Priority Questions. - Public Inquiries.

Alan Shatter

Ceist:

80 Mr. Shatter asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he authorised the exhumation of the body of a person (details supplied); if he will consider the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry under the Tribunal of Inquiries Act, 1921, to consider allegations of Garda misconduct relating to the investigation conducted into the death of this person; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27699/01]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

81 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if the recent post-mortem conducted on the exhumed body of a person (details supplied) confirmed that the injuries from which this person died were consistent with a traffic accident; if he will publish the report into this death and related events undertaken by a senior Garda (details supplied); if, in view of the serious public concern, he will establish a sworn public inquiry into allegations of misconduct by members of the Garda in County Donegal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27666/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 80 and 81 together.

As the Deputies will be aware, section 47 of the Coroners Act, 1962, provides that where a coroner is informed by a member of the Garda Síochána, not below the rank of inspector, that in his opinion the death of any person whose body has been buried in the coroner's district may have occurred in a violent or unnatural manner, the coroner may request the Minister to order the exhumation of the body by the Garda Síochána.

I can confirm to the Deputies that a request in accordance with section 47(2) of the Coroners Act was received from the coroner for Donegal South East on 27 June 2001 in respect of the late Mr. Barron and that an exhumation order issued on 3 July 2001. For the sake of completeness, I should mention that on 10 October 1997, the senior Garda superintendent charged with the investigation into the death of the late Mr. Barron forwarded a request from the coroner for an exhumation order based on a request made by the superintendent to the coroner. The necessary papers, an exhumation order and other related papers, were prepared by the staff of the Department to authorise the exhumation. However, on 16 October 1997 the same Garda officer telephoned the Department and asked that his request for an exhumation order be put on hold until further notice. In the circumstances, the Deputy will appreciate that it would have been inappropriate for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to take further action in relation to the exhumation order request. No further action was taken in relation to the request for the exhumation order until a further request for an exhumation order in the case was received from the coroner for Donegal South East, associated with a fresh request from the Garda, on 27 June 2001.

For my part, I have not seen the results of the exhumation nor, indeed, would it be appropriate for me to do so. The results of the exhumation form part of the criminal investigation and, as such, they are being considered by the Garda investigating the death of Mr. Barron. As Deputies will appreciate, the investigation of a crime is an operational matter for the Garda authorities. I have been informed, however, by the Garda authorities that, notwithstanding the conduct of a post-mortem on the exhumed body, there is no conclusive evidence to indicate how the deceased met his death. While I have not seen the pathologist's report, in line with normal practice, I understand that the pathologist has expressed the view that the injuries sustained by the deceased could be consistent with his being struck by a vehicle. I understand that the pathologist also acknowledges that another pathologist might well take a different view. The circumstances surrounding the death of the person concerned is the subject of an ongoing Garda investigation. I now want to deal with the question of a public inquiry.

The death of Mr. Barron took place in October 1996 and the subsequent Garda investigation lead to a file being submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions. No prosecution was initiated on foot of this file. Early in 1999 Assistant Commissioner Carty initiated his investigation into matters in Donegal. This investigation was comprehensive and covered a variety of different matters. In particular it looked at the Garda investigation into Mr. Barron's death, allegations of harassment and allegations that certain gardaí were involved in "hoax" bomb-making equipment finds. In the summer of 2000, Assistant Commissioner Carty submitted the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions for consideration. I am informed by the Garda authorities that, to date, five persons have been arrested and charged and more prosecutions may follow.

Two other Garda investigations were also initiated relating to Donegal, one conducted by Assistant Commissioner Murphy in response to allegations made by two Members of this House, the other by a chief superintendent to investigate a related matter raised by a member of the Garda Síochána in Donegal concerning the original investigation.

In addition to the Garda investigations there are a number of civil actions taken against the State relating to Donegal. Complaints have been made to the Garda Complaints Board and the Commissioner will have to consider the question of possible disciplinary action against certain members of the force. The position is, therefore, extremely complicated. I have said in this House that it is a matter of great concern that individual members of the Garda Síochána might be implicated in wrong-doing. I am strongly of the view that it is essential for the reputation of the force that any alleged wrong-doing by members are investigated thoroughly and, if well-founded, appropriate disciplinary or criminal proceedings should be initiated.

