Deputy MacEoin has given notice of his intention to raise the subject matter of Questions Nos. 125 to 130 on yesterday's Order Paper.
Adjournment Debate. - Ballinalee Post Office.
When I put down these questions to the Minister on Tuesday week last, I did so with the specific purpose of getting from the Government and from the Minister, information which up to then, and up to yesterday, we had been unable to obtain — what were the charges which the Minister had to make against the sub-postmistress of Ballinalee. On yesterday the Minister, from the sheltered position of the ministerial bench, made a series of charges against the sub-postmistress of Ballinalee—the ex-sub-postmistress, as he described her, and as she now is.
Let me say at the outset, and say it categorically, that at no time within the last 12 months has there been a deficiency of cash there in the accepted sense of the term. At no time during the inspections was there a shortage of cash, in the sense that she had not the cash that was in dispute in the office, and more with it. A person cannot be charged with a deficiency if the cash is there and, notwithstanding the Minister's explanation, which I shall deal with in more detail later if I have time, that the reason he did not prosecute her was because of her frail, physical and nervous condition, the reason, of course, is that he had no criminal case to make and that no criminal charge could be sustained.
I should like just to mention that when an investigator from any Department, and in particular from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, finds a deficiency, he is entitled there and then to swear an information and have the person responsible for that deficiency arrested, but if there is no deficiency he cannot do so. If the money is there but due to bad accountancy, carelessness, inefficiency or for any other reason there is a breach of the regulations, there is no criminal offence.
I want to protest against the attitude the Minister adopted here in levelling these charges against the person concerned in that particular way. I want further to protest against RadioÉireann being utilised last night and this morning for the purpose of putting that across. As I have said, the time at my disposal is short, and I want to make as much use as I can of it.
The questions were put down last Tuesday-week with the intention of finding out what the Government or the Minister had to say in the matter, because we failed to get an interview with the Minister. When I say "we" I mean that the people of Ballinalee, who sought it, failed to get an interview with the Taoiseach so that we could then hear the charges and make an answer, if answer could be made, and so that, if the post office were being changed to-day instead of this day-week, everybody would know what the circumstances and the situation were. I hoped when I put in the question on Tuesday-week that the Minister or the Government would not change the post office until it was clear what the charges were.
A case has been made in the village of Ballinalee in defence of Mrs. Devine which every shade of opinion — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, so far as it is organised, and other organisations in the district—believes to be true. It is in violent conflict with the charges made by the Minister here yesterday. I submit that if the Minister believed the charges he made yesterday he and his Department had only one function, and that was to submit the papers to the Attorney-General.
I hold that no Minister has the right to decide whether a prosecution should be initiated or not. Certainly no Minister has the right to decide that because of a person's physical or nervous condition that person should not be prosecuted. If the Minister could do that, all one had to do when faced with a charge of this nature, was to pretend that one was in the "jigs", as it were, and one could do anything and get away with it because of one's nervous and physical condition.
I suggest, therefore, that if the Minister or the Department believes these charges there was one onus and obligation on them and that was to have the postmistress arrested last July. Ifthat were done, she would by now have been either acquitted or convicted and we would know, and everybody would know, where we stood and where she stood. I assert that the Minister has no authority to decide this question of prosecution.
On the question of her physical and nervous condition, the Minister informed me on yesterday that on the 26th June, 1952, she was interviewed at three different times on the one day. When you add the periods of her examination together, you find that she was under examination and cross-examination from 10.40 a.m., with three short breaks, to 8.30 p.m. During that period, as the Minister says, she was under the interrogation of the most efficient interrogator in his Department, one who was accustomed to interrogation and to taking statements. This simple-minded country postmistress was under that examination for the period I have stated. If she was able to withstand interrogation for that length of time, surely to goodness she would be able to stand her trial in the dock.
