of the proceedings.
We had in attendance throughout the inquest not only the State Solicitor but two superintendents and if there had been any material deviation that concerned the Garda, either under cross-examination or otherwise, from what was said in the statements, this would have been brought to notice. The superintendents, to whom a specific query was put, said that there was no such deviation. In fact, nobody has suggested otherwise. All sorts of suggestions have been made as to what might have happened. We are concerned with realities. The absence of a stenographer's note has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation that has arisen. Nobody—I repeat, nobody—has suggested that anything hinges on anything alleged to have been said at the inquest and not reported. If anybody wants to suggest that now, he will have an opportunity of doing so to the Tribunal. If we had a verbatim record, the present situation would not be in the slightest degree different. We should still be faced with the jury's verdict—a verdict which, may I repeat, was a unanimous one of the ten members, even though the law provides that a majority verdict by a coroner's jury is sufficient. This talk about a verbatim record of the inquest, is, to put it plainly, trailing a red herring from start to finish.
I should like, also, to put it on the records of the House that the full evidence collected by the Garda and communicated to the Coroner's Court was also submitted by the Garda authorities to the Attorney General who decided, and has authorised me to announce, that his conclusion is that on that evidence no criminal offence is shown to have been committed by any person.
I have thought it desirable, in order to clear the air and to avoid misunderstanding, to go back on certain matters that were raised before. I will state quite frankly that I would not, if the situation had not been confused by agitation, have chosen the present moment to establish this Tribunal—I would have preferred to wait and see if some new evidence or new lead could be found. In that connection I feel that I should mention that the Garda authorities have continued to investigate actively the circumstances of the death and have gone so far as to send a senior Garda officer to London in the last few days to interview a witness who, it was thought, might be in a position to amplify an earlier statement.
It may be that the opportunity to reexamine witnesses in public will itself lead to some new light being thrown on the problem. I sincerely hope so. We have, at any rate, reached a stage where a formal judicial inquiry has become essential in order to clear away the atmosphere of suspicion that has been created.
I recommend the motion to the House.