Finding a woman to blame

Twenty years ago this week, the Kerry Babies Tribunal ended. In sharp contrast to the Morris Report, it was the Hayes family rather than gardaí who were lambasted. By Diarmaid Ferriter

udge Morris, in his second report for the tribunal investigating Garda corruption, used an interesting line about "the ability of hatred to transform myth into facts" in relation to what went on in Donegal in the 1990s, and the need to target particular individuals and families. This is also what happened in Kerry in the 1980s. Then, it was an underlying misogyny that went to the heart of the appalling treatment of Joanne Hayes: there was a need, to use Nell McCafferty's memorable phrase, to find "a woman to blame".

This week 20 years ago, the Kerry Babies Tribunal ended after 82 days. There were a number of issues that Justice Kevin Lynch, who presided, had to consider, including the actions of Hayes, who was then a 25-year old single mother from Abbeydorney, near Tralee in Co Kerry. She became the chief suspect in the killing of a newborn baby whose body was found on White Strand beach in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. A post-mortem showed the baby had been stabbed to death. During questioning by Detective Inspector Gerry O'Carroll, Hayes apparently confessed to the killing and was subsequently charged with the murder, and members of her family were charged with concealing the murder. Hayes later retracted her confession, and the Garda case collapsed when a second baby was found on the Hayes farm, which Hayes maintained she had given birth to in a field before it died.

Both babies had different blood types, and in the autumn of 1984 the tribunal was established and found that Hayes was not the mother of the baby found on the beach and had no responsibility for that death. The tribunal did find that Hayes had killed her own baby by choking it to stop it crying. Lynch's report mildly criticised the handling of certain aspects of the case by the Garda, while rejecting claims that members of Hayes's family had been assaulted or that there had been a Garda conspiracy in the case. In this report, it was the Hayes family and not gardaí who were lambasted.

Gerry O'Carroll never accepted the conclusions of the Tribunal regarding the parentage of the Cahirciveen baby, and despite the evidence, stood by his contention that Joanne Hayes was the mother of both babies. As recently as last year, on RTÉ's Liveline, he repeated this nonsense, adding that he had treated Hayes "like my own daughter… I was kindness and patience personified".

The Kerry Babies case was significant for different reasons, not least in highlighting how, again in the words of Nell McCafferty, a woman could be publicly "crucified", based on the ridiculous theory that she could have given birth to twins by two different fathers, even though the blood type of the child found on the beach was found not to match that of Hayes, or the man she was having the affair with. But there was also the question of Garda handling of suspects in custody and under interrogation. The tribunal did not deal satisfactorily with the most obvious question and left the actions of gardaí unexplained – how did detailed statements from the Hayes family, identical in details known to be false, come to be taken in Tralee Garda Station in May 1984?

Hayes gave her account of what happened, co-written with journalist John Barrett. She recalled that the publication of Lynch's report on 3 October 1985 "was made public with the same indifference to our feelings that we had experienced throughout our relations with the law in all aspects… the vital question of how such identical detail was contained in 'confessions' to a crime which we could not have committed is not posed or answered and the gardaí are let off the hook… nothing that we had alleged about the gardaí had been believed. We were all perjurers… and the lies that the gardaí had told had been covered by euphemisms such as 'gilding the lily'. Judge Lynch called it Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Kerry Babies Case, borrowing his title from a highly contentious journalistic phrase. We preferred to call it the Kerry Garda Case".

Similar doubts about Garda activities had been raised before. In relation to Nicky Kelly's wrongful conviction for the 1976 Sallins train robbery, as Gene Kerrigan and Derek Dunne put it in their 1984 book, Round up the Usual Suspects, "there is a substantial body of evidence that a number of gardaí committed crimes of assault during the investigation of the train robbery and that a number of gardaí perjured themselves during the subsequent trial. It is prima facie evidence, consisting of allegations, inconsistencies in explanations which are themselves contradicted by the facts, medical evidence and statements by gardaí which appear to have been made in collusion. This body of evidence has been ignored by the authorities and the gardaí over whom this shadow hangs have been promoted. Whether or not that evidence would stand up in an independent inquiry is not the point – the point is the fact that the authorities by not imitating an inquiry wilfully covered up substantial evidence of a possible crime".

It seems the culture that gave rise to the practices outlined above was not in any way challenged in the following 25 years. It is not just the Morris Tribunal that is relevant here, but also the Court of Criminal Appeal's overturning in March 2002 of the Special Criminal Court's conviction of Paul Ward for the killing of Veronica Geurin, based on his confession to the crime. The Appeal Court suggested Ward might not have made any such confession. Depressingly, as Paul O'Mahony pointed out after the overturning of the Ward conviction, "the important lessons about the inherent unreliability of retracted, uncorroborated confessions and about the need for very stringent independent checks on Garda detention and interrogation, have still not been learnt. As a consequence, the system continues to throw up disquieting instances of induced false confessions and of dubious Garda handling of the detention and interrogation of suspects".

Will historians of the future regard the second report of the Morris Tribunal as a turning point in Irish policing? Only if it leads to a political addressing of these issues that have been raised now for nearly 30 years. Not only does it call for bold political leadership; it calls for nothing less than a revolution in an unhealthy Garda culture that has gone unchecked and unchallenged for far too long. It is hard to believe that one of the gardaí involved in the Kerry Baby Tribunal was promoted in the force and turned up in Donegal only to be fingered by Justice Morris as one of the officers responsible for the debacle that was the McBreaty investigation. Superintendent Shelly transfered to Westmeath and is now embroiled in the Barr Tribunal, which is examining garda handling of the killing of John Carthy in Abbeylara. He was the senior garda in command at the scene.

There is a clear thread running through all of these cases – people being accused of crimes they did not commit as a result of incompetent and corrupt Garda practices. One of the things identified by Kerrigan and others from the late 1970s onwards was that the question of corrupt policing was not just about the police force, but about governing in this country – one only has to listen and observe the McBrearty and the McConnell families when they are criticising not just the gardaí, but also the Minister for Justice. At least now, there is some sense of the truth of what went on being revealed. In relation to the events in Kerry 20 years ago, there was no such comfort.p