There is no justification for a charge of this kind unless it is that she signed certain statements. I suggest to the Minister that when she signed these statements, she was in such a nervous condition after that length of time that, as she said herself, to get out of it she would sign anything. If there is a single word of Mrs. Devine's vocabulary in these statements I would say that we were completely wrong. The statements were drawn up by an official. I have nothing to say against him, but they were drawn up by him and submitted to her afterwards for signature. I am glad that the Minister has offered to show me these statements.
He could have told me that within the last three weeks, but I have written to Mrs. Devine asking for her authority to see the statements, because apparently it is only on condition that I get her consent that I can see them. I have asked for that and I will, indeed, examine them, and I hope the Minister will give me a full opportunity of seeing whether the statements are in script or typed, with her signature attached to them.
At this point let me say that I have no objection whatever to the person appointed as sub-postmistress of Ballinalee. She is a decent, respectable person. If I were appointed a referee as to her character for the appointment I would have no hesitation whatever in certifying that she was a person suitable for appointment. I want to get away from the question of the appointment, which should never have arisen.
The point at issue at all times amongst the people of Ballinalee was that the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of this person were exaggerated. The Minister's seven charges are framed in such a way that it would look as if they were seven distinct offences. They are not. The seven charges outlined are a duplication of the same offences. I challenge contradiction on that.
The money was in the post office in the place where it had been customary to keep it since 1926. The business of the post office in Ballinalee increased from approximately £200 per week to over £1,100 per week — a huge increase. If through inefficiency or ill-health or other causes the postmistress, since 1947, has slipped, I think the Post Office should have known all about it, and did know all about it. I will go further than that and say that when she offered her resignation at a certain time it was not accepted. I want to know why it was not accepted. Why put that in now?
In regard to the charges I assert that charges 1, 2 and 4 are duplicates of 5 and 7. With regard to charge No. 5 —failure to report a deposit of £7 on the 20th June, 1952, etc.—let me tell the House the circumstances surrounding that particular item. At 7.15 p.m., when the post office was closed, persons arrived to draw the old age pension, due on the previous Friday, for their fathers and mothers. They were paid that and went away. At 7.45 p.m. they came back with a Post Office Savings Bank book and the £7 and handed it, not to the postmistress, but to the maid in the house to lodge. No receipt was wanted. Why? Because Kathleen Devine is, in fact, as honest and reliable as the Bank of Ireland. The people trusted her implicitly. On Tuesdaymorning she put that money in with her own money and Post Office money. The Post Office knew that to be the case because there was never a safe in the place. I admit that was wrong. She proceeded to fill the docket.
The next day she did not know whether it was £7 or £8 the girl gave her, and she sent out word with the postman to ask her was it £7 or £8. Anybody that knows the country post office knows that that is true. I see people sneering. I will listen to the Minister making a violent attack upon a citizen of this country, but he should have manners for the moment. The postman did not meet that person on Wednesday, but on Thursday the inspection took place. I submit, Sir, that if Mrs. Devine was wise in her generation the £7 in the book would not be put in the Post Office at all, and it would have been no offence known to the law. It is no offence, anyway, because the £7 was there.
At this stage might I draw attention to No. 6 — delay from the 20th July, 1947. This came to light in 1953 — six years afterwards, and it is inserted here with the deliberate intention of asserting that she deteriorated since the last warning. Here is the charge: Delay from the 20th July, 1947, to the 28th September, 1947, in bringing to account the sum of £10. The fact of the matter is that Kathleen Devine, in that instance, was acting wrongly and contrary to the regulations as a private banker.
She held that money in trust, and was asked by the depositor not to put it in, that she might want it from time to time, and that she wanted her to hold it. It is the same person, with the same £10, who is concerned in charge No. 7 — failure to report a savings bank deposit in July, 1951, and converting it for private purposes. There are only the two persons. The person was going into the county home. She came to the conclusion that if she took the book and the money into the county home the matron might take them off her. The book and the money were handed to Mrs. Devine to keep so that she might send the person £1 now and again.
