Handling of Criminal Matter in Longford: Statements

Friday, 10 December 2010

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 724 No. 4
Unrevised

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Minister for Justice and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern): Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  I wish to share time with Deputy Kelly.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Jack Wall): Information on Jack Wall  Zoom on Jack Wall  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The circumstances of this case are extremely tragic and I have extended my deepest sympathy to Mrs. Marie Keegan and her family on the very sad death of Noel, their husband and father, who was a retired member of the Defence Forces and highly respected in his community. I can assure the House that from the moment this case came to light it has been treated with the utmost gravity by me, my Department and the entire criminal justice system.

I pay tribute to Mrs. Keegan and her family for the dignified and admirable way in which they have conducted themselves throughout this incredibly difficult time. No doubt all Deputies will join me in offering the family our sympathy on their terrible loss. I have written to Mrs. Keegan to say how sorry I am for the position in which her family find themselves and expressed the great regret all of the agencies involved for the failures in procedures which took place, and I do so again publicly in this House.

Last January, when I first became aware of this matter, I requested Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons, to investigate the circumstances of the case across all of the relevant agencies. At my request, the Keegan family were informed of the facts as we were aware of them and of the investigation that Judge Reilly would be conducting. I also briefed the then spokespersons of the Opposition who acknowledged that we were taking the correct action in response to this situation.

Before his appointment as Inspector of Prisons, Judge Reilly was a highly respected and experienced District Court judge and he was particularly well placed to assess what had occurred. His wide-ranging terms of reference were to investigate the manner of and procedures applicable to the recording and communication of the sentencing of Martin McDonagh in Tullamore Circuit Court on 28 April 2009; to establish, first, whether a warrant recording this sentence was issued by Longford and-or Tullamore Circuit Court offices and, second, was received by Castlerea Prison; and to make inquiries with any other relevant persons and authorities including the Garda Síochána and the probation service.

The judge was also asked to make appropriate recommendations arising from his investigation and requested to report to me as soon as possible. Judge Reilly reported in May and his very clear report highlights a number of very serious failings which took place in this case across all the agencies concerned. This matter arose following the sentencing in absentia of Martin McDonagh to four years imprisonment at Tullamore Circuit Court on 28 April 2009.

Several of the failures resulted from human error and others occurred because of the lack of systematic procedures to pick up on these errors when they had occurred. The judge makes it clear that the errors occurred not through any malicious intent but because there were insufficient checks and oversight arrangements in place within the offices and agencies concerned. Having said that, senior Courts Service management has met the individuals concerned to remind them of the necessity, as highlighted by Judge Reilly, of careful and scrupulous attention to detail when attending to its public duties. The Secretary General of my Department has met the heads of all the agencies concerned to emphasise the seriousness with which this matter should be treated and the necessary priority afforded to putting in place the necessary solutions. I have also arranged for a copy of this report to be transmitted to the President of the Circuit [793]Court and, I understand, he has drawn the importance of the relevant recommendations to the attention of the judges of the Circuit Court. Obviously all the agencies concerned have co-operated fully in implementing the recommendations Judge Reilly made and significant lessons have been learned.

In order to ensure the speedy implementation of the Reilly report, I then appointed Mr. Pat Folan, a former director general of the immigration services, to oversee the implementation process. Mr. Folan convened an inter-agency group of senior officials, which undertook a detailed work process and reported to me in September that all of the judge’s recommendations identified for immediate action have now been fully implemented. The group also set out a clear strategy to implement the medium-term recommendations — several of which involve information communication technology, ICT, infrastructure projects — within a three year timeframe.

Three main areas were identified where failures had occurred: the process and procedures in relation to the issuing of warrants; the process and procedures relating to notifications of the temporary release of prisoners; and communication between the relevant justice sector agencies. Since then, each of the agencies, both individually and collectively, has examined its part in the processes concerned and, as the Folan group reports, changes in work practices and systems aimed at rectifying the identified failings have been implemented. For example, verification procedures have been included in the preparation, checking and issuing of warrants in court offices. I should point out that many of these practices were already followed in courts all around the country. The new protocols simply involve a consistent application of best practice and clear lines of accountability. The measures include a second official double checking the details of any warrant prepared before it is signed by the relevant senior official. From now on, if posted, warrants will be issued by registered post thus affording a record of postage and receipt. Where a committal warrant is issued on the day of court, a new process has been introduced to acknowledge receipt of a warrant in writing by a prison officer and likewise acknowledgement by receipt by the Garda Síochána or the Irish Prison Service where a warrant is received directly by a prison or the Garda. The Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service have issued instructions within their respective organisations in relation to these new procedures.

Protocols both within individual agencies and, especially, between the agencies dealing with warrants have been put in place to further enhance the measures introduced. The new procedures will serve to increase efficiency and effectiveness and enhance the overall accountability requirements on agencies and individual officials to certify their specific element of the process, thereby reducing significantly the risk of a warrant being overlooked.

The series of recommendations requiring immediate action in the Reilly report relating to temporary release have been implemented and will enable the responsible agencies to more effectively manage the process.

The Irish Prison Service has examined the terms and conditions which are included on the temporary release form and, where appropriate, has amended the wording to provide an unambiguous and clear statement of the terms of a prisoner’s release. This will facilitate each of the agencies involved in the temporary release process to more accurately assess when a breach of temporary release has occurred. Details of all temporary releases are notified by the Irish Prison Service to all of the agencies concerned with the release of prisoners.

