Kerry babies: a litany of failings that still resonate

Decision to offer a State apology and compensation is long overdue recognition of an appalling wrong

It has taken 33 years for the Garda Síochána to issue a limited apology to Joanne Hayes and her family because of the stress and pain they endured arising from a police investigation that had fallen “well short of the required standards”. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

It has taken 33 years for the Garda Síochána to issue a limited apology to Joanne Hayes and her family because of the stress and pain they endured arising from a police investigation that had fallen “well short of the required standards”. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

It has taken 33 years for the Garda Síochána to issue a limited apology to Joanne Hayes and her family because of the stress and pain they endured arising from a police investigation that had fallen “well short of the required standards”. Those bland words disguised the production of false incriminating statements by gardaí who investigated the murder of “Baby John” at Cahersiveen, Co Kerry in 1984 and their unremitting efforts to find Hayes guilty of the crime.

It would be comforting to believe the treatment of Hayes and her family could not be repeated. But recent cases involving contested evidence would suggest otherwise. The Kerry babies case laid bare the unpalatable truth that investigating gardaí who effectively fabricated confessions could not be held to account. Those involved declined to co-operate with an internal investigation ordered by the Garda commissioner. And what was to have been a sworn judicial inquiry into Garda conduct resulted in the pillorying of Joanne Hayes as a “fallen woman” while lending support to the religious ethos of the day.

The abortion referendum of 1983 provided a religiously conservative context – as did the tragic death of teenager Ann Lovett while giving birth in Longford some months later. But that should not serve to minimise or distract from the failings of the Kerry investigation – nor the way in which the State compounded those appalling errors by in effect putting Joanne Hayes on trial and subjecting her to the most disgraceful ordeal.

Measured in social attitudes, 1984 was a different country. But in other ways it was much more recent. When the Morris tribunal reported from Donegal, it found that some members of the Garda Síochána were “out of control” and management was “utterly defective”. There were “wilful blunders” and “rushes to judge people as guilty”. Those finding came two decades after the Kerry babies inquiry, but they carry resonant echoes of the earlier debacle. Once initial material pointed in the direction of the Hayes family, 12 hours of intensive police questioning, along with alleged threats and physical abuse, led to confessions that could not have been true. Conflicting forensic evidence was rejected by gardaí and a fanciful theory about different fathers was used to justify the case.

The identity of Baby John’s killer must be established if justice is to be served

It is not quite true that politicians stood aloof. A tribunal of inquiry was established by Dáil consensus to explore Garda actions. When the tribunal reported there had been no Garda abuse or intimidation, the prospect of political action died.

Since then, the Garda has been put under extra scrutiny. But internal Garda resistance to accountability persists. The identity of Baby John’s killer must be established if justice is to be served. In the meantime, the decision to offer a State apology and compensation is long overdue recognition of an appalling wrong.

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