Inexplicably, the judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal have delayed the publication of their judgement on the reasons for overturning the Special Criminal Court's conviction of Osgur Breathnach and Brian McNally, both of the IRSP. But even in the absence of this judgement it is possible to make some observations on the significance of the acquittal and of the affair generally.
During the case, allegations of the utmost seriousness were made of extreme brutality on the part of the Gardai on the two men while in custody. These allegations were supported by medical evidence from three independent doctors in each case and also by a solicitor and barrister. When these allegations first became public in 1976, along with allegations of a similar nature to other cases, the then opposition spokesman on Justice, Gerry Collins, said: "the Minister should set up the machinery that would investigate fully (the allegations of Garda brutality) so that the public can see what is going on and if there is any truth whatsoever in these allegations that those responsible for ill-treatment of persons in custody that they would be disciplined as they should be" (RTE's News At 1.30 on February 18,1977).
On assuming office as Minister for Justice, Mr. Collins failed to set up the machinery to investigate allegations of Garda brutality and, as a consequence, no action was taken against any member of the force in respect of these allegations. But the really alarming aspect of this has been that not alone did Mr. Collins not have the allegations investigated but that he personally promoted most of the officers whose names had cropped up again and again in these allegations.
In the IRSP case the senior Garda officer involved in the investigation was Detective Inspector Edward Ryan. No allegations of brutality were made against Mr. Ryan in the IRSP case, although very specific allegations were made against him in the Murray case. However, as he was responsible for the overall conduct of the investigation his handling of the affair would surely have been the- subject of close scrutiny by an impartial investigation, as would the allegations made about him in the Murray case.
In spite of this, Mr. Ryan was promoted to the position of Superintendent during the course of the IRSP trial. It is necessary to state categorically that we are making no insinuations about Mr. Ryan and have no reason to believe that he has at any time behaved improperlv. All we wish to point out is that Mr. Collins, while in opposition, called for an enquiry into the kind of allegations which involved Mr. Ryan and that Mr. Collins in power has not only not investigated these allegations but has promoted Mr. Ryan.
The other most significant Garda officers involved in the IRSP case were Inspector John Courtney and Detective Sergeant Michael Canavan, both of the investigation unit attached to the Technical Bureau. In the course of the IRSP trial Canavan said in court that allegations of brutality had been made about him in six cases. Mr. Courtney's name has also cropped up again and again in connection with these allegations. In the IRSP case, while neither Courtney nor Canavan were alleged to have beaten anybody, it was claimed that they were both present when McNally was beaten and forced to sign a statement.
Any impartial investigation of allegations of Garda brutality of the kind called for by Mr. Collins while in opposition would have examined the allegations concerning these two officers. It is perhaps surprising then that Mr. Collins has promoted both these men since he assumed power, without having the opportunity of being able to see these men's names cleared of these serious insinuations through an open enquiry. Mr. Canavan is now an Inspector in the Investigation Unit, while Mr. Courtney has become a Superintendent and placed in charge of the Investigation Unit.
Again it is necessary to emphasise that we are not making any allegations against these two men, we are merely pointing to the incongruity of a Minister promoting them when two years previously he was demanding that their activities be investigated. A number of other Garda officers whose names have cropped up in allegations of brutality have also been promoted without the benefit of an enquiry which would clear their names. Mr. Collins professed in opposition to be concerned to clear the name of Gardai implicated in these allegations, if only for the good name of the force. He has steadfastly refused to do what he demanded of his predecessor. It is not just unfair to the Garda officers concerned but damaging to the public good.
The IRSP case also raises serious questions about the operation of the Special Criminal Court, especially in connection with its ready acceptance of statements taken in circumstances which raise serious doubts about their voluntary nature. It is not that the court or members of it are corrupt, rather that inevitably their perspective is distorted by constant exposure to cases of a subversive nature and a repetition of allegations about the Gardai which after a while must become tiresome.
This is the value of a jury court. A jury possesses none of the pre-conception that must necessarily arise on sitting on a bench in Grafton St. for protracted periods. And a jury is more likely to sustain doubts about the voluntary nature of statements, as it is unlikely to have been worn down by a cynicism born of repetitous monotony.
It is, of course, pointless calling for the abolition of the court and a public enquiry into the handling of the lRSP case and of allegations of Garda brutality generally. And indeed it is pointless to believe that were Fine Gael to return to power they would behave any differently. Public opinion must be changed in these issues however, for only through this means can any meaningful pressure be brought to bear on politicians who find it expedient to say one thing in opposition and do precisely the reverse in Government.