A joint protocol has been agreed between the Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service in regard to the co-ordination of the receipt and onward transmission of temporary release [794]notifications and the Irish Prison Service and the probation service have put in place joint protocols for the management of prisoners on temporary release who are also subject to probation supervision. The Garda Síochána will maintain a register of prisoners on temporary release in all relevant Garda stations. The register will include the terms of the prisoner’s temporary release in addition to the signature of the prisoner and the times and dates of signing on. Again this represents an enhancement of the existing procedures.

The Garda authorities have confirmed that the apprehension of persons unlawfully at large is, and will continue to be, a priority for them. The arrangements for notifying the Garda when a person is unlawfully at large have been significantly strengthened as a result of the joint protocol it has entered into with the Irish Prison Service. This protocol makes provision, in particular, for the Irish Prison Service to notify the relevant Garda superintendent when a person is unlawfully at large. The notification will be undertaken in both electronic and hard copy form. In addition, the appropriate Garda station will be contacted by telephone by the Irish Prison Service. An important element of the protocol is to ensure that regular reviews of prisoners deemed unlawfully at large will have taken place involving the Garda authorities and the Irish Prison Service. This is a process that has commenced and I have no doubt it will help to ensure that effective measures are in place to deal with situations where a prisoner is unlawfully at large. I am assured the introduction of all of the above measures will contribute significantly to the reduction of risk in the management of offenders.

Communication, information exchange and cohesion between the relevant agencies are identified by Judge Reilly as being central in addressing the particular weaknesses identified in the agencies’ systems and processes. The recommendations in Judge Reilly’s report which were designated as “immediate” and have been implemented have significantly advanced the sharing of data and information across the relevant justice sector agencies. However, a number of recommendations will more effectively be implemented over the medium term as they require enhancements to the existing ICT in the individual agencies and enhancement of the ICT inter-connectivity between agencies.

The criminal justice interoperability project, CJIP, was developed in recent years between the Garda and courts and facilitates the exchange of summonses and court outcomes in regard to all criminal offences before the District Court. This system has been operating successfully for more than two years and as well as reducing errors and risks, it has also had a very positive impact in reducing duplication of input and thereby saving staff time. This system will now be expanded to include links with the Irish Prison Service and probation service. A feasibility study to consider scope, functionality, implementation timeline and costs has already commenced and the initial phase will be completed in the New Year.

The enhancements to the Garda PULSE system and the extension of the Courts Service criminal case tracking system from the District Court to the Circuit Criminal Court, which Judge Reilly identified are desirable, will be also advanced in the medium term.

The recommendations Judge Reilly made are now largely in place. The ICT developments being progressed will underpin the manual processes. While not seeking to minimise the failures which occurred, I would point out that thousands of cases are dealt with every day in the courts without difficulty.

I would also point out that, far from any attempt to conceal these events, as long ago as last January when I was first made aware of this, I made a public statement outlining the fact that I had appointed Judge Reilly to investigate a matter of grave concern which for legal reasons could not yet be made public. As I said earlier, I also privately briefed the then Opposition spokespersons on the circumstances which were then known to use. I then published the reports [795]at the earliest opportunity following the conclusion of the trial last Tuesday. I knew the outcome of the case was going to be decided on Tuesday, which coincided with it being budget day. I had originally intended to publish this report the following day so that it would not coincide with the budget, but because some members of the media already had details of the report on budget day, the day the case concluded, I had no option but to put the reports out on budget day. Following the conclusion of the trial of Martin McDonagh last Tuesday, I arranged to have copies of both of the reports furnished to the Keegan family in advance of publication.

By appointing Judge Reilly to independently investigate the circumstances of this case and by quickly establishing the implementation group to oversee the implementation of Judge Reilly’s recommendations, I am satisfied that rigorous measures are now in place aimed at ensuring that a breakdown in procedures, such as occurred in this case, does not happen again. No Minister can stand before this House and give guarantees that systems will not fail — people will always make mistakes. However, very serious errors were made in this case — there is no doubt that is the case. It is our responsibility to ensure safeguards are now in place to reduce the risks involved in a system which processes up to 400,000 criminal prosecutions every year. I can assure the House that my Department is doing everything in its power to address these failings across the criminal justice system.

Deputy Peter Kelly: Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  Mr. Noel Keegan, rest in peace. I would like to say a few words on the tragic death of Mr. Noel Keegan, which occurred almost a year ago. The dreadful circumstances surrounding his death have been well documented in the press and what happened on last New Year’s Eve was a dreadful tragedy and has robbed a wife and family of a loving husband and father.

I went to see Marie, Noel’s widow, last New Year’s Day to pay my respects and hear what happened. I was appalled and very saddened when I learned of the details surrounding his death. I knew Noel, a retired member of the Army, for many years. He was an honest, decent and hard-working man, and the Keegan family is highly respected in Longford. Noel’s primary interest and motivation in life was looking after his family, and they, with his wife, were his life.

Our sympathy goes to Noel’s wife Marie, his mother, Kathleen, his children, Lisa, Nicola, John, Claire and Sinéad, grandchildren, Cameron and Ben, his brothers and sisters, John, Séamus, Catherine and Bernie, his aunt, Nell, and all his relatives and friends. His death has left these people bereft and the last year has been hellish for them. Noel’s death should never have happened and the fact that it was avoidable is what makes it very hard to accept. What happened to Noel was an outrage.

