Sat, 13 Feb, 2021 – 18:23
The definition of corruption within An Garda Síochána was raised at an infamous meeting of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in 2014.
Fielding questions from the parliamentarian was then Garda commissioner, Martin Callinan.
At issue was allegations by Sergeant Maurice McCabe about malpractice in the fixed charge notice system for traffic offences. This was known colloquially as cancelling penalty points.
McCabe alleged — and was later vindicated in his allegations — that there was widespread abuse of the system within An Garda Síochána. He classified what was going on as “corruption”.
Callinan bristled at such a description. At one point in the PAC meeting he said “there is not a whisper from any other member of An Garda Síochána about this … corruption”. The last word was practically spat out.
Irrespective of the abuse that was happening, there would have been sympathy within the force for Callinan on that point.
Some guards saw the “squaring” of tickets, including erasing penalty points on a licence, as a perk of the job. Many considered it as their right to exercise discretion as they saw it.
Others used it for professional purposes, such as a carrot for informants. Few would have classified it as corruption, although many outside the force might well have disagreed.
At the time, a garda investigation into the abuse found that two inspectors and a superintendent had transgressed. They received what amounted to a slap on the wrist.
Two external reports subsequently showed the internal garda investigation to be lacking in rigour; no member of the force was ever sanctioned beyond a slap on the wrist over abuse of the system.
Fast forward seven years. As a result of McCabe’s work, the fixed charge notice system has been completely reformed.
The general culture has changed but exactly how much it has changed is a question at the centre of an ongoing major corruption probe in the Limerick area.
This follows the suspension of eight members last October in Limerick, in what was the biggest number of suspensions ever in a single case in the force.
At the time Garda HQ said the suspensions were related to allegations that gardaí had not pursued enforcement in relation to “road traffic offences and fixed charge penalty notices”.
Put plainly, this is all about cancelling penalty points.
Unusually for such a matter, the investigation is being conducted by the Dublin based National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI). The bureau normally concerns itself with serious crime, including murders, armed robbery and gangland crime.
At the time of last October’s suspensions, the tickets at issue were all connected to one retired superintendent.
Since then, the Irish Examiner understands, the number of allegedly cancelled tickets has increased to around 300, the vast majority of which are not associated with the superintendent.
And sources confirmed late this week that the actual number of gardaí due to be interviewed is now more than one hundred and many of those will be under caution, rendering the interviewees suspects, rather than as a witness.
So has a zero tolerance ethic swept the force, in which the State’s primary crime fighting unit is deployed to chase down errant gardaí and suspensions are handed out for what, a short time ago, attracted a blind eye?
If so, will all others found to have a hand in squaring tickets also be suspended? Such a move could lead to hundreds of members being relieved of duties.
Will the level or rigour being applied in Limerick be replicated in places like Cork and Dublin? Or is there an alternative explanation as to why suddenly the squaring of tickets is the subject of a wide-ranging anti-corruption investigation?
Alleged links with organised crime
This all began with alleged corruption of a very different order. In the Autumn of 2018, members of the NBCI landed in Limerick to investigate a garda who was alleged to have links with elements involved in organised crime.
Last year the High Court heard that one element of this investigation was the placing of a listening device in the garda’s car.
On the morning of May 15, 2019, this garda — referred to here as Garda A — was arrested. Also arrested in their homes were Superintendent Eamon O’Neill and Inspector Arthur Ryan.
Both had major interest in sport locally. O’Neill was, at the time, in the backroom team for the successful Limerick senior hurlers and Ryan has close ties to Munster rugby. The arrests of such senior gardaí in a corruption probe was big news.
All three were interviewed in separate stations. O’Neill learned that his arrest was as a result of suspicions he had tipped off Garda A about the listening device. He vehemently denies that he did so.
O’Neill was intricately involved in the garda response to gangland crime in Limerick in the 2000s. He has long experience of interviews. In an affadavit sworn last year he described his interview as “shambolic”.
“The persons who conducted the interviews were poorly briefed and appear to have had a limited insight into what was occurring.”
His solicitor Dan O’Gorman was present for the interviews. At the conclusion, the interviewing garda said, “that is the evidence we wish to put to you”.
