Garda scandals: Force dogged by controversy over number of decades

We list the big controversies to hit the Garda since the 1970s

The Garda has been dogged by controversy and scandal over the last number of years in particular. However, controversy has not ever been far from the force. Here are some of the main reports and debacles dating back as far as the 1970s.

Sallins train robbery:

On March 31st, 1976, the Cork to Dublin mail train was robbed near Sallins in Co Kildare, with about £200,000 stolen. Five members of the IRSP group were arrested: Osgur Breatnach, Nicky Kelly, Brian McNally, Michael Plunkett and John Fitzpatrick. During interrogation by the Garda, all except Plunkett signed alleged confessions, and all displayed injuries they claimed were inflicted by gardaí.

However, they were convicted after the longest criminal trial in Ireland at the time, heard before the non-jury Special Criminal Court.

A first trial was abandoned when one of the three Special Criminal Court judges, Circuit Court Judge John O’Connor, died mid-trial after constantly falling asleep in court.


Breatnach received a 12-year sentence, as did Kelly (who had jumped bail and fled to America). McNally got nine years.

In May 1980, the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the convictions of Breatnach and McNally. In the same month, the IRA claimed responsibility for the theft.

Nicky Kelly had returned from America in June 1980 but disappeared into a judicial and custodial black hole which he did not break free of until July 1984.

This was because the courts ruled he must serve out the sentence, the same one just set aside for his co-convicted, because, technically, the time during which he could appeal his conviction had passed.

He was freed on humanitarian grounds in 1984 and later received a presidential pardon. All three were also compensated with sums said to be between £400,000 and £750,000 each.

Heavy Gang

The moniker was applied to a group of Garda members who were alleged to have assaulted and threatened suspects and used other forms of pressure on them during the 1970s.

Allegations of coercion littered murder trials, with lengthy legal argument taking place regularly about the admissibility of evidence.

At the time, especially with the Troubles worsening in the North, some gardaí believed they had licence to extract confessions by force. And because forensics were only in their infancy, confessions were heavily relied upon.

A 1977 Amnesty International report alleging ill-treatment of prisoners by gardaí looked at 28 cases involving such allegations while in police custody. They were backed up medical and other evidence.

It found the names of certain Garda members appeared repeatedly in cases where they were dispatched from Dublin to serious crime investigations nationwide and where confessions were then secured.

The abuses ranged from pushing and shoving to severe beatings, and food and water deprivation.

The Criminal Justice Act 1984 and the regulations made under it introduced a code to ensure the appropriate treatment of persons detained in a Garda station. It also provided for video recording of interviews and complaints if maltreatment began to stop.

Kerry Babies

In April 1984 a newborn baby boy was found on a beach, White Strand, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, stabbed to death. A woman who lived locally, Joanne Hayes, was arrested. She had been pregnant around that time. Confessions were secured from her and her family over the murder of the child.

However, the confessions were withdrawn and the family said they had been beaten and coerced by the Garda. They said Joanne had given birth to a baby on the family farm in Abbeydorney. They added the baby had died after birth and had been buried in secret on the farm.

Tests on remains later found on the farm supported their version of accounts. The baby found on the farm was found to have blood type A - the same as Hayes and Jeremiah Locke, the married man who fathered the child. The baby found on the beach had blood type O.

While the charges against Joanna Hayes were dropped she was subjected to very strong cross-examination at the subsequent Kerry Babies Tribunal.

Gardaí advanced the “super fecundation” theory that Joanne Hayes had been impregnated by the man with whom she had been having a relationship and another man about the same time and had given birth to twins with different fathers.

Mr Justice Kevin Lynch cleared the Garda of coercing the confessions but never explained how the false confessions were obtained. The murder squad was disbanded in the aftermath of the controversy.

Morris Tribunal

The tribunal investigated allegations of wrongdoing and corruption in the Donegal division and ran from 2002 to 2008. It concluded that some gardaí in Donegal had fabricated explosives finds and had planted firearms in order to justify the arrests of targeted people.

It also found some members had fabricated informants and intelligence received. In general terms it concluded subordination was rife in the Garda and discipline in the force was breaking down.

The Garda Complaints Board was held ineffective in dealing with complaints from the public about wrongdoing by individual gardaí.

The State's response was the Garda Síochána Act. It provided for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) and the Garda Inspectorate. Gsoc is an independent agency that investigates allegations against Garda members. The inspectorate examines areas of policing and advises on reform.