Following Noel’s death, the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, commissioned a report into how this could have happened. The findings of the report by Judge Michael Reilly speaks for itself, and we must ensure this never happens again. No other loving and peaceful family should have to endure anything similar. Today is not a day for recriminations but for apologies. Noel Keegan, his wife Marie and their children have been let down significantly by the system and the events of last New Year’s Eve were a tragedy. I extend a sincere apology to the Keegan family for their loss.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter  Zoom on Alan Shatter  I wish to share time with Deputy James Bannon.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Jack Wall): Information on Jack Wall  Zoom on Jack Wall  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter  Zoom on Alan Shatter  It is appropriate that we discuss the tragic events which occurred on 31 December last year, when Mr. Noel Keegan lost his life, and the report that has been produced by Judge Reilly. I want to start by expressing the condolences of the Fine Gael Party [796]to Marie Keegan and her family on the very tragic loss they suffered. This is a loss that should never have occurred and the assault which led to Noel Keegan’s death should never have happened. The tragedy is that the person who perpetrated that assault, Mr. Martin McDonagh, who has been convicted of the offence, should have been in Castlerea Prison on the night he was at large and this appalling event took place.

It is right that the Minister has expressed sympathy and condolences to the Keegan family and that he has stated that they should never have been put in the position that they were put in. I do think, however, that the Minister needs to do more than that. This was a catastrophic failure of State agencies right across the board, State agencies for which the Government and Minister are responsible and accountable. The Minister, as opposed to simply giving his own personal condolences, should make an apology to the family on behalf of the State. It is the State’s failure that resulted in the death of Noel Keegan. The Minister did not go that far in his statement to the House and I ask him to explain why he did not do so. When he is responding, I ask him to give an unequivocal apology on behalf of the State for its failings, which resulted in the death of Noel Keegan.

I also ask the Minister to address an issue he has failed to deal with so far. We know the Keegan family is seeking compensation arising out of the circumstances relating to Noel’s death. I am sure they would be the first to say that no amount of money will adequately compensate them but in so far as they have a claim they can properly bring, they should not be put through, in my view, the additional stress that results from having to take court proceedings against the State. Will arrangements be put in place to ensure that agreed compensation will be paid to the Keegan family arising from this appalling tragedy that should never have occurred?

I want to say something about the report that is before the House and what the Minister has to say about it. I want to start in that context by praising Judge Michael Reilly, who, in a very short period of time, comprehensively addressed the background circumstances which led to Noel Keegan’s death and made a broad series of recommendations.

It is important to put on the record of the House the opening paragraph in the introduction to his report. It states: “This report identifies a litany of flawed systems, outmoded work practices and the failure of organs of the ‘justice family’ to communicate with each other which combined with lapses of judgment, misjudgements and inattention to detail ended in tragic consequences, namely, the death of Mr. Noel Keegan.” The second paragraph of his report makes reference to a lack of oversight by superiors and to public servants not adhering to the highest standards.

This report is a damning indictment of the failures within our justice service. The report details a catalogue of failures. A court imposed a sentence on Mr. McDonagh which was never communicated to the Prison Service by the courts system. There was a failure by the Garda Síochána to communicate this to the Prison Service. The Prison Service released Mr. McDonagh by way of temporary release having had a meeting on the issue in respect to a previous sentence he was to serve of two years, blissfully unaware there was another sentence yet of four years to be served. Conditions were imposed on his temporary release that were not adequately put down in writing and which were not communicated to the probation service, so when he failed to comply with those conditions, no one knew and no action was taken.

On 4 December 2009, Mr. McDonagh was supposed to return to Castlerea Prison as part of the condition of his temporary release, but he failed to turn up. It took until 14 December for any action to be taken by the prison and then instead of communicating with the local gardaí in Longford, it communicated with Garda headquarters, which failed to adequately and rapidly [797]communicate with local gardaí. On 27 December 2009, just four days before Noel Keegan’s death, McDonagh was arrested for a public order offence before being released by gardaí, who apparently did not know he was in violation of conditions of his temporary release, or that he had another sentence of four years to serve. He was returned to appear at a District Court on 1 January but the day before he did so, this fateful and tragic event occurred.

In the context of the justice system, the Courts Service, probation service, the Prison Service and the Garda Síochána failed. If a Minister for Justice and Law Reform has a function of any nature, it is to ensure, at the very minimum, that justice services properly co-ordinate and communicate with each other so that tragedies of this nature do not occur. There were four separate opportunities during this series of events — from 28 April 2009, when McDonagh was sentenced to four years of imprisonment in a Tullamore court, to the death of Noel Keegan in December — for the justice services to get it right and for this man to be either retained in prison or returned to prison. On four occasions there was a total failure.

I welcome the report of Judge Reilly and his recommendations that protocols be put in place. I welcome the fact that we know by way of implementation of this report on 23 September 2010 that the protocols were published. However, why did it take the tragic death of Noel Keegan for action to be taken by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform to ensure that within the justice system such protocols existed, such disasters could not occur and to ensure that the right hand knew what the left hand was doing? It is a damning indictment of a catastrophic failure, one which we like to describe as “systemic” because it sounds as if no one is responsible. There is responsibility and accountability in this case and it rests on the shoulders of the Minister.

We used, and saw, the same terminology in the reports published on child abuse, which referred to “system failure” and did not hold anyone accountable or responsible. There is a responsibility and I want the Minister to address the reason such protocols were not in place before 23 September 2010. I ask him to inform the House whether such protocols are being fully operated to ensure another similar tragedy does not occur and the extent to which those involved in the justice system — the Courts Service and Garda — have been trained in these protocols or have had them brought to their attention. What efforts have been made to ensure the content of these protocols is truly known?