That is quite customary in rural Ireland.
Let me make the case. The Minister would be well founded in his charge if, yesterday, he said that Mrs. Devine had been guilty of a serious breach of the regulations in acting as a private banker by keeping a person's bank book and not leaving it where it ought to be, in the custody of the person who lodged the money. I want to admit candidly that if I were Minister for Posts and Telegraphs I might——
What about the time to reply, Sir?
The Minister will have ten minutes.
In view of the situation, I think I should not have been interrupted in this way. If that state of affairs was allowed to continue it could lead to very grave abuses and I, as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, might take serious action, but I would not take any more serious action than the Minister for Health took against an official who, it was established on oath and after a sworn inquiry, had actual deficiencies——
He was probably well got.
——of over £200. The Minister for Health, in his paternal vision and by doing what an ordinary citizen of this country will do by exercising the Christian principle of giving a person another chance, restored that person to the office in Ennis, so that he might at some future date render efficient and satisfactory service.
I must call on the Minister.
May I conclude on this note? If the Minister had received the deputations, answered the petition, we could indeed have peace in Ballinalee. I again want to reiterate that the acts of violence in Ballinalee were against Kathleen Devine, against us and against this State — and I, for one, at no time would ever stand over or tolerate them. Anything they did damaged the case and enabled theMinister to do what he did yesterday— to make use of this House to make a violent attack upon the character of a citizen of this State.
Deputy Carter and Deputy Everett rose.
The Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.
On a point of information.
I do not want to intervene. I want information.
I am calling on the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs to reply.
Has the Minister power to waive prosecutions? I had not that power.
I am asking a question.
You are not entitled to do so.
Do not get excited. Take it easy.
The former Minister for Posts and Telegraphs is trying to prove that the statements of the ex-Minister for Justice were perfectly true.
Will I be allowed to speak? Surely the main object of this discussion is to elicit information from the Minister?
It appears that false information was elicited from him yesterday. An attempt is being made to correct them.
Last night, I indicated quite clearly the irregularities committed by Mrs. Devine. I made it quite clear that I was not judging her as guilty of criminal intent. All I can do to-day in the short time at my disposalis to make it quite clear that it is absolutely forbidden to postmasters, postmistresses and sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to mix their private and official cash. When the books of Mrs. Devine were examined the cash balances were found to be incorrect. This was only the result of years of difficult experience in dealing with Mrs. Devine and in the general conduct of her office. In actual fact, even if Mrs. Devine had not committed the one most serious mistake — the irregularity in connection with the Savings Bank book — she could not have been allowed to retain the position of sub-postmistress of Ballinalee.
Deputy MacEoin has attempted to throw a gloss on the whole business by giving excuses for her conduct, by suggesting that all she was doing was making use of Post Office money for her own private account. The actual fact is that her own signed statements——
Which I challenge.
——are of a kind which made it incumbent upon me to dismiss her from the post of sub-postmistress. The statements were made to an officer in her own home — an officer in whom I have the most absolute confidence. He spent with her the amount of time which is absolutely inevitable under these circumstances. Every postmaster and every postmistress and every sub-postmaster and every sub-postmistress in the country knows that if investigation takes place it must be pursued from the beginning to the end. Track must not be lost of the examination of accounts by undue delay. I am glad to say that, at the end of her interview, Mrs. Devine said that the investigation officer had been kindly in his attitude towards her, and made no complaint whatever.
She ought to curse him!
These interrogations must continue from the beginning to the end of any examination of this kind. It is the custom, for which there are wide precedents — I have not the time to read them now — not to prosecute incertain circumstances. The fact remains that Mrs. Devine's action in writing to the Department for a new Savings Bank book on behalf of a depositor was such that I could say that, almost alone, it merited her dismissal. She tore out the centre pages of the old deposit book, so that when the depositor would ask for her book she would then be given a new one—and what Mrs. Devine would have said on presenting the new book to the depositor I do not know. I make no reflection on her. All I can say is that we do not retain in the service of the Post Office people who make use of Savings Bank books in that manner, or who act in that manner in the taking in and giving out of Savings Bank money.