A number of other reviews were also carried out including into how the Garda handles informants, with a register of informants introduced. A number of measures were also implemented to make it easier for Garda whistleblowers to come forward including the creation of a confidential recipient to receive complaints in confidence from gardaí about malpractice in the force.

Shooting dead of John Carthy

The tribunal of Inquiry into the siege and shooting of John Carthy in Abbeylara, Co Longford, was known as the Barr tribunal after its chairman, Mr Justice Robert Barr.

John Carthy (27), who suffered from manic depression, was shot by two members of the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) outside his Abbeylara home on April 20th, 2000, following a 25-hour armed stand-off.

The Barr Tribunal found that Garda negligence and defective management led to his death. The Garda was criticised for its lack of preparedness to respond to and management armed sieges.

However, then minister for justice Michael McDowell was critical of what he saw as the Tribunal’s failure to tackle the events that resulted in John Carthy being cleared by a medical professional to possess a firearm.

The Tribunal resulted in an overhaul of the Garda’s training and equipment for armed incidents, including the introduction of non lethal weapons. And when the Garda Inspectorate reviewed the Barr Report it recommended pepper spray and stab proof vests for all Garda members.

It also said a number of Regional Support Units - mini ERUs based around the country - should be established to faster respond to spontaneous armed incidents rather than unarmed gardaí waiting for the ERU to arrive from Dublin. The recommendations were acted upon with the last armed unit rolled out last year.

Smithwick Tribunal

The Smithwick Tribunal was set up by the government in 2005 in response to allegations of collusion between members of the Garda based in Dundalk and the Provisional IRA in the 1989 killing of two RUC officers. It ran from 2006 to 2013.

Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan were shot dead by the Provisional IRA shortly after leaving a meeting at Dundalk Garda station in March 1989 at an ambush point in south Armagh.

Judge Smithwick said he was "satisfied there was collusion in the murders" and that "the evidence points to the fact that there was someone within the Garda station assisting the IRA". But it did not specify what form the collusion took or who was involved.

The report was also critical of what he deemed a collegiate sense of loyalty among gardaí, saying two earlier Garda investigations into the killings were “inadequate”.

He also found the force in the current era was one that valued loyalty to a colleague above telling the truth.

Kieran Boylan case

In May 2013, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) said it was unable to substantiate allegations that the Garda permitted convicted drug dealer Kieran Boylan to sell drugs and had dropped serious criminal charges against him because he was a Garda informer.

It said its investigation had been blocked for years by a deliberate lack of cooperation from Garda headquarters.

The then Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, vehemently rejected the charges. Minister for justice at the time Alan Shatter was forced to intervene to end a public war of words between Mr Callinan and Gsoc, saying it undermined public confidence in both.

MacLochlainn Commission

Ronan MacLochlainn (28) from Ballymun, north Dublin, was shot dead during an armed robbery by a Real IRA gang on a Securicor van at Cullenmore Bends near Ashford, Co Wicklow, on May 1st, 1998.

A Commission of Investigation, under Mary Rose Gearty SC, was established by the Government in July, 2014, after the dead man's partner Gráinne Nic Gib took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled MacLochlainn's shooting dead was never properly investigated.

The gang was under surveillance at the time and when it tried to ambush the van in busy traffic just after 5pm on the Friday of the bank holiday weekend, members of the NSU and emergency response unit moved in.

MacLochlainn had hijacked a Mazda car at gunpoint from a couple who were passing. As he tried to drive off while pointing a gun at gardaí, he was fatally shot.

The other gang members were arrested at the scene and were subsequently convicted and jailed for their roles in the incident.

The commission is yet to report and while its findings may be unfavourable for the Garda in relation to how well prepared or otherwise the force was at the time, the passage of time is likely to soften the impact.

However, any comment by the commission on how cooperative and forthcoming the Garda force proved during the process will be closely watched.

Initial reports into Sgt Maurice McCabe allegations

A report by the Garda Inspectorate into the motoring penalty points system was published in February 2014.

It was requested by former minister for justice Alan Shatter following allegations by whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, among others, that there had been widespread quashing of penalty points.

A report by Sean Guerin SC was carried out on foot of other allegations by Sgt McCabe that the Garda mishandled cases of murder, assault and abduction in the Cavan-Monaghan division where he worked.

It also examined how claims by whistleblowers were handled by the Department of Justice. Its findings led to the resignation of Mr Shatter from Cabinet in 2014.