Judge Reilly also addressed another issue, namely, the need for new computer programmes to be introduced to ensure there is direct communication, using the most modern technology, about events within the justice system, as between the different justice agencies. While the implementation report indicates this is an issue being examined and progressed, it does not refer to a timeline. What is the timeline for implementing this recommendation?

What assurance can the Minister give the House that there are not currently individuals on temporary release who are violating their conditions of release and may perpetrate a similar crime, one that could result in the loss of life or serious injury? The report Judge Reilly produced features an important sentence on page 29. He states: “I can only conclude that the apprehension of persons unlawfully at large is not given the priority it merits at senior management level”. This means that the apprehension of people unlawfully at large, that is, individuals who should be in prison, is not given the priority it deserves by the Minister.

We know of 518 prisoners who have absconded and should be returned to jail. Despite having failed to comply with their release provisions, it seem not much is being done about them. I ask the Minister to explain how, in the context of the existence of the new protocols, 518 people are violating the conditions of temporary release? At least 50 of these individuals have been convicted of attempted murder, making threats to murder or assault and 31 have been convicted of weapons and explosives offences. They should be returned to prison.

[798]I am not sanguine in the belief that the action that has been taken to date provides adequate protection to the community. I do not want another death to occur such as occurred in the circumstances we are discussing. I want the Minister to be unequivocal in apologising to the Keegan family on behalf of the State and to address the issue of the compensation to which the family are entitled. This issue should be dealt with in a considered and humane manner, without the necessity of court proceedings.

Deputy James Bannon: Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  My constituency of Longford-Westmeath is mourning the senseless loss of a man who was not only a family man, neighbour and friend but was also someone whose record in the Defence Forces made his family justifiably proud. It is shocking that such a man should have died, not on military service but in what one would expect to be the peace and safety of his town. His family are not mourning a recent loss but one that tragically occurred during the festive season one year ago. A year may have passed but the pain is ongoing. That the family of Noel Keegan are facing their first Christmas without him, is extremely sad and heartbreaking for them and County Longford. The knowledge that if it were not for a breakdown in the criminal justice system, Noel would be with them today is doubly distressing. The buck stops with the Minister for Justice and Law Reform and he must acknowledge this today, however belatedly.

I knew Noel Keegan well. He was a devoted family man and his loss has shattered the lives of his wife Marie, his five children, Lisa, Nicola, John, Clare and Sinéad, his mother, Kathleen, his brother, many other family members and the local community. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to them. They are at the heart of their community which shares their pain. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Minister and his Government. Actions speak louder than words and it is time the Minister offered Marie Keegan and her family sincere apologies for the loss of Noel.

In explaining to the Dáil and Noel Keegan’s family the reason the criminal justice system, for which he is responsible, was so lax as to result in a communications breakdown that played a major role in the death of Noel Keegan, the Minister must also offer sincere apologies to the family on behalf of the State. While no words can ease the pain they are suffering, such an apology is the least the family deserve. The Minister should explain the reason the Department for which he has ultimate responsibility did not have in place communication protocols for the various services prior to September this year. He must give the House a definitive date for the roll-out of the integrated and upgraded computer programmes recommended by Judge Reilly.

The Keegan family have suffered a heartbreaking and senseless bereavement as a direct consequence of systemic failures by the State and its agencies, which essentially aided and abetted a criminal in carrying out an assault on Noel Keegan that resulted in his death. At the time of the assault, the criminal in question should have been in Castlerea Prison. It is incumbent on the Minister not only to apologise to the Keegan family but also, as Deputy Shatter noted, to assure them that arrangements will be made for the payment to them by the State of the compensation to which they are entitled. This must be done in a manner that avoids Marie and her family having to suffer the further trauma of court proceedings. The family have endured enough. As the victims of a terrible crime, they must be protected from further heartbreak.

Judge Reilly concluded in his report that Noel Keegan’s untimely and tragic death partly resulted from “a lack of oversight by superiors” within the various justice services and that “the apprehension of persons unlawfully at large is not given the priority it merits at senior management level”. The price of this lack of care is human suffering. It is for the Minister for Justice and Law Reform to ensure that the apprehension of persons unlawfully at large is [799]prioritised to uphold the integrity of our criminal justice system. He should explain the reason he failed to do this.

We know an estimated 518 prisoners on temporary release have absconded and should be returned to prison by the Garda. What action is the Minister taking to rectify this matter? Where is the sense that Noel Keegan’s death was not in vain but will bring about essential change? The Minister must inform the Dáil what action, if any, he has taken since the death of Noel Keegan to ensure there is no repetition of this tragedy. He must explain why more than 500 prisoners remain unlawfully at large. It is said that one learns by one’s mistakes. These figures prove that this does not apply to the Minister.

The Minister should inform the House of the steps that are being taken to effect the return to prison of prisoners who have absconded to complete the sentences properly imposed by the courts. He must also give an assurance that no prisoner approaching the end of his or her sentence will be granted temporary release in circumstances in which an additional sentence must be served following a conviction for another offence. He must put aside self-justification and apologise for the failures of the system for which he had ultimate control. He must ensure, in prioritising the loss suffered by Marie and her children, that such a tragedy is never visited on another family in the midlands, or anywhere else in the country.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte  Zoom on Pat Rabbitte  On my own behalf and that of the Labour Party, I join colleagues in the House to express sympathy to Marie Keegan and her children and their wider circle of family and friends at the loss of Mr. Noel Keegan in such tragic circumstances last New Year’s Eve.

