The Ridiculous & The Sublime

Village magazine

Gerard Cunningham reports on the bizarre happenings at the Morris Tribunal: the witnesses and the evidence.

Justice Frederick Morris was appointed to head the inquiry into allegations of corrupt activity by some gardaí in Donegal in February 2002. Since then, a succession of bizarre, disturbing and occasionally comical events have emerged. Although there are to be at least 10 modules in the Tribunal, a large amount of ground has been covered already, relating to the two most significant areas of the activities of the Donegal Garda.

The first module covered bogus explosives and arms finds in the Donegal area by gardaí. It lead to Superintendent Kevin Lennon and Garda Noel McMahon being branded corrupt.

Central to the explosives finds was alleged IRA ‘informer’ Adrienne McGlinchey. She is now known to have no IRA links, and was used by certain gardai to help them ‘discover’ weapons and bomb-making equipment.

The second module – currently under way – covers the death of cattle dealer Richie Barron in Raphoe in 1996, and the subsequent Garda investigation which lead to Frank McBrearty Jnr and Mark McConnell becoming murder suspects.

Garda misbehaviour, the alleged harassment of suspects, and the alleged planting of weapons on a Traveller’s halting sight in Burnfoot, Co Donegal, are among the issues to be investigated by the Morris Tribunal in its remaining modules.

In addition, how the Garda Complaints Board dealt with the grievances put to it in relation to certain Donegal gardaí, and the anonymous allegations that lead to the establishment of the Tribunal, will be looked at.

Richie Barron died in the early hours of 14 October 1996. Reports from former State Pathologist Dr John Harbison and the then Assistant State Pathologist, Dr Marie Cassidy, and a joint report by two British forensic pathologists indicate a “very, very strong probability that Mr Barron died, not as a result of an assault, but as a result of an impact with the road caused as a result of a collision with a motor vehicle”.

Gardaí investigating Mr Barron’s death did not have the benefit of these expert opinions. No forensic examination was carried out until the dead man’s remains were exhumed in 2002. At the time, the only medical report available was conducted by Dr David Barry, a consultant pathologist with the North Western Health Board.

Compounding the lack of evidence was the failure to preserve the scene, which was cleaned the morning after the death by well-meaning neighbours concerned that spilt blood would upset children on their way to school.

Four gardaí attended the scene, though they did not arrive until after Mr Barron’s remains were removed to Letterkenny hospital.

John Birney and James McDwyer were sent from Lifford after Letterkenny communications centre failed to raise local Garda Padraig Mulligan on the radio. Garda Mulligan and his colleague, John O’Dowd, who was off-duty at the time, have admitted they were in a pub in Lifford earlier in the evening.

Within days, the inquiry shifted from a hit- and-run to a murder inquiry. William Doherty, a local petty thief and informer, told Garda O’Dowd he heard rumours that Mr Barron had been murdered. O’Dowd passed the information to Chief Superintendent Denis Fitzpatrick, bypassing the chain of command.

There was “a history” between the Barron and McBrearty families, and people at the wake house were speculating that Mr Barron was murdered, Doherty reported. However, it seems there was also “a history” between the McBreartys and Doherty. However, the informer denied he was involved in a conspiracy to frame the McBreartys

In his evidence, Doherty said Garda O’Dowd “wanted the final piece of the jigsaw, someone to place Frank McBrearty and [his cousin] Mark McConnell at the scene of the crime.”

Doherty said he told Garda O’Dowd that Noel McBride, another small-time thief, “was the only person around here stupid enough to do that”.

“It was Garda O’Dowd from the outset,” Doherty said. “Garda O’Dowd was manipulating both of us.”

Noel McBride’s statement in November 1996 placed Mark McConnell and Frank McBrearty jnr close to where Mr Barron was found. When he retracted his statements almost a year later, McBride told gardaí he had been “put up to it” by Doherty.

Damaging statements by other witnesses about the two men’s movements have also been withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Richie Barron’s son, Stephen, told the Tribunal in July that he feels the McBreartys had something to do with his father’s death.

Vincent Barron, brother of Richie Barron. said he was told by a morgue assistant that his brother’s injuries were not from a car accident, and nothing had happened since to change his mind. “I have no doubt I’m 100 per cent right,” he told the Tribunal.