I want to see the truth of this matter determined. I also want to see public confidence in the Garda, in so far as it has been adversely affected by the matter, restored. The question is how do we best achieve this in practice. I can understand the concerns expressed inside and outside this House that the position is still unresolved. Deputies will be aware that I sought the advice of the Attorney General as to what options are open to me to carry out an appropriate examination, be it a sworn inquiry or otherwise. The Attorney General's advice, in particular, pointed out the very serious difficulties that would arise while civil and criminal proceedings are still pending and advised that these proceedings should be allowed to run their course. No Minister acting responsibly can afford to ignore the advice of the Attorney General on a matter of this kind and I do not intend to do so either. Nevertheless, I acknowledge the widespread public concern about this matter and I believe that it is not satisfactory for me at this stage to simply say that nothing at all can be done to allay public concern.

Additional information.Taking into account the difficulties identified by the Attorney General on the one hand and the need to address current public concerns on the other, I have decided to ask an eminent legal person to examine all the relevant papers and the progress on these investigations generally with a view to my receiving expert independent advice as to whether there are measures that might now be taken to bring matters to finality sooner rather than later. I will make Deputies aware of the advice I receive in this regard. I appreciate that, in taking this action prior to the completion of civil and criminal proceedings, I am doing something which, to the best of my knowledge, is without precedent, but I believe also that the circumstances of the case are unusual and that this House and the public need an authoritative independent assurance that everything possible is being done to close the matter. I believe the action I am proposing will achieve this without running the risk of jeopardising the civil and criminal proceedings already in being, a result which would not serve the public interest in this case.

Irrespective of any advice I may receive as to action that might now be taken to bring the various matters to finality, I want to make it clear again that I am not opposed to the idea of a public inquiry in this case, at the conclusion of the various court proceedings, should that be required.

I will allow a supplementary question from Deputy Shatter.

Does the Minister agree it is no longer tenable that he wait for the outcome of any further Garda investigations or outstanding court proceedings to take appropriate action so the truth relating to this affair is known? Will he indicate to the House what action, if any, he proposes taking? Will he clarify for the House whether an application for an exhumation order was received by his Department on 10 June 1997, eight months after the death of Mr. Richard Barron, and why he did not approve such order before October 1997? Is he aware of the reason the application for the order was apparently put on hold by the Garda Síochána in October 1997? What inquiries has the Minister made since October 1997 in the context of the extraordinary and continuing allegations of Garda misconduct in Donegal? Did he inquire into why the original application for the exhumation order made in June 1997 was withdrawn in October 1997 from his Department?

As I already outlined, I have been advised by the Attorney General that it would not be prudent for me to become involved in a public inquiry at this time in relation to the events in Donegal because criminal and civil proceedings are pending. However, I am concerned about the matter and I understand the frustration of Members about the fact that it appears the matter has been ongoing for a considerable time. Taking into account the difficulties identified by the Attorney General on the one hand and the need, on the other, to address public concern as expressed in the House, I have decided to ask an eminent legal person to examine all the relevant papers and the progress on the investigations generally with a view to me receiving independent expert advice on whether measures might now be taken to bring matters to a finality sooner rather than later. I will make Deputies aware of the advice I receive in this regard.

I appreciate that in taking this action prior to the completion of civil and criminal proceedings I am doing something which, to the best of my knowledge, is without precedent. However, the circumstances of the case are unusual and the House and the public need authoritative independent assurance that everything possible is being done to bring closure to the matter. My view is that the action I have proposed will achieve this without running the risk of jeopardising the civil and criminal proceedings already in train, a result that would not serve the public interest in this case. Irrespective of any advice I may receive on action that might now be taken to bring the matters to finality, I wish to make it clear again that I am not opposed to the idea of a public inquiry in this case at the conclusion of the various court proceedings.