In 2017, however, the Court of Appeal found that the report had made “seriously damaging” conclusions in a manner that breached Mr Shatter’s constitutional rights. Mr Shatter has said he was forced to resign by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

“Bugging” of Garda Ombudsman

The Cooke Report in June 2014 investigated the alleged bugging of the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc). It concluded there was no evidence of surveillance at Gsoc’s offices.

The allegations first arose in The Sunday Times which secured part of an internal report prepared for Gsoc by a UK-based security contractor Verrimus.

In his report published by the Government in June, 2014, Judge Cooke found there was no evidence to suggest the offices of Gsoc were bugged, let alone that gardaí were involved.

However, he said the reaction of a landline in the Gsoc offices in ringing when tested for bugging in the early hours of the morning was unexplained.

He also noted that personnel from UK security company Verrimus - which carried out the security sweep for Gsoc - were adamant when interviewed by him that the anomalies they found suggested bugging.

When it emerged in February, 2014, that Verrimus had been asked to conduct the review and had kept the findings from the Government and the Garda it created significant controversy in that it suggested a breakdown in trust between the bodies.

And when Gsoc released a report saying there was no evidence the Garda was suspected of the alleged bugging the then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan was irate, saying that statement effectively appointed the Garda as chief suspect.

Public statements were exchanged between Garda and Gsoc, sinking an already turbulent relationship to a new low.

Second wave of Sgt McCabe inquiries

The Fennelly Commission was established in April 2014, primarily to investigate the taping of phone calls at Garda stations but also to issue an interim report on the resignation of Martin Callinan as Garda commissioner in early 2014. Its interim report concluded Mr Kenny "did not intend" to put pressure on Mr Callinan to resign. The full report published in April 2017 found no criminal cases were materially affected by the recording of telephone calls in and out of Garda stations around the country.

The report of the O’Higgins Commission of Investigation into the Cavan-Monaghan region of An Garda Síochána was published last year. It was established on foot of the findings of the Guerin report. The O’Higgins report found Mr Shatter, Mr Callinan and the Department of Justice handled complaints made by Sgt McCabe in a professional and appropriate manner “at all times”. It identified serious flaws and failures in criminal investigations in the Cavan-Monaghan division in 2007 and 2008, but found no evidence of Garda criminality or corruption.

Retired judge Iarflaith O'Neill carried out a report into allegations of a smear campaign within the force against Sgt McCabe. Judge O'Neill recommended a commission of investigation into the issue, although Sgt McCabe objected to this approach, as did various political parties. The investigation was upgraded into a full tribunal of inquiry, which has now begun its work under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Peter Charleton.

The Government also intends to carry out a "root and branch" review of An Garda Síochána following concern over the exaggeration of the number of drink driving breath tests carried out. It is an expansion of a previous review requested by the Independent Alliance into the management and culture of the force. The precise approach of the inquiry has yet to be worked out, but Ministers at this week's Cabinet meeting cited the example of the review of policing in Northern Ireland following the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Phantom alcohol tests, wrongful convictions

In March 2017, the Garda was forced to admit that of the two million alcohol breath tests it claimed were carried out on motorists between 2012 and 2016, one million were bogus.

They had been recorded on the Garda’s Pulse computer database but had never actually happened.

On the same day the Garda also revealed major problems with the fixed charge notice system related to road traffic enforcement and penalty points.

It said 1470,000 had been wrongly summoned to the court to answer charges. Some had been summoned despite having been sent an FCN in the post and paid the fine. And in other cases no FCN was ever sent and the case went directly to a summons.

The Garda said just over 14,600 of the people summoned to court were convicted and sanctions were imposed. And it must now contact those people and have their convictions set aside in the courts.

The Garda must also repay the fines of those motorists involved and other costs arising from all of the cases.

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan remains under extreme pressure about the breath testing data in particular.

The Policing Authority had not been notified about an audit into the data and its members read of the audit's existence in The Irish Times in March 2017.

Ms O’Sullivan is under pressure because, as suggested by Fianna Fail, it appears senior Garda management did not make fulsome efforts to get the accurate breath test data until after a story revealing there was a problem was published in this newspaper on February 20th.

There is dissatisfaction in political circles of Ms O’Sullivan’s handling of the issue and doubts that the Garda would have ever revealed the nature and extent of the breath test problems if the issue hadn’t been exposed in the media.

Fianna Fail is currently considering a motion in the Dáil that would express no confidence in senior Garda management.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times