According to O’Neill: “I recall my solicitor and I looking at each other with no small degree of amazement and my solicitor remarking specifically: ‘We haven’t seen any evidence’.”
In the affadavit sworn last April, O’Neill says that apart from the word of an informant, there was no evidence against him.
Despite the fact that a period approaching one year has now elapsed it is clear that if such evidence ever existed it would have been unearthed by the NBCI in a matter of moments.
Another nine months on he has still not seen any evidence. A file submitted to the DPP last Summer has not yielded a result.
The NBCI in a replying affadavit refused to specify the evidence for operational reasons. The NBCI emphasised that its investigation was conducted in a proper manner according to rules, procedure, and the law.
The High Court hearing last year, at which O’Neill unsuccessfully attempted to have a suspension lifted, also heard an affadavit from a retired chief superintendent, Gerry Mahon.
The retiree stated that he knew O’Neill and Ryan but was not friends with either. He and another retired chief super, John Kerins, gave evidence of a similar tenor that amounted to an official peer review of the investigation.
Mahon stated that he had “serious concerns that a major miscarriage of justice is being perpetrated and that the good name of An Garda Síochána will be reduced not only in the public mind but also in the rank and file members.”
Back on the day of his arrest, O’Neill was also questioned about another matter. Four months earlier, he, Inspector Ryan and Garda A had met in The Hurlers bar in the city for a few drinks. The three have been friendly for years.
Ryan had recently been promoted, and O’Neill missed the gathering to celebrate that occasion as he was away with the Limerick hurlers. So on January 9, 2019, he met up with the other two for a belated celebratory drink.
The NBCI was claiming the CCTV footage from the bar showed Inspector Ryan putting his hand to his nose, and allegedly snorting cocaine. O’Neill, it was alleged, kept lookout while this was going on at around 6pm in the well known sports bar.
O’Neill swore that he found the allegation “preposterous”. Of his colleague Ryan, he said: “He is the least likely candidate to take or ingest an illicit substance. I have no hesitation in stating that he is a person of impeccable character.”
I say there are an infinite number of garda colleagues who would be quite prepared to confirm his impeccable character and to their revulsion as it relates to the allegations.
A file on the alleged cocaine ingestion was sent to the DPP, who ruled that Inspector Ryan had no case to answer. He then faced an internal disciplinary hearing on the same matter.
At last year’s High Court hearing, the retired chief super Mahon also reviewed the case against Inspector Ryan.
“The purported events in The Hurlers bar, in my professional opinion, brings into disrepute the whole disciplinary process,” he said.
“There appears to be no evidence of any illicit substance taking and it is not surprising that the Director of Public Prosecutions would not bring charges against the plaintiff’s colleague, Inspector Arthur Ryan.”
Ryan sourced expert forensic testimony which concluded he had never ingested cocaine. At some point of the process, the disciplinary charge changed from “cocaine” to “a substance”.
After repeated delays a disciplinary hearing finally sat last Autumn. In December, it ruled that Ryan had breached discipline. The process has now moved to determining what, if any, sanction he faces.
The Inspector, who has not worked since his arrest 21 months ago, is in the situation where the DPP decided there was no evidence against him but the internal inquiry concluded that there was.
The only evidence is the CCTV footage. Had he been found innocent in the internal inquiry, an appalling vista would have opened up for the gardaí at corporate level.
“If they said he was innocent he’d have a huge case against them,” one source said. “He could have written his own cheque after what he’s been through.” Following their arrest in 2019, both O’Neill and Ryan were suspended.
Superintendent O’Neill has been on a different journey to Inspector Ryan. After his arrest his phone was seized.
Arising out of that, evidence was found that suggested he may have been involved in attempting to cancel fixed charge notices. These number 33 cases over a three-year period.
A senior garda involved in revisiting an original decision to issue a ticket is fraught with difficulties.
However, even following the various reforms, numerous sources confirm that senior gardaí often make a representation on behalf of a motorist to the garda who issued the ticket.
This can be interpreted as exercising discretion or abuse of one’s position. However it may be regarded, it’s on a completely different plane from engaging with organised crime or compromising a criminal investigation.
