CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Private Members’ Business, 12 June 2018
Motion to establish a Commission of Investigation into the death of Shane O’Farrell
A Cheann Comhairle, I move the Government amendment to the motion.
Let me start by repeating my opening comment here just less than two weeks ago when we had statements on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman’s Report following a referral by my predecessor Minister Shatter and complaints from Mrs Lucia O’Farrell. And I mean this most genuinely. All our thoughts are with the family of Shane O'Farrell. They have suffered a terrible loss arising from the death of a clearly much loved son and brother. I cannot imagine the scale of grief that they have gone through since that tragic evening in August 2011.
It is clear that there are a number of troubling matters surrounding the circumstances leading up to the road traffic incident in which Shane O’Farrell’s life was cut tragically short. The GSOC report clearly identifies those matters. They were, in fact, failures. Let’s call them what they are: failures.
A man, who had numerous previous convictions, including for theft, drugs and road traffic offences and who was on bail at the time of the accident, had also been arrested for other offences while on bail. Now, we all know that there are laws related to the obligations on those who obtain release on bail and there are sanctions if those bail conditions are breached. Unfortunately, in this particular case, those sanctions were not implemented and this was a failing.
GSOC has spent six years investigating the allegations made in relation to this case. Its very thorough first investigation focussed on potential criminal offences. I am sure everyone contributing to this debate has taken the care to read that report and to read it carefully. It goes through each allegation and makes a finding in each case. In its first report, GSOC did not identify any criminal offence by any Garda but it did identify a number of
matters which require further investigation. An investigation has now commenced and I expect a further report in due course when GSOC completes its investigation into disciplinary matters. That report may lead to the Garda Commissioner instituting disciplinary proceedings. I’ll come back to this matter in a moment.
GSOC is an independent statutory agency with an important role in the State. My officials are working with GSOC to advance a business case for additional staff for consideration by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am also looking at ways to strengthen GSOC’s powers and in this context, I wish to align any action I take with the forthcoming report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland to ensure a coherent criminal justice architecture is in place. I am committed to ensuring that GSOC has the resources it needs to carry out its functions effectively and efficiently.
I know that members of the House had a concern that the GSOC investigation was taking a long time and, that is understandable. However, it is important to pause and reflect on the complexity of the investigation undertaken – in excess of 50 separate allegations which involved multiple people. We are all aware of the importance of due process and the seriousness of a finding of criminal wrongdoing, so we can understand the care taken by GSOC to ensure it carried out a thorough criminal investigation and could stand over each one of its findings.
It is very regrettable that some members opposite, have chosen to criticise GSOC and its report. In fact it would not be going too far to say that some members sought to castigate GSOC. I want to remind the leader of Sinn Féin that on 31 May, in the course of statements in this House on the GSOC report she said that there are statements in the report that, as she put it “are simply erroneous”. She went on to state that the absence of a summation on each complaint was, to quote her “inexplicable and disgraceful”. In that she herself was erroneous since the list of all 56 complaints made by the family of Shane O’Farrell are set out in an Appendix to the report. She accused GSOC of “playing for time” and “playing games.” I find those remarks to be completely unacceptable about a body led by a highly respected High Court Judge, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, which is carrying out a very important, and at times, difficult job. And if that was not bad enough, her colleague Deputy Ó Laoghaire, described the report as a farce.
Other members also jumped on the bandwagon. Deputy Gino Kenny described the report as a 'whitewash' while Deputy Mattie McGrath described GSOC as 'useless, toothless and fruitless'. A nice soundbite perhaps, but completely inaccurate.
These are unacceptable remarks by elected members of this House about GSOC and I would ask Deputies McDonald, Ó Laoghaire, Kenny, McGrath and others to withdraw them. GSOC has a deserved reputation for calling it as it is, whether that involves criticism of the Garda Síochána, the Government or whoever. To suggest that they would participate in a cover up or a whitewash is deplorable and should be withdrawn.
