Friday, 10 December 2010
Handling of Criminal Matter in Longford: Statements
Alan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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 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 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.
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.