The report by the prisons inspector concerns the most serious failings of our criminal justice system. I join the Keegan family in describing what happened as inexcusable and catastrophic failings and administrative errors on the part of the State. We know that when crimes are committed there must be investigations, arrests, charges and trials. If a conviction follows, there must be a sentence. We can understand errors during investigations and trials and we have procedures of oversight to deal with these. However, we expect the basic administrative paperwork to be done. This case shows that a person arrested and charged with a serious assault, with fatal consequences, was at liberty to commit that crime at a time when he should already have been in prison. He had been already sentenced to a significant term of imprisonment, in respect of a prior and separate conviction.

Judge Reilly’s investigation and his report into this affair were completed in just four months. He identified what he described as a litany of flawed systems, outmoded work practices and the failure of organs of the “justice family” to communicate with each other. These failures, combined with lapses of judgment, misjudgments and inattention to detail, ended in the tragic death of Noel Keegan. Judge Reilly reported that because of systemic failures in systems and a lack of oversight by superiors public servants did not adhere to the highest standards. He expressed his hope that the report will be used to address such failures, provide appropriate oversight and act as a warning to public servants at all grades that they must be careful and scrupulous when attending to their public duties in order that the general public can have complete confidence in the system.

In regard to Martin McDonagh, there were two prior convictions and two major failures. First, a warrant for Martin McDonagh was not issued by the Circuit Court office in Longford between 1 May 2009 and 5 January 2010, more than eight months later. His sentence should have commenced on 1 May 2009 but the combination of this failure by Longford Circuit Court office to issue the warrant and the absence of appropriate checks and balances meant that Martin McDonagh did not begin to serve a sentence imposed on 28 April 2009 until 5 January [800]this year. Mr Noel Keegan was walking from his home with his wife, to meet friends for a drink on New Year’s Eve, when he was attacked by Martin McDonagh and later died.

The second failure relates to an earlier sentence imposed on Martin McDonagh on 22 April 2009 and is perhaps the more serious because it involves more personnel and more agencies. Martin McDonagh had been granted temporary release in November 2009, subject to conditions, as he was nearing the end of such sentence. If proper procedures had been in place and adhered to, Martin McDonagh would have been deemed “unlawfully at large” since 28 November 2009. As Judge Reilly pointed out, procedures could then have been put in place to effect his apprehension subsequent to 28 November 2009. That this did not happen is as a result, according to the judge, of “many failures across three agencies, namely, the Irish Prison Service, An Garda Síochána and the Probation Service”. Of these he stated: “These failures cannot be explained away by reference to inattention to detail by junior members of these services, rather, management should have been aware of the deficiencies in such systems.”

Not alone was relevant information not shared between these agencies but, according to Judge Reilly, it is also clear that certain information was not shared within agencies. He concluded that this lack of sharing of information contributed to Martin McDonagh being unlawfully at large and to the fact that he did not commence his second sentence for eight months after it had been imposed. The startling aspect of this case is that so many failures combined together. However, this does not provide reassurance that it was an isolated, once-off, incident, rather it does the opposite because any one of these errors could have led to the same result.

We have tried repeatedly through the parliamentary process to get details about the number of unexecuted warrants, the number of prisoners unlawfully at large and the operation of the temporary release system. We have tried to get some picture of how the system works in practice. However, we are none the wiser. As Judge Reilly put it: “During the course of my investigation surrounding the release of Martin McDonagh on the 27th November 2009 I discovered many inadequacies in the temporary release procedure which, while applicable in this investigation, are inadequacies generally within the criminal justice system”.

At one level, one can blame IT systems and the fact that they are not integrated — the Garda’s PULSE system does not liaise with the Prison Service’s electronic records system. There also seems to be a reluctance to share information that may be inaccurate or out of date, for fear of litigation. However, even allowing for these points, the Judge Reilly found that in excess of 25 members of varying ranks of the station party in Longford Garda station knew, or should have known if they were reading their bulletins, that Martin McDonagh was unlawfully at large. He stated he can only conclude that the apprehension of persons unlawfully at large is not given the priority it merits at senior management level.

Judge Reilly’s recommendations came under two headings, namely, those that required immediate implementation, and those that should be worked on in the longer term. The immediate recommendations concern tighter control on how warrants are executed, on temporary release conditions and on maintaining a register of released prisoners. Longer-term recommendations include measures to enhance communication between agencies.

We are told that all of the judge’s recommendations identified for immediate action have now been fully implemented. I hope that statement is accurate. We are also told there is a strategy to implement the medium-term recommendations within a three year timeframe. I am not sure why the Minister believes we need a three year timeframe to implement all of these medium term recommendations. They are few in number and pretty basic. For the record, I will list them.

[801]First, when a criminal case is adjourned in the Circuit Criminal Court it should be made clear by the court as to whether an accused is remanded in custody, remanded on bail or that his or her case is simply adjourned. This order should be noted and if appropriate should form part of the transcript. Second, information relating to important directives to all members of the Garda Síochána, which currently appears on the portal of the Garda website, should be incorporated into a specific section of the PULSE system. Third, there should be an interface between the Irish Prison Service computer system, particularly the prisoner log, and the PULSE system operated by then Garda Síochána. Appropriate protocols should be introduced.