Leaving that to one side, I will say that the failings identified by GSOC are very serious. The failings in relation to follow up following breach of bail conditions is unacceptable and my Department will be working closely with An Garda Síochána to ensure that appropriate systems are in place to bring such breaches to proper notice.
With regard to some, more general findings by GSOC related to victims and court proceedings, my Department is examining these with a view to improvement in these areas.
I want to return briefly to the on-going GSOC investigation. The matters which will now be investigated by GSOC are an alleged failure to check tax and other matters related to the car and the owner of the car involved in the collision and an alleged failure to bring bail conditions to the attention of the court or to re-activate a suspended sentence when the person was charged with subsequent offences prior to the date of the collision. This investigation should be allowed to take its course without any outside interference. Any person who is subject to investigation by an independent body is entitled to an assurance that such independence is not compromised. Indeed, a complainant is also entitled to the assurance that GSOC’s investigation is untainted.
Let me come now to the motion itself. The most obvious thing to say is that it does not set out any detail of what a Commission of Investigation would examine. Would it, for instance, examine each and every complaint made by the family of Shane O’Farrell, even though these have already been examined by GSOC and their findings on them are set out in its report? Would it examine matters after the road traffic incident?
What would be the implications for the disciplinary investigation being carried out by GSOC?
What would be the implications for the future of GSOC itself?
I am open-minded about the prospect of a further inquiry in this case, but as Minister, I want to proceed on the basis of evidence and due process. This House established GSOC, it commenced an investigation following complaints from the O’Farrell family and my predecessor did not, and neither do I, intend to undermine either its current investigation or its role in general. What I will commit to, as I have done in the past, is that when GSOC has completed its work, I will consider the question of a further inquiry and I would be happy to consult with the Opposition at that stage.
As I said, I accept GSOC’s first report on criminal matters and I have confidence in GSOC’s ability to carry out its investigations fully and comprehensively. Therefore, I have to ask whether the members opposite have the same confidence in GSOC? What signal does it send if members pass the resolution tabled by Fianna Fáil? I’ll tell you what it says: We don’t have confidence in GSOC. Such a statement would undermine the integrity of GSOC and its processes in the eyes of the general public and, indeed, of the Gardaí.
Others might well ask what is the point of the Oireachtas establishing independent bodies to carry out very important functions if parallel structures can be set up to second-guess their findings. GSOC has been the State's response to complaints against Gardaí for over 10 years. There has never been a challenge to its independence or impartiality.
It is primarily for these reasons that the Government has proposed an amendment to the motion. The net impact of the amended motion is that the Government will commit itself to consider what further action may be necessary when all other investigations are completed. And let me assure the House that if such further action can best be advanced by a Commission of Investigation, the Government will take steps to do that. And, as Deputies will be aware, the Commissions of Investigation Act requires that this House approves the order to set up such a Commission so there will be further opportunity to debate the issues before a Commission would be established.
Shane O’Farrell’s mother, Ms Lucia O'Farrell, has been campaigning for some form of statutory inquiry into the circumstances of her son's death. The previous Taoiseach and Tánaiste, who met with the O’Farrell family in later 2016 have stressed that they would examine whether any further action was warranted once the GSOC investigation is completed. While the criminal investigation has now concluded there is still an investigation under way that could result in a recommendation for disciplinary action against one or more Gardaí.
Although I fully understand that Mrs O'Farrell and her family would wish their questions to have been answered sooner, their serious nature required a careful and painstaking investigation by GSOC and it remains the case that the GSOC disciplinary must be completed before further action may be taken.
The commitment previously given to the O'Farrell family that once the GSOC investigation is completed, the question as to whether there remain issues that require further investigation will be fully considered. I reiterate that commitment here. The Government’s amendment to the motion is very clear and that commitment can be a commitment, not just of the Government, but of the whole House.
I commend the amendment to the House a Cheann Comhairle.