A request was received in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for an exhumation order. In so far as I recall, that request was received on 10 October 1997 and not 10 June. As I said, the papers were under preparation in the Department when, on 16 October 1997, the same Garda officer who made the request to the coroner telephoned and stated that he wanted to put the matter on hold.

Did the Minister ask why?

This was prior to any report by Assistant Garda Commissioner Carthy. It was before any of the major controversy in relation to this matter arose. However, once a request to put the exhumation order on hold came to the Department, it would not—

Over four years did the Minister ask "why"?

It is not in order for a Deputy to ask a question unless given permission to do so by the Chair. I ask the Deputy to conform with that position.

It would have been inappropriate for the Department to continue with the exhumation order at that point because it could have put in peril whatever investigations the Garda was undertaking. These investigations would not have been known to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform at the time. Subsequently, when another request for an exhumation order was made, the Department acted immediately.

Does the Minister accept his proposal would be regarded by most people as inadequate? It entirely misses the importance that is now attached to this matter. Does the Minister acknowledge there is widespread concern about the activities of some members of An Garda Síochána in Donegal? Does the Minister accept that throughout the country, including among current serving gardaí, there is a sense of frustration that this matter has dragged on for years? Another investigation of papers behind closed doors will be wholly inadequate in addressing the real concerns about policing, which is a fundamental branch of the administration of the State.

In relation to the three inquires the Minister said are ongoing, when will the results of the Carthy report be available? Does the Minister agree it is unacceptable that this report, which was handed to him more than a year ago, is not in the public domain?

That should be the subject of a separate question, Deputy.

When will the report of the inquiry conducted by Assistant Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy, on foot of information provided by Deputy Higgins and I, be made publicly available? We have heard nothing on this straightforward and simple matter.

We must proceed to the next question. The time for these questions has been exhausted.

When will we hear anything about the third inquiry?

I call Question No. 82.

On a point of order, we have had no opportunity to raise supplementary questions.

That is not a point of order.

The Minister has deliberately—

The Deputy should resume his seat.

This is an important matter.

The Deputy is depriving other Deputies of the opportunity to have their questions addressed.

The exhumation of the body of the late Richie Barron was sought in October 1997, which is four years ago. Over those four years the Minister did not ask why the Garda withdrew that application.

Will the Deputy resume his seat?

The Minister has failed in his duty.

The Deputy is being grossly disorderly. He is depriving other Deputies of the opportunity to have their questions answered. I call Question No. 82.

Is the Minister not going to give a response? Is there no time at all for a reply?

The Chair is governed by Standing Orders.

How many minutes have been taken up with two priority questions?

We are over the time limit.

How many minutes were allocated to these two priority questions?

Twelve minutes.

Have we utilised 12 minutes?

One supplementary question was allowed on this complicated issue.

That is not a point of order.

What is it then?

Some 12 minutes are allowed under Standing Orders. If the Deputies wish to extend that time, they know what they should do. It is not up to the Chair. The Chair cannot amend the rules on a daily basis. The Chair has no power to do so.

It is unacceptable on a matter of such importance.

The Deputy knows the procedure to adopt.

I have a proposal I want to put to the House.

The Deputy cannot put a proposal without notice.

I want—

The Deputy is being disorderly. He is depriving other Deputies who want their questions answered.

I am willing to defer my other questions to get to the bottom of this affair.

The Deputy has other ways of raising it. The Deputy should abide by the rules of the House.

There should be a tribunal of inquiry now to look into this matter.

Deputy Shatter should abide by the rules of the House.

It is outrageous.

May I ask—

Deputy Howlin should resume his seat. I have called Question No. 82.

On a point of order, a reasonable point has been made that the remainder of the time would be set aside. That is a very reasonable proposal.

There will be no further questions. I call Question No. 82.

Is that not possible?

No, it is not possible.

Even with the agreement of the House?

No. I call Question No. 82.

I wish to make it clear that I will answer any questions the Deputies wish me to answer.

The Minister has not done so.

We have been trying to get the Minister to answer questions for the past four years.

Another smoke screen will not work either.