Fourth, relevant information should be shared between appropriate sections of all State agencies. Fifth, the personal details screen on the PULSE system should be extended to indicate whether a suspect is in custody, unlawfully at large, on day release, attending court while in prison custody, in hospital while in prison custody, or on temporary release. Sixth, the criminal case tracking system that operates in the District Court should be rolled out in the Circuit Criminal Court.

  2 o’clock

The Minister, Deputy Ahern, and I can both remember the childish and vindictive way in which his party, when in Opposition, reacted to an equally significant administrative error in the then Department of Justice, when a judge who had been delisted from membership of the Special Criminal Court was not told of that fact and was permitted to continue to sit without authority. As a result 16 high security prisoners remanded in custody had to be released, although they were immediately re-arrested and detained. The Minister’s party sought to take party political advantage and to heap personal blame on the then Minister, Nora Owen. It demanded her resignation. The Minister, then Deputy Dermot Ahern, accused Nora Owen of “flying blind” in office and of “passing the buck”. He accused the Government of trying to “blame the civil servants”. In particular, I found a passage in the speech of the future Minister on 13 November 1996 interesting. Due to a letter not being posted in the then Department of Justice, Deputy Dermot Ahern stated:

The Government is a sham and has forfeited any right it had to govern. It is time its members did the honourable thing and accepted that the security system, its first and foremost duty, is an absolute shambles. Deputy Owen has yet again surpassed herself as a hapless and hopeless Minister... Fianna Fáil has a good history in the Department of Justice and there can be no learning curve when one is dealing with the security of the State. There is no place in the Department of Justice for inexperienced people... Ministers must be competent and capable of handling their briefs. They must lead, take responsibility for their decisions and abide by the law of the land as set out in the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924. As regards the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice, the least we can expect is that the Government will not damage public confidence in the ability of the judicial system to deal with people accused of heinous crimes... The failure of the Minister for Justice and others to resign in these serious circumstances has set a precedent which makes a sham of the doctrine of collective and ministerial responsibility. Accountability in the political lexicon will have to be replaced by the doctrine of political survival, whatever the cost to the public.

Although the parallels are clear, I do not wish to use this opportunity to retaliate in kind. The handling of warrants in Circuit Court offices is not the Minister’s personal responsibility, but this is yet another monumental administrative cock-up within the most secretive and hide-bound Department of State and with the most serious consequences. Ministerial accountability means not just taking responsibility for matters that are under one’s control. It means taking control of matters that are one’s responsibility. The Minister has not exerted any influence, let alone control, over the agencies the deficiencies of which are so starkly highlighted in Judge Reilly’s report.

[802]Judge Reilly has conducted this investigation with his customary thoroughness. Since his appointment, he has shown a commitment to his mandate and an independence of mind that is immensely refreshing and also unusual within what is referred to here as the justice “family”. We can only hope, but not expect, that the other reports published by Judge Reilly in his capacity as Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention will receive the same necessary immediate attention as this one. Since his appointment, he has detailed in annual and special reports his concerns regarding overcrowding, the health of prisoners, the use of “special” cells, the procedure for dealing with prisoner complaints, the procedure for dealing with the disciplining of prisoners, the prevalence of drugs and the investigations of and reporting on deaths in custody. He has published standards for the inspection of prisons and reports on the duties and obligations owed to prisoners, specifically dealing with overcrowding of prisons and the use of “special” cells. He has given guidance on best practice relating to prisoners’ complaints and prison discipline. His report in August 2009 dealt with the history and design capacity of Mountjoy Prison and its programmes, facilities and deficiencies.

It seems clear that, with so many systemic and chronic issues on its plate, the Prison Service is operating on a dysfunctional basis. This report highlights that basic standards of communication of information vital to its functioning are not met by the Prison Service, the probation service, the Courts Service and the Garda Síochána. The fear must be that basic errors with the most serious consequences, such as the one highlighted in this report, will only be repeated.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Mar aon le Teachtaí eile, ba mhaith liom comhbhrón ó chroí a leathadh le Marie Keegan, a clann ar fad, a cairde, a comharsana agus dóibh siúd uilig a raibh aithne acu ar Noel Keegan, fear céile, mac, athair agus cara nár cóir a bheith marbh. Fuair sé bás de thairbhe ionsaí marfach a rinne Martin McDonagh air, oíche an 31 Nollaig, am a bhíonn daoine ag ceiliúradh agus am a ba chóir go mbeadh áthas ar chuile dhuine. Sa chás seo áfach, ní mar sin a bhí sé. Ceann de na fáthanna go bhfuilimid ag déileáil leis seo ná go bhfuair Noel bás de thairbhe teip iomlán an chórais dlí agus cirt, teip a d’fhág Martin McDonagh saor in ainneoin gur cóir dó a bheith i bpriosún. Tá sé ceart go bhfuilimid anseo inniu ag gabháil comhbhróin. Chomh maith leis sin, tá sé ceart go bhfuilimid anseo ag déanamh cinnte de, más féidir sin a dhéanamh in aon chor, nach dtarlóidh a leithéid de rud riamh arís.

The Minister for Justice and Law Reform has expressed his sympathy with the Keegan family over the shocking failure that led to Martin McDonagh’s perpetration of an assault on Noel Keegan on New Year’s Eve in 2009. It was a time when McDonagh should have been behind bars in Castlerea Prison on foot of a four-year sentence for stabbing a man in the leg with a pitchfork. I thank the Minister for the briefing he provided on this case early this year. I also thank Judge Reilly, who put this report together rapidly compared to other reports. He has done a tremendous job in isolating the changes and faults that need to be addressed in the shortest possible time. I recognise that some changes have already been completed and urge that the other recommendations contained in the report be addressed as quickly as humanly possible to ensure there is no repeat of such an incident.