Unnoticed in most commentary on the interim report of Mr Justice Frederick Morris into Donegal garda corruption is a recommendation to subject Crime & Security, the national intelligence gathering section of the Garda, to external oversight for the first time.

Crime & Security (formerly C3), the Garda anti-terrorist unit, is criticised for negligence for its failure to investigate Adrienne McGlinchey and her Garda handlers, in particular after a bizarre trip to New York, presented as a shopping expedition for sophisticated weaponry.

Justice Morris excused Crime & Security’s ignorance of earlier bogus explosives finds by Donegal gardaí, since they were deliberately kept in the dark by Detective Noel McMahon and Superintendent Kevin Lennon. However, the New York trip involved not only Crime & Security but the FBI.

“The activities of Adrienne McGlinchey and Yvonne Devine were monitored in the United States,” the judge reported. Devine is a niece of IRA member Pearse McAuley, currently in jail for his part in the killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe in Adare, Co Limerick, in 1996. Lennon and McMahon used her family connections to violent republicanism to boost McGlinchey’s image as a top Provo source.

“Everything they did in that country was not suggestive of any serious intent to pursue a terrorist plan,” the judge concluded. “They dressed as leprechauns. Having brought with them a number of pieces of turf from their native county, they packaged these into parcels of some kind and proceeded to sell them as ‘pieces of the ould sod’.”

“Any security agency that might have had any dealing with them would very quickly have concluded that their activity was either an extraordinary diversion or was inconsistent with the actions of persons intent on terrorism.”

By the time of the trip, four months into the 1994 ceasefire, McGlinchey had been on Garda radar for several years. But Crime & Security seemed to be unaware of the identity of the IRA mole apparently leading gardaí to huge explosives finds in Donegal.

There was no obligation on any garda to report the identity of a source to HQ. McGlinchey was never properly debriefed after finds, or evaluated by management.

“If even one event had been properly looked at by senior management, this hoax would have been uncovered,” Morris concluded. Instead, Lennon and McMahon operated in the confidence they would not be investigated, keeping Crime & Security “in the dark”.

Crime & Security have introduced new informer-handling measures, but the judge said there was “a great deal of foot dragging” in applying the new policy. He recommended an “independent outside audit” of the new policy, and “a periodic independent audit of the operation of the informant handling procedure.”

“Provision should be made for an outside authority, perhaps the proposed Ombudsman, to be involved,” he wrote. The auditor should have the power to inspect documents at Garda HQ or visit any Garda station to carry out their task. Morris also recommended compulsory registration of informants.

The Garda Commissioner has set up a working group to look at the recommendations in the Morris report. but has not yet commented on the proposal for outside supervision of the State’s anti-terrorist service. The report is “under consideration,” a Department of Justice spokesperson said when contacted.

The Morris Tribunal now looks unlikely to finish its work by the September 2006 deadline set by the government.

Justice Morris has already spent several months looking into the death of Raphoe cattle dealer Richie Barron – which British and Irish experts last year said was most likely a hit and run – and the garda investigation that followed, during which Frank McBrearty jnr and his cousin, Mark McConnell, became murder suspects.

Key questions will include why gardaí failed to preserve the spot where Mr Barron was found, losing of vital evidence, and why no forensic pathologist was called.

Included in the module is a separate term of reference, concerning extortion phone calls made to Michael and Charlotte Peoples, less than a month after Mr Barron died. Mr Peoples said he was instructed by gardaí to play along with the caller, who accused him of murder and demanded money.

People taped one of the calls, and went to a local pub as instructed to find out the caller’s identity, but recognised no-one there. The following day, he made a statement to gardaí and handed over the tape.

The case against the McBreartys and others began to collapse when private detective Billy Flynn discovered the blackmail calls were made from the homes of a petty thief, William Doherty, and local garda John O’Dowd. In a dramatic statement last month, O’Dowd admitted knowing Doherty made a call from his home, following which he “panicked.”

O’Dowd alleged he told Supt Kevin Lennon about the calls within days, and later informed Chief Supt Denis Fitzpatrick. He said he was advised by Lennon to say nothing to internal Garda investigators, and alleges that Det Sgt John White wrote one of his statements.

Garda O’Dowd was off duty when Mr Barron died, and has admitted he was drinking in a pub that night with Garda Patrick Mulligan, who was on duty. Both attended the scene of Mr Barron’s death.