I have no time to read out the long list of persons who, in past years, have been dismissed for exactly the same kind of offence after warning, after interrogation. In some cases they were dismissed immediately because the circumstances were related to serious matters such as Savings Bank books. In other cases they were given opportunities, such as Mrs. Devine, to rectify the position.
Mrs. Devine was suspended on the 27th June, 1952. Seventy-five days elapsed before her dismissal, during which time she, with the advice of her friends in Ballinalee, could have consulted a solicitor, could have renounced the statements she made, could have asked for a second investigation, could have had questions asked in the Dáil — but no action was taken. On the 13th August, Deputy MacEoin 'phoned the Secretary of the Department and asked what was happening. He was told that, apart from the investigation, which had not been completed, it was unlikely that Mrs. Devine could be kept in the service of the State. The new Dáil session began. Mrs. Devine was dismissed on 13th September. No action was taken. No Dáil questions were asked. No solicitor was engaged on her behalf. No statement was made to the effect that her signed statements were incorrect or were made under undue influence. A petition of the ordinary kind was presented, which did not suggest that the statements were incorrect. Eighty-three days elapsed before that time.
May I intervene?
No. As I say, 83 days elapsed between that time and the time when the letter was finally sent to the solicitor giving the reasons for her dismissal. In the meantime, Mrs. Devine made only one statement to me in the course of a letter. She made the point that I had dismissed her, and then she went on to make reflections on the characters of certain postal officials. She made no direct appeal to myself personally. On the 17th January the Taoiseach wrote to Deputy MacEoin, mentioning the signed statements. He had from then until 30th January in which to deny that the statements were correct, to ask for the statements, to suggest to Mrs. Devine that she should consult her solicitor in view of the gravity of the position. The solicitor, by that time, was deceased — he was a very honourable man in Longford, with whose family I have the utmost sympathy — but the letter could have been passed on to some other member of the firm. Nothing was done. The scenes of violence began on 30th January and ended on 31st January. Only then did Deputy MacEoin intervene in the matter.
In my own view, poor Mrs. Devine had one of the worst advocates of whom I could think of for the elaboration and presentation of her case. I could conceive of no less efficient or praiseworthy aid than that given to her by the Deputy now that I have announced all the facts. Months elapsed during which any of these matters could have been taken up. I can only assume that the observations now made by Deputy MacEoin are solely for the purpose of trying to excuse the disgraceful incidents that took place.
I should add, in passing, and in conclusion, that of the people on the protest committee, there is not one at the present time who has faith in the judgment of myself or of my colleagues in this Government.
Might I ask the Minister one question? Is it not a factthat the Minister informed me that investigations were still sub judice,that investigations were proceeding, and that he could take no action until the full investigations were completed? Is that not correct?
On a point of order. Seeing that this matter affects my constituency——
The Deputy may only ask a question.
I want to refute the suggestion of Deputy MacEoin——
That is not a question.
Deputy MacEoin has alleged that members of the Fianna Fáil Party are embroiled in this.
I deny that.
Can the Minister answer this question? Was Deputy MacEoin aware of the charges that were made against Mrs. Devine before this dreadful exhibition took place in Ballinalee and before he intervened and asked Mrs. Mannix to resign?
Deputy MacEoin was made aware of all the facts. One of the most prominent citizens of Ballinalee — whose name I cannot give, because it would be unfair to do so under present circumstances—actually came to my office about the matter. Because of his high position in the life of Ballinalee he was allowed to be given the utmost detail in regard to this case. His manner on leaving made it quite clear that there were facts of which he had not been aware. I believe that all the prominent people in Ballinalee knew all about this business.
I must be allowed to answer this.
The Dáil adjourned at 2.30 p.m. until 3 o'clock on Tuesday, 10th February, 1953.