Two separate investigations
What began as an anti-corruption investigation by the NBCI in Limerick in 2018 has taken two separate paths. One culminated with charges against garda A. The other is now involved in investigating the squaring of tickets, an unusual focus for the crime-fighting unit.
In the Autumn of 2019, as a result of evidence on O’Neill’s phone, a number of gardaí and high profile sportspeople were interviewed about squaring tickets.
Some of these were visited in their homes, others invited to attend at a garda station. The outcomes of these investigation are understood to have formed part of the file on Superintendent O’Neill sent to the DPP in mid-2020.
In November 2020, eight gardaí were suspended, five of whom are attached to the traffic corps in the city. All of these suspensions are associated with allegations that Superintendent O’Neill attempted to square tickets.
At some point in recent months a decision was taken that the case against O’Neill could not be proceeded with in isolation.
Phone evidence that might be used against him pointed towards other officers who may have attempted to cancel tickets for other motorists.
Out of this came the decision to interview up to one hundred gardaí as part of the investigation. The Irish Examiner understands that these interviews are scheduled to take place over the course of months rather than weeks.
Back at the High Court hearing in 2019, the retired super Gerry Mahon also gave his opinion on the continued suspension of O’Neill in relation to the alleged squaring of tickets.
“It is in my professional opinion inappropriate and in breach of good practice and procedure to purport to suspend the Plaintiff (Supt O’Neill) on foot of this investigation, but not suspend any other member of An Garda Siochana who is equally placed under investigation in relation to the same subject matter.”
Since then, as pointed out above, eight others have been suspended. Natural justice would demand that any others — including senior officers — found to be engaged in similar activity also be suspended. How wide and high this reaches remains to be seen.
It also remains to be seen if the NBCI will turn its attention to the cancelling of tickets in centres like Dublin and Cork, and whether suspensions will be handed out there also.
Eamon O’Neill retired from An Garda Síochána last December. Irrespective of the outcome of any criminal or disciplinary proceedings, he faced a bleak future in the job as a result of all that happened since his arrest in 2019.
Later that year, he spent one hundred days in St Patrick’s psychiatric hospital in Dublin, the High Court was told. Inspector Ryan remains under suspension pending the outcome of his disciplinary hearing.
Evidence collected by the NBCI is naturally confidential to the unit. Any evidence that the unit may have gathered connecting Eamon O’Neill to any corruption or compromising of an investigation would only possibly emerge in a criminal trial, if one were ever conducted.
There may be a plausible reason why 21 months after the high profile arrest of two senior gardaí no charges have been brought against them.
The retired super himself says there is absolutely no evidence because he is entirely innocent of any such allegation. All that is known publicly is that both he and Inspector Ryan were friends with Garda A.
“It’s a mess,” according to one source familiar with the anti-corruption investigation.
Maybe the NBCI know where they’re going, and when they might arrive with a substantial and robust file.
“There’s no sign of it yet. You can’t rule that out, but so far it doesn’t look good.”
McCabe case changed penalty points system
A senior guard can no longer “press the button” on the Pulse system to make a fixed charge notice (FCN) disappear. Following the policing and political controversies generated by the uncovering of major abuse by Sergeant Maurice McCabe the system went through major reform.
Today, any senior officer who wants to square a ticket must contact the guard who issued it and see if he or she is amenable to dropping the matter if and when it advances to a court appearance.
When a motorist fails to pay the fine, and incur the penalty points, the case advances to the district court. In court, it is not infrequent for a prosecuting garda — usually an inspector or a superintendent — to request the judge that a summons be withdrawn or struck out.
Legal sources point out that a judge rarely asks for an explanation for doing so, relying instead of the inspector’s opinion.
The other possibility to have a fixed charge notice rescinded is to petition the senior officer, who must consult with the garda who issued the ticket. If the garda accepts that there were exceptional circumstances, the senior officer must then write to the traffic office with the petition.
There are now only two senior officers, both based in the traffic division, who have the power to cancel the FCN.
Last December, commissioner Drew Harris issued a circular to all members in which he set out what would be considered to come under the description of “corruption” from now on.
The categories were wide-ranging from accepting free admission to nightclubs to receiving monetary or material benefits or interfering with evidence in a case. Also included was cancelling fines or not issuing summons where appropriate.