The report published this week is a damning indictment of the communication systems between the Courts Service, the Prison Service, the probation service and An Garda Síochána. The report also found failures in the process and procedures in the issuing of warrants, as well as failures in the process and procedures in the notification of the temporary release of prisoners. I understand the Keegan family plans to sue the State. Clearly, the family has suffered greatly at the State’s hands. More than a full apology from the Minister on behalf of the State, what is required is that the family of Noel Keegan should not need to go through the further trauma of court proceedings. The Minister should ensure that arrangements are made to com[803]pensate the family adequately without its members needing to bring the State before the courts. Such action should be done forthwith.

From reading the report of the implementation group, I understand that many of the recommendations have already been implemented. However, many of them were basic common sense, for example, the need for communication protocols applying to the various agencies in the justice area. Why did it take this appalling tragedy to achieve progress on these recommendations? Other recommendations have not yet been completed, for example, the enhancements required to achieve better linkages between the relevant agencies’ ICT platforms. These linkages were commonsensical and have been flagged. It is imperative that, as we approach the anniversary of the death of Mr. Keegan, we ensure progress is made.

One recommendation was on the need for an interface between the Prison Service computer system, including the prisoner log, and the PULSE system operated by the Garda. This is a vital development if we are to avoid a recurrence of such an incident. Much is wrong with the PULSE system. It is in need of an upgrade and this is recognised by the Minister and in the report. Work is ongoing on the system. Although the system was lauded when introduced, it had many glitches and blind spots from the start. It had a very problematic first few years and it was difficult to adapt it to the requirements of a modern-day justice system, particularly a police service. I hope the enhancements made to the system make it more user-friendly for members of an Garda Síochána and that it is adapted to take cognisance of the new TETRA system.

One of the key concerns over this tragedy is that Mr. McDonagh was unlawfully at large. With regard to the system of temporary release, it seems the PULSE system did not have a mechanism to indicate whether a particular individual was unlawfully at large. This seems to be a very basic requirement of any such system. The failure may partly account for the fact that in excess of 500 people have absconded while on temporary release. It seems to be an incredible systems failure.

Judge Michael Reilly refers in his report to a litany of failed or flawed systems, outmoded work practices and the failure of organs of the justice family to communicate with each other, all leading to the tragic death of Mr. Keegan. The report clearly outlines that, on 22 April 2009, Mr. Martin McDonagh was sentenced to two years in prison for striking a man with a bottle. Just under a week later, he was sentenced to four years for a separate offence. He was not in court to receive the second sentence due to his serving the first sentence, although he could have been.

The additional sentence was not recorded properly by the Irish Prison Service. Had the prison authorities been aware of it, Mr. McDonagh would not have been granted temporary release on 27 November. Certain conditions were attached to his temporary release but they were not communicated to the local gardaí in Longford. One of the conditions of Mr. McDonagh’s release was that he was to sign on daily at Longford Garda station but it was not for another two weeks, or more, that Garda headquarters were informed Mr. McDonagh was unlawfully at large. It was another three days before the gardaí in Longford were informed of this. So much for e-mails, faxes, telephone calls and the PULSE system. We are present to encourage the Minister to ensure that the passage of information between various levels of the Garda and areas of the justice system can be achieved as quickly and accurately as possible. With the advent of telecommunications, this should be a lot easier than it used to be. In the case in question, this was not evident. That is why changes made to the PULSE system should be made known to the Irish Prison Service and Courts Service of Ireland to ensure all the data required are made accessible as quickly as possible to those who should have access to them.

[804]Citizens need to feel safe and it is incumbent on the justice system to uphold the right of citizens to feel safe. They have a right to feel confident about the justice system and to know it will work efficiently and effectively. This has not been the case in the circumstances in question.

While Sinn Féin has argued prison is not the solution for the problem of crime in many cases, especially given that more than eight out of ten prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent minor offences, violent offenders should serve their sentence in prison if the court deems they should be in prison. Temporary release can be a positive means of reintegrating prisoners into society but if a prisoner flagrantly disregards the conditions of his release he should be rearrested immediately. In the Longford case, it was totally unjustifiable for the conditions of release not to be notified to the gardaí. I presume this is also the case in respect of other incidents. If it were not, so many people would not have absconded while on temporary release. The Garda needs to ensure higher priority is attached to ensuring those who are unlawfully at large or who absconded on temporary release are returned to serve the remainder of their sentences. In the case in question, all the different sentences were not taken into account. The litany of errors was extremely worrying.

I welcome the report of the Inspector of Prisons. It indicates progress has been made but it is a pity it took the appalling death of Mr. Noel Keegan for changes to be made. Gabhaim comhbhrón le clann Noel Keegan. Tá súil agam nach mbeimid ar ais anseo ag déileáil le tuarisc mar seo arís agus go mbeidh na moltaí go léir atá sa tuairisc seo curtha i grích chomh tapaidh agus is féidir agus go mbeidh siad ar fáil in aon tuairisc a thiocfaidh ón Aire as seo amach.

Minister for Justice and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern): Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  I thank the Deputies for their expressions of sympathy in regard to this appalling event. When I first became aware of it, I was appalled at the way in which the system failed the Keegan family. I thank the Deputies, particularly Deputy Ó Snodaigh, who acknowledged publicly and privately the way in which this was dealt with by me once I became aware of the facts at the time in question. I thank the Opposition spokespersons for their understanding of our effort to find out what went wrong and how to cure it.

