The acquittal of Mayo farmer Pádraig Nally for the manslaughter of John "Frog" Ward provoked bitterly divided reaction last night.
Supporters of Mr Nally and some local politicians welcomed the jury's finding that the 62-year-old farmer was not guilty of manslaughter, but Traveller support groups and Mr Ward's family expressed dismay at the verdict.
A jury of eight men and four women at Dublin's Central Criminal Court cleared Mr Nally of the manslaughter of Mr Ward on his land in Funshinaugh, Cross, Co Mayo, on October 14th, 2004, after more than 15 hours of deliberation.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Jim O'Keeffe and local Fianna Fáil TD John Carty said laws needed to be changed to shift the balance in favour of people who face an intruder in their home or on their property. A spokesman for the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, said he was committed to reform of the law governing the rights of householders to repel intruders and would be bringing forward provisions to change the law in the new year.
Traveller support group, Pavee Point, said in its opinion the verdict "sends out a message to all the Traveller community in Ireland that it is acceptable to kill a Traveller who is perceived to be trespassing or 'up to no good'." In a statement issued by Pavee Point on behalf of Mr Ward's widow, Marie, she said "The law should not allow Pádraig Nally, the man who took my husband's life, to walk free."
Speaking after the verdict, Mr Nally thanked his legal team and members of the public who had supported him. "I feel sorrow for the Ward family who have lost a father and is left with young children," he added.
Mr Nally had denied unlawfully killing Mr Ward, a 42-year-old Traveller from the Carrowbone halting site in Galway.
The court heard Mr Nally had admitted to gardaí that he had beaten Mr Ward up to 20 times with a stick after he shot him in the hip with his single-barrel shotgun. He then reloaded the gun and shot Mr Ward a second time as he tried to limp away.
Mr Ward had 80 previous convictions over 38 different court appearances.
Mr Nally was tried and cleared of his murder in November 2005 and jailed for six years for manslaughter. He served 11 months before the case was taken to the Court of Criminal Appeal and a retrial was ordered. The appeal court ruled that the jury at Mr Nally's original trial in Castlebar, should have been allowed to consider the full defence of self defence.
Mr O'Keeffe said Fine Gael never comments on individual cases. "But we have consistently made the argument that when confronted with intruders on their own property the sides of justice should be tilted in the owners favour".
His party colleague Mayo TD Michael Ring said he was "delighted" with the ruling, and also said the issue was "not about Travellers". Mr Nally was a man "living in fear" and Mr Ring hoped the verdict sent out a message to those "trying to pick on vulnerable people in rural areas" that "people have the right to protect their property".
Mayo Independent TD Beverley Flynn said she welcomed the decision, but said that Mr Ward's shooting had been "tragic for everyone involved", and the Wards had lost a father and husband.
Fianna Fáil TD for Mayo, John Carty, said he plans to raise the matter at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting after Christmas. "I do think legislation needs to be looked at," he said. "We were always told a man's home is his castle and a lot of people are going in now and robbing and taking property. This is very worrying for people in rural areas." He welcomed Mr Nally's acquittal. " I hope he gets on with his life now and that he is left in peace."