Dáil debates

Friday, 10 December 2010

Handling of Criminal Matter in Longford: Statements


1:00 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)

Mar aon le Teachtaí eile, ba mhaith liom comhbhrón ó chroí a leathadh le Marie Keegan, a clann ar fad, a cáirde, a comharsana agus dóibh siúd uilig a raibh aithne acu ar Noel Keegan, fear céile, mac, athair agus cara nár cóir a bheith marbh. Fuair sé bás de thairbhe ionsaí marfach a rinne Martin McDonagh air, oíche an 31 Nollaig, am a bhíonn daoine ag ceiliúradh agus am a ba chóir go mbeadh áthas ar chuile duine. Sa chás seo áfach, ní mar sin a bhí sé. Ceann de na fáthanna go bhfuil muid ag déileáil le seo ná go bhfuair Noel bás de thairbhe teip iomlán an chórais dlí agus cirt, teip a d'fhág Martin McDonagh saor in ainneoin gur cóir dó a bheith i bpriosún. Tá sé ceart go bhfuil muid anseo inniu ag gabháil comhbhróin. Chomh maith le sin, tá sé ceart go bhfuil muid anseo ag déanamh cinnte de, más féidir sin a dhéanamh in aon chor, nach dtarlóidh a leithéid de rud riamh arís.

The Minister for Justice and Law Reform has expressed his sympathy with the Keegan family over the shocking failure that led to Martin McDonagh's perpetration of an assault on Noel Keegan on New Year's Eve in 2009. It was a time when McDonagh should have been behind bars in Castlerea Prison on foot of a four-year sentence for stabbing a man in the leg with a pitchfork. I thank the Minister for the briefing he provided on this case early this year. I also thank Judge Reilly, who put this report together rapidly compared to other reports. He has done a tremendous job in isolating the changes and faults that need to be addressed in the shortest possible time. I recognise that some changes have already been completed and urge that the other recommendations contained in the report be addressed as quickly as humanly possible to ensure there is no repeat of such an incident.

The report published this week is a damning indictment of the communication systems between the Courts Service, the Prison Service, the probation service and An Garda Síochána. The report also found failures in the process and procedures in the issuing of warrants, as well as failures in the process and procedures in the notification of the temporary release of prisoners. I understand the Keegan family plans to sue the State. Clearly, the family has suffered greatly at the State's hands. More than a full apology from the Minister on behalf of the State, what is required is that the family of Noel Keegan should not need to go through the further trauma of court proceedings. The Minister should ensure that arrangements are made to compensate the family adequately without its members needing to bring the State before the courts. Such action should be done forthwith.

From reading the report of the implementation group, I understand that many of the recommendations have already been implemented. However, many of them were basic common sense, for example, the need for communication protocols applying to the various agencies in the justice area. Why did it take this appalling tragedy to achieve progress on these recommendations? Other recommendations have not yet been completed, for example, the enhancements required to achieve better linkages between the relevant agencies' ICT platforms. These linkages were commonsensical and have been flagged. It is imperative that, as we approach the anniversary of the death of Mr. Keegan, we ensure progress is made.

One recommendation was on the need for an interface between the Prison Service computer system, including the prisoner log, and the PULSE system operated by the Garda. This is a vital development if we are to avoid a recurrence of such an incident. Much is wrong with the PULSE system. It is in need of an upgrade and this is recognised by the Minister and in the report. Work is ongoing on the system. Although the system was lauded when introduced, it had many glitches and blind spots from the start. It had a very problematic first few years and it was difficult to adapt it to the requirements of a modern-day justice system, particularly a police service. I hope the enhancements made to the system make it more user-friendly for members of an Garda Síochána and that it is adapted to take cognisance of the new TETRA system.

One of the key concerns over this tragedy is that Mr. McDonagh was unlawfully at large. With regard to the system of temporary release, it seems the PULSE system did not have a mechanism to indicate whether a particular individual was unlawfully at large. This seems to be a very basic requirement of any such system. The failure may partly account for the fact that in excess of 500 people have absconded while on temporary release. It seems to be an incredible systems failure.

Judge Michael Reilly refers in his report to a litany of failed or flawed systems, outmoded work practices and the failure of organs of the justice family to communicate with each other, all leading to the tragic death of Mr. Keegan. The report clearly outlines that, on 22 April 2009, Mr. Martin McDonagh was sentenced to two years in prison for striking a man with a bottle. Just under a week later, he was sentenced to four years for a separate offence. He was not in court to receive the second sentence due to his serving the first sentence, although he could have been.

The additional sentence was not recorded properly by the Irish Prison Service. Had the prison authorities been aware of it, Mr. McDonagh would not have been granted temporary release on 27 November. Certain conditions were attached to his temporary release but they were not communicated to the local gardaí in Longford. One of the conditions of Mr. McDonagh's release was that he was to sign on daily at Longford Garda station but it was not for another two weeks, or more, that Garda headquarters were informed Mr. McDonagh was unlawfully at large. It was another three days before the gardaí in Longford were informed of this. So much for e-mails, faxes, telephone calls and the PULSE system. We are present to encourage the Minister to ensure that the passage of information between various levels of An Garda and areas of the justice system can be achieved as quickly and accurately as possible. With the advent of telecommunications, this should be a lot easier than it used to be. In the case in question, this was not evident. That is why changes made to the PULSE system should be made known to the Irish Prison Service and Courts Service of Ireland to ensure all the data required are made accessible as quickly as possible to those who should have access to them.

Citizens need to feel safe and it is incumbent on the justice system to uphold the right of citizens to feel safe. They have a right to feel confident about the justice system and to know it will work efficiently and effectively. This has not been the case in the circumstances in question.

While Sinn Féin has argued prison is not the solution for the problem of crime in many cases, especially given that more than eight out of ten prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent minor offences, violent offenders should serve their sentence in prison if the court deems they should be in prison. Temporary release can be a positive means of reintegrating prisoners into society but if a prisoner flagrantly disregards the conditions of his release he should be rearrested immediately. In the Longford case, it was totally unjustifiable for the conditions of release not to be notified to the gardaí. I presume this is also the case in respect of other incidents. If it were not, so many people would not have absconded while on temporary release. An Garda needs to ensure higher priority is attached to ensuring those who are unlawfully at large or who absconded on temporary release are returned to serve the remainder of their sentences. In the case in question, all the different sentences were not taken into account. The litany of errors was extremely worrying.

I welcome the report of the Inspector of Prisons. It indicates progress has been made but it is a pity it took the appalling death of Mr. Noel Keegan for changes to be made. Gabhaim comhbhrón le clann Noel Keegan. Tá súil agam nach mbeimid ar ais anseo ag déileáil le tuarisc mar seo arís agus go mbeidh na moltaí go léir atá sa tuairisc seo curtha i grích chomh tapaidh agus is féidir agus go mbeidh siad ar fáil in aon tuairisc a thiocfaidh ón Aire as seo amach.


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