I thank Judge Michael Reilly for his report. I agree with Deputy Rabbitte that he has always produced very clear and concise reports in a very speedy fashion. I could not publish the report when I received it. My advice from the Attorney General was that there was a subsisting criminal investigation and since Mr. McDonagh was not tried at the time for the assault on Mr. Keegan, it would have endangered the proceedings to put the facts into the public domain. If Mr. McDonagh’s prior record had become known or it was publicly implied that he was responsible for the assault on Mr. Keegan, it would have jeopardised the case. It was vital that we did nothing to inhibit the trial. However, I did ask a former director general of the Department, Mr. Pat Folan, to produce an implementation report while the case was proceeding, but before we published the judge’s report. I thank Mr. Folan for the work he did with the senior officials in the various agencies to ensure procedures and protocols were put in place, or enhanced, as quickly as possible to ensure such an event would not recur in so far as that was possible.

In January, I arranged immediately to inform the Keegan family of the suspected failures. I endeavoured to explain why it was not possible to put the facts of the case into the public domain until the trial was completed. I thank the Keegan family for the very understanding way in which it has dealt with this issue. I want to thank also the local gardaí who liaised on our behalf with the Keegan family in that respect.

Copies of both Judge Reilly’s report and Mr. Folan’s report were given to the family and their legal representatives in advance of publication. The chief executive officer of the Courts [805]Service attended in Longford on Tuesday last and apologised personally to Mrs. Keegan for what happened. The gardaí have also apologised for the failures which took place.

I have already apologised on behalf of the State to the family regarding the failures of the State agencies and I do so again today. The fact that I did has already been acknowledged by the solicitor for the family.

On the issue of compensation which has been raised, it has been reported to me that a civil action may be taken by the Keegan family. I am not aware of what that claim is but obviously it is a matter for dialogue between the Keegan family’s representatives and the State’s legal representatives, and it is not appropriate that we should negotiate that matter via comments here in the Chamber.

The inspector’s report highlights areas in which systems can be improved, especially in terms of communication between the Irish Prison Service and the Garda Síochána and to that end, both parties have agreed a protocol which I have already outlined to the House.

This protocol will specifically incorporate the following: notification of prisoners’ temporary release terms and conditions to the Garda Síochána; notification of a breach of prisoners’ temporary release condition, in particular the requirement to sign on at the nominated Garda station, to the Irish Prison Service by the gardaí; the procedure to be followed in order for a prisoner who has allegedly breached his or her temporary release conditions to be deemed unlawfully at large; and notification and review of all prisoners deemed to be unlawfully at large by the Irish Prison Service to the Garda Síochána.

Reference has been made here somewhat disparagingly to the issue of temporary release. Temporary release is a method whereby prisoners can be reintegrated with society in a monitored way rather than throwing them out onto the street when they finish their sentence without any effort to reintegrate. In fairness, temporary release has been used over the decades, and I see it on a daily basis, to ensure that prisoners who have been incarcerated for long periods are given temporary release. In some instances they are monitored and in other instances, depending on the circumstances and depending on how they behaved when they were on monitored release, they would give longer terms of temporary release to allow them properly reintegrate with society, and to monitor those people during that time.

I do not accept that there is no monitoring of people on temporary release or that individuals who should remain in prison are being inappropriately released. It must be said that the prisons are in a very difficult position. I have brought forward legislative measures to try to alleviate that, particularly in respect of fines and civil debt.

It must be remembered that temporary release systems are an important vehicle for reintegrating an offender into the community in a planned way. The generally accepted view is that the risk to the community is reduced by planned reintegration of offenders compared with the return to the community literally on the completion of their full sentence. Each candidate for temporary release is examined on their own merits and obviously the safety of the public is paramount when any decision is made in that respect.

When prisoners are granted temporary release it is for a set and determinate period. In most cases this would be for a maximum of two weeks. A fresh decision to grant temporary release is required every time a person returns to prison. In cases where there are serious concerns relating to the prisoner’s behaviour the decision is then made not to grant a further period of temporary release.

Some Members have raised the issue of the ICT system. I accept it is necessary to put that interoperable ICT system among the various agencies. That will take time. That system is being developed. I would like to think it will occur sooner rather than later but when the scoping out [806]exercise in regard to that being carried out among the agencies is completed, we will have a better view on the time but these systems cannot be produced overnight. Judge Reilly makes it clear in his report that the failures occurred because there were insufficient checks and oversight arrangements in the existing system. It is important to recognise, therefore, that much of the action Judge Reilly recommended is happening already but that the processes and procedures were not formalised in detailed agreements and protocols between the relevant agencies. Those will now be implemented in that respect.

Thousands of people throughout the courts are dealt with every year, somewhere in the region of 400,000 to 500,000 cases in the District Court alone. These procedures work in the vast majority of cases but as I said earlier, no Minister can stand up in the House and say that errors will not occur in the future. What is essential is that we learn from the mistakes that took place in this particular instance and to ensure that everyone is clear about their role and that they can be accountable for what is done and not done.

I know it is of little consolation to the Keegan family but thankfully the failures that occurred in this case will make the officials and people involved in the system learn from the mistakes that were made to ensure that something like this does not happen again.

What I can say is that we can ensure there will be accountability in the future, and that what is achieved by the implementation of these recommendations will ensure that this type of incident does not happen again.

The Dáil adjourned at 2.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 14 December 2010.


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