Mark McConnell was falsely arrested, beaten and abused by Donegal gardaí. At the Morris Tribunal, McConnell represented himself, cross-examining gardaí with the fluency of a senior counsel and earning praise from the judge. Now he is taking a civil case against the Garda Síochána for wrongful arrest. He speaks to Gerard Cunningham.
Mark McConnell was arrested twice for the murder of Richie Barron, and a third time after a false claim that he threatened a witness in a licensing case against the McBrearty family’s nightclub.
He recalls the first arrest, on 4 December 1996, a month after the death of Richie Barron:
“The first time, Roisin (McConnell’s wife) had headed off to work, and I was at home watching Dean (their son), he was just one and a half years old at the time. We were still in bed and the knock came to the front door. The first thing I thought was something had happened with Roisin.
“I went to the front door and met Garda John O’Dowd. He put his hand on my shoulder, and told me he was arresting me for the murder of Richie Barron. I went weak at the knees. I was standing just in my night clothes, the child standing behind me as this was all happening.”
“In the meantime, Roisin’s sister Edel came out to tell me Roisin had been arrested. Edel was arrested too. We left the child off at my mothers, then we were taken to Letterkenny. I think I was read my rights, I was still in a severe state of shock.”
While in custody, McConnell says, he was verbally and physically abused. He was called “a big fat murdering bastard” and “pushed and hauled”. At one stage a detective told him to look at post mortem photographs of the late Richie Barron. McConnell refused.
“Eventually he (the detective) got frustrated with me. He reached for my hair, and pulled my head towards the photographs. I still tried to keep away from them, but he kept pushing my head down into the photographs and telling me to ‘fucking look at what you’ve done’.”
Then a senior officer came in. He “slapped down a four or five page document in front of me with a smirk on his face”, McConnell recalls.
“He said ‘that’s a confession there to the murder of Richie Barron from Frank McBrearty Jnr and he’s implicating you’.”
The detective then read the “confession” out to McConnell.
“I remember vividly the opening line. It was, ‘I Frank McBrearty Jnr am showing remorse for what I have done’. I remember thinking, there’s no way Frank would even use them kind of words. That wasn’t his vocabulary.”
“At the end of it, after four to five pages, was a signature. I knew for a fact it wasn’t young Frank’s signature at the bottom of the bit of paper, he had a funny way of signing his name.”
“Young Frank was released shortly after me. They’d done the exact same thing with him, they came in with a statement supposedly from myself. Young Frank came out and said to me, ‘Mark, don’t believe anything them bastards said to you in there’, and he stormed off.”
McConnell’s wife, Roisin, reacted badly to her arrest and the pressure on the family.
“I saw Roisin going slowly downhill then from the day we were released, until she ended up being admitted into the psychiatric ward, where she stayed for nearly three months. She didn’t know anybody, she was completely out of it. She didn’t even know her child.”
Mark McConnell and the others arrested brought wrongful arrest suits against the Garda Síochána. In May 1997, as part of the defence in this civil action, Chief Supt Denis Fitzpatrick produced the alleged confession of Frank McBrearty Jnr in court.
On 29 June 1997, McConnell was re-arrested by John Nicholson, a Sligo garda, and questioned about the contents of the confession. McConnell recalls the background to this second arrest:
“Roisin’s sisters clubbed together to get her a holiday, the pressure was getting that bad, between the local vigilantes and the guards. The day before she was due back, the guards stopped me. They told me they were arresting me again on foot of new information.
“It was a lot calmer than the first arrest. They told me my name was in this confession (by Frank McBrearty Jnr), and they wanted to question me. The worst thing was that they threatened that I was going to be assaulted or killed by the Barron family and there would be no Garda protection. They were using verbal stuff, you know, psychological stuff towards me.
“They told me they were prepared to offer me a deal if I would sink young Frank. I told them they could clear off, there was no way I was going to sink an innocent man.
McConnell was assaulted twice after his second arrest, suffering a broken leg.
He was arrested for a third time on 1 October 1998, as he went to a court hearing about the first assault.
Bernard Conlon, a witness in a licensing case against the McBrearty nightclub, had identified McConnell as one of two men who had threatened him some months previously by showing him a silver bullet.
“I couldn’t believe it”, says McConnell.
“I tried to say to them, have you any idea what you are doing to our family, arresting us on false charges. They took me to the station, they asked me about my whereabouts. Because there was such a timespan between the incident and my arrest, I could not pinpoint where I was.”
When he was being taken to his cell for the night, McConnell says, he met a detective in the hallway.
“He had a large gun sticking out of the back of his trousers. He looked at me and smiled and looked at the gun. That night in the cell, every noise I heard I thought it was him. I was shitting myself. I thought the bastard was going to pin me.”
“I was put into the cells again a second night, and in fairness, the custody guard was very good to me. He brought me in my meals and sat and spoke to me, and talking about something else took away from having to listen to what everyone else was saying. He just talked normally to me, talked about general things.”
“He told me, if you’re telling the truth you have nothing to worry about. He was the only decent guard in that station, to tell you the truth.”