Saturday, November 25, 2017

Choice of words

In early 2001, a hot potato landed on the desk of the then Irish Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue. It was the summary of an internal police inquiry ("Carty report") into allegations of serious misconduct by Donegal police, including mishandling of a murder investigation. There seemed to be enough in the report summary to launch a broader independent inquiry into rogue elements in the police force, which might have even gotten into similar misconduct in adjacent counties, such as Cavan and Monaghan.

What did the Minister do?

He sent the summary report to the government's chief legal adviser, Attorney-General Michael McDowell.

McDowell, recognizing a hot potato when he saw one, said that he couldn't make a decision without seeing the full report. And the usual "ongoing investigations" excuse provided a dodge for government ministers from needing to see the full report, and so the allegations sat for over a year before their seriousness eventually became the basis for action. With the slow pace of the Irish legal system, that was a lot of time to lose, and by keeping everything very legalistic and narrow in scope, the broader relevance -- including to current circumstances -- was lost.

Things caught up with the government in 2005, when people started to ask about the lapses in timeline in reacting to the original information. Here's Eamon Gilmore in 2005 trying to get a straight answer to who saw what and when; note that the Minister for Justice of the time is now ... Michael McDowell! --

... My colleague, Deputy Howlin, drew attention to the fact that last Friday the Minister, Deputy McDowell, informed the House that the Carty report was not delivered to him or to the then Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, at a time when its full contents would have definitely been of interest to them and would have enabled them to make earlier judgments on some of the issues involved. ... However, during his period as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue repeatedly indicated to the House that he had the Carty report. On 7 February 2001, in response to parliamentary questions, he did not indicate in any way that he did not have the Carty report, although he had plenty of opportunity to do so. On 23 May 2001, he stated that "the investigation by Assistant Commissioner Carty was completed and presented to me and, in turn, to the DPP". ... Either the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, had the report in 2000 or 2001 — as he told the House on 23 May 2001 that Assistant Commissioner Carty's report was completed and presented to him and, in turn, to the DPP — or he did not. ... This is not a minor matter concerning some incidental documentation that got lost in the amalgam of material that goes through a Minister's departmental office. This was a major report on an investigation into matters of the most serious character concerning the conduct of gardaĆ­ in Donegal. 

It was to no avail. McDowell and Bertie Ahern blustered through the questions relying on the distinction between having a precis or a distillation versus the actual report, and ignoring the broader question of why the precis wasn't alarming enough for quicker action. 2005 was the mid-year of the worst government in the history of the state, but at the time, an economic boom made them immovable. A few months after McDowell and Ahern had sidestepped their hazy memories of 2001, Maurice McCabe would make his first complaint about police misconduct in Cavan. That set in motion events which are playing out this weekend. 

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