Garda needs to come clean about the ‘Heavy Gang’

Forty years on, the victims of coercive interview tactics still waiting for answers

Violent coercion, involuntary confessions, witness intimidation; these are the allegations against the Garda raised in the recent RTÉ series ‘Crimes and Confessions’. These charges are set against a background of possible political and judicial accommodation. They have been aired before. For 40 years, Osgur Breatnach, Nicky Kelly and others have campaigned for an inquiry.

The Conmey, Donnelly and Kerrigan families have also fought for answers since 1971. Martin Conmey received an apology from the Garda Commissioner this year just before the showing of the first programme. For all involved it falls far short of what might be expected and to what they are entitled. A huge human tragedy has been played out in these stories which culminates in last Monday’s episode on the Kerry babies.

The RTÉ series draws on three important cases to show that evidence gathering through coercive and prolonged interrogations were systemic in a certain section of the Garda and were condoned at a high level. Statements were needed and often they were the sole evidence that the State relied on to prosecute.

What is clearly established in the series is that a professional group of Garda investigators and
interrogators existed within An Garda Síochána

To solve an abhorrent murder and an audacious train robbery, the Garda appear to have felt entitled to use its resources to obtain a conviction through confession. Of note is retired Garda Gerry O’Carroll relating a conversation with the then garda commissioner at the scene of the murder in October 1976 of Garda Michael Clerkin by the IRA. The commissioner exhorted O’Carroll and his colleagues to use “every means at yea disposal . . . do whatever you have to do . . . to stop it [terrorism] and bring the people that do outrage like this to justice”, according to O’Carroll. “I certainly took his words literally,” said O’Carroll, but denied the existence of a “Heavy Gang” who specialised in extracting confessions .

What is clearly established in the series is that a professional group of Garda investigators and interrogators existed within An Garda Síochána. As a practising solicitor (including acting for the Sallins train robbery defendants), I was well aware of this Garda unit who appeared and reappeared in major criminal investigations throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As shown in the RTÉ series they had some significant successes but also were the authors of some horrific miscarriages of justice.

In the Lynskey case, according to Conmey, he and his young friends gave confessions under huge duress. These were supported by coerced witnesses. In the Sallins case, no independent or corroborating evidence was presented and medical evidence produced by the defence was rejected. Martin Reynolds, a court visitor at the trial in the Sallins case, was harassed but refused to withdraw his testimony of watching one of the three judges asleep during the hearings. There needs to be, at this stage, a thorough investigation of these cases.

More should have been done in the past but it is not too late to shine a light into this dark corner of our criminal law. The Garda Commissioner has written a letter of apology to Conmey – a man whose entire life was lived under the cloud of his patently false conviction based on a coerced confession and witness tampering.

His childhood friend Dick Donnelly never got any apology and the botched investigation led directly to the murder of Martin Kerrigan who can never receive any vindication. Breatnach and Brian McNally have never received an apology from the Garda or the State while Kelly was finally pardoned after a debilitating hunger strike and a huge public campaign. The victims of these miscarriages of justice are entitled to a full, public inquiry.

Juries are essential to our criminal justice system. They bring common sense to bear on the assessment of evidence in a way judges cannot achieve

The Garda and the State need to come clean about what happened in these and other cases in a full examination of their role and those who directed them. There are many questions that still require an answer.

In those troubled times, legal expediency may have been judged as acceptable but it never could be. Our legal system is rigorous and adversarial – within that system the rights of the accused must be upheld. These incisive programmes have demonstrated what happens when the rules are bent by one side of the process. The abuses that occurred in the Sallins case and in many others were facilitated by the attitude of the Special Criminal Court. The model of the court has never fitted our robust system of criminal law. It failed to scrutinise the evidence presented and the means by which it was obtained.

A full public inquiry into these miscarriages of justice should investigate the continued use of the non-jury courts. Juries are essential to our criminal justice system. They bring common sense to bear on the assessment of evidence in a way judges cannot achieve. My experience as a trial judge is that juries are robust and resilient in many lengthy and complex cases.

It was striking that the camera lingered on the Bridewell Garda station where the Sallins defendants were detained and interrogated. Writ large was “Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum”. Justice demands an inquiry.

Pat McCartan is a retired judge and former TD with Democratic Left. He acted as solicitor for the defendants in the Sallins train robbery case.