Friday, 10 December 2010
Handling of Criminal Matter in Longford: Statements
James Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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 a 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 Sinead, 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 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.