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.