Gardaí in Donegal tried to frame Frank McBrearty Junior for a murder that never happened. The result was the Morris Tribunal and the worst scandal ever to hit the Irish police force. This week, after almost nine years, McBrearty eventually won €1.5million from the State for what happened. Profile by Gerard Cunningham.
All Frank McBrearty Junior wanted was to build his own home for his family. “It was my dream to build my own house the way I wanted it,” he told the Morris Tribunal on his first day of evidence in 2004. He chose a site just outside the town of Raphoe in Donegal. He hoped to have it finished by Christmas 1996, and spent his days off checking with workers and buying electrical materials.
It was while he was at the site in 1996 that the gardaí called out to him to speak to him for the first time about the death of a local cattle dealer Richie Barron.
They arrived at the site along with his father, Frank McBrearty Senior (Sr). The officers wanted to know if anyone had been ejected from the Parting Glass, the McBrearty family nightclub in Raphoe, the night Barron died. Frank (Sr) had already told them his son had put someone out of the club in the early hours of the morning, although he didn’t know who it was. Frank (Jr) made a brief statement about the incident, the ejection of a local man who’d been in a row with an ex-girlfriend.
Two months later, Frank (Jr), his father, Frank (Sr), his cousin Mark McConnell and several other people were arrested for the murder of Richie Barron. This week, Frank (Jr) settled civil cases brought against the State for wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution and breach of his constitutional rights. The settlement – inevitable since the second Morris Report found that Barron died in a hit-and-run accident and every one of those arrested was completely innocent – helps bring some sort of closure to the affair.
A keen sportsman
Frank McBrearty (Jr) was born in Scotland in May 1969. His father moved back to Ireland when he was six years old, and bought a pub in Raphoe. Young Frank attended Dunmuckwell NS, the same small country school his father attended. A few years after they returned, the school was closed in a rationalisation, and Frank moved to a school in Raphoe. In his spare time he played soccer, and his father, an enthusiastic boxer, set up a local boxing club where Frank and his younger brothers trained. One man who went to school with McBrearty remembers him as a stunningly handsome youth.
He left school at 16, and went to Scotland, where he worked with an uncle. At 18, he moved to London, where he met his wife Patricia. They married when Frank was 20, and moved home to Donegal a few years later. He went back to working with his father, took up boxing again and played football with a local soccer team, and started building his new home for his young family.
All that fell apart after the Richie Barron affair. Within days of Barron’s death, Frank and his first his cousin Mark McConnell became the chief suspects in the Garda investigation, as the focus shifted from hit-and-run to murder.
Rumours of a row between McConnell and Barron in a pub earlier that night, combined with a history of ill-feeling between the two families, fuelled suspicion that the cattle-dealer’s death was more than a straightforward hit-and-run, a process memorably described by Justice Morris as “the ability of hatred to transform myth into facts.”
The arrest and ‘confession’
Frank McBrearty (Jr) was arrested for murder on 4 December 1996, two months after the fatal hit-and-run. Along with Mark McConnell and Michael Peoples, who is related to the McConnells by marriage, Charlotte Peoples, Roisin McConnell and her sisters Edel Quinn and Katrina Brolly, and three employees were later arrested as accessories after the fact. Frank (Sr) was on the list of those to be arrested on the same day, but was not picked up until the following day on suspicion of intimidating witnesses. While his son and others were questioned in Donegal, the Garda swoop missed Frank (Sr). He’d left the county early that morning for Dublin, where he met several TDs to complain about the treatment being meted out to his family.
Frank (Jr) was arrested again in February 1997, and the family points to over 100 summonses for licensing law violations at the family pub, traffic offences and other charges in the months that followed as evidence of a Garda campaign of harassment against the family.
The campaign shook Frank. In statements he described how his mind “went blank”, and he couldn’t focus. He lost interest in boxing and football, and gained weight. Before Barron’s death, he was 12 stone. Because of the stress in recent years, he now weighs over 18 stone.
In May 1997, as part of the defence to civil actions by Frank and others, Chief Supt Denis Fitzpatrick revealed to the court an alleged confession made by Frank.
According to the disputed admission made in Letterkenny Garda Station on 4 December, 1996, Frank got a phone call from his cousin Mark McConnell, who was in a row with Barron in the Town & Country pub two hours earlier. They “intended having a word with him”, so they travelled across a car park and open fields to wait for him coming up the main road. When he saw them, Barron lashed out and missed, McBrearty “hit him a slap on the head and he fell back”, and the two ran back across the field and car park in the darkness to the nightclub.
The account given in the statement does not stand up to scrutiny.
McConnell was seen by several witnesses in a pub in Raphoe until after Barron’s body was found. Frank was working all night at the nightclub, and professional forensic pathologists found that Barron died as a result of a car accident. The circumstances in which the statement was allegedly made (McBrearty vehemently denies making the admission) are the subject of a future module at the Morris Tribunal.
The fight back
As the family fought back to clear their name, it became clear the McBreartys fighting instincts weren’t confined to the boxing ring.
Frank (Sr) hired a private detective, Billy Flynn, who slowly put together the picture of what happened in Raphoe. As the numerous late drinking cases wound through the local district courts, the family engaged a senior counsel to fight the nuisance charges, using the courts to obtain discovery of garda documents.
By 1999, Dublin could no longer ignore the mess, and Assistant Commissioner Kevin Carty was sent to Donegal to investigate complaints from the family. His report – which has never been published – led to the transfer of several senior officers out of the county, and calls from the family for a public inquiry. The campaign by the family eventually led to establishment the Morris Tribunal.
Frank McBrearty (Jr) took the stand to give his evidence to the tribunal in the cramped courthouse in Donegal town in 2003.
Prematurely greying at the temples and looking older than his 36 years, he told the tribunal lawyers about what was “a normal night same as any other” at the Parting Glass the night Barron died. That afternoon he’d played a game of football with Frankie’s United, a local soccer team sponsored by the family business. He got to work at about 8.30pm. There was a lot to do, sorting out staff, checking there was sufficient stock, checking the toilets were clean, the nitty-gritty of running a successful nightclub. Frank took a pride in his work. “I know everything that goes on in the nightclub,” he told the tribunal. “I’m in that business since I’m ten years old.”
The business also suffered because of the controversy, and the mounting legal costs of the fight to clear their names became a matter of concern for the family. Unable to obtain guarantees on their legal costs despite an appeal to the High Court, the family eventually withdrew their legal team from the tribunal.
Despite this, Frank McBrearty and Mark McConnell attended the tribunal hearings daily, cross-examining garda witnesses on their evidence. Frank’s combative style in particular was a cause of friction during the procedures, and led to several clashes with the chairman, retired High Court president Mr Justice Frederick Morris, over some of the questions Frank put to witnesses. On the last day of evidence in December of last year, Frank told the chairman “with great regret” that he was leaving the tribunal to return to Donegal and consult with his family.
In a submission to the Tribunal, he criticised Justice Minister Michael McDowell TD for depriving his family of legal aid, while allowing legal assistance to “garda officers who framed me for murder”, as well as Gardai who had destroyed his family business and covered up. “My family is sick and tired of listening to legal weasel words from the Dublin legal political establishment,” he told the inquiry.
Frank has not returned to the Tribunal since then, although Mark McConnell remained on until it completed its inquiry into the garda handling of the Barron investigation. The report clearing their names was published in June of this year, and both men attended the Dáil debate on its findings before the summer recess. Watching from the public gallery, Frank walked out as McDowell made his closing remarks in the debate.