Dáil debates

Friday, 10 December 2010

Handling of Criminal Matter in Longford: Statements

 

1:00 pm

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)

I thank the Deputies for their expressions of sympathy in regard to this appalling event. When I first became aware of it, I was appalled at the way in which the system failed the Keegan family. I thank the Deputies, particularly Deputy Ó Snodaigh, who acknowledged publicly and privately the way in which this was dealt with by me once I became aware of the facts at the time in question. I thank the Opposition spokespersons for their understanding of our effort to find out what went wrong and how to cure it.

I thank Judge Michael Reilly for his report. I agree with Deputy Rabbitte that he has always produced very clear and concise reports in a very speedy fashion. I could not publish the report when I received it. My advice from the Attorney General was that there was a subsisting criminal investigation and since Mr. McDonagh was not tried at the time for the assault on Mr. Keegan, it would have endangered the proceedings to put the facts into the public domain. If Mr. McDonagh's prior record had become known or it was publicly implied that he was responsible for the assault on Mr. Keegan, it would have jeopardised the case. It was vital that we did nothing to inhibit the trial. However, I did ask a former director general of the Department, Mr. Pat Folan, to produce an implementation report while the case was proceeding, but before we published the judge's report. I thank Mr. Folan for the work he did with the senior officials in the various agencies to ensure procedures and protocols were put in place, or enhanced, as quickly as possible to ensure such an event would not recur in so far as that was possible.

In January, I arranged immediately to inform the Keegan family of the suspected failures. I endeavoured to explain why it was not possible to put the facts of the case into the public domain until the trial was completed. I thank the Keegan family for the very understanding way in which it has dealt with this issue. I want to thank also the local gardaí who liaised on our behalf with the Keegan family in that respect.

Copies of both Judge Reilly's report and Mr. Folan's report were given to the family and their legal representatives in advance of publication. The chief executive officer of the Courts Service attended in Longford on Tuesday last and apologised personally to Mrs. Keegan for what happened. The gardaí have also apologised for the failures which took place.

I have already apologised on behalf of the State to the family regarding the failures of the State agencies and I do so again today. The fact that I did has already been acknowledged by the solicitor for the family.

On the issue of compensation which has been raised, it has been reported to me that a civil action may be taken by the Keegan family. I am not aware of what that claim is but obviously it is a matter for dialogue between the Keegan family's representatives and the State's legal representatives, and it is not appropriate that we should negotiate that matter via comments here in the Chamber.

The inspector's report highlights areas in which systems can be improved, especially in terms of communication between the Irish Prison Service and the Garda Síochána and to that end, both parties have agreed a protocol which I have already outlined to the House.

This protocol will specifically incorporate the following: notification of prisoners' temporary release terms and conditions to the Garda Síochána; notification of a breach of prisoners' temporary release condition, in particular the requirement to sign on at the nominated Garda station, to the Irish Prison Service by the gardaí; the procedure to be followed in order for a prisoner who has allegedly breached his or her temporary release conditions to be deemed unlawfully at large; and notification and review of all prisoners deemed to be unlawfully at large by the Irish Prison Service to the Garda Síochána.

Reference has been made here somewhat disparagingly to the issue of temporary release. Temporary release is a method whereby prisoners can be reintegrated with society in a monitored way rather than throwing them out onto the street when they finish their sentence without any effort to reintegrate. In fairness, temporary release has been used over the decades, and I see it on a daily basis, to ensure that prisoners who have been incarcerated for long periods are given temporary release. In some instances they are monitored and in other instances, depending on the circumstances and depending on how they behaved when they were on monitored release, they would give longer terms of temporary release to allow them properly reintegrate with society, and to monitor those people during that time.

I do not accept that there is no monitoring of people on temporary release or that individuals who should remain in prison are being inappropriately released. It must be said that the prisons are in a very difficult position. I have brought forward legislative measures to try to alleviate that, particularly in respect of fines and civil debt.

It must be remembered that temporary release systems are an important vehicle for reintegrating an offender into the community in a planned way. The generally accepted view is that the risk to the community is reduced by planned reintegration of offenders compared with the return to the community literally on the completion of their full sentence. Each candidate for temporary release is examined on their own merits and obviously the safety of the public is paramount when any decision is made in that respect.

When prisoners are granted temporary release it is for a set and determinate period. In most cases this would be for a maximum of two weeks. A fresh decision to grant temporary release is required every time a person returns to prison. In cases where there are serious concerns relating to the prisoner's behaviour the decision is then made not to grant a further period of temporary release.

Some Members have raised the issue of the ICT system. I accept it is necessary to put that interoperable ICT system among the various agencies. That will take time. That system is being developed. I would like to think it will occur sooner rather than later but when the scoping out exercise in regard to that being carried out among the agencies is completed, we will have a better view on the time but these systems cannot be produced overnight. Judge Reilly makes it clear in his report that the failures occurred because there were insufficient checks and oversight arrangements in the existing system. It is important to recognise, therefore, that much of the action Judge Reilly recommended is happening already but that the processes and procedures were not formalised in detailed agreements and protocols between the relevant agencies. Those will now be implemented in that respect.

Thousands of people throughout the courts are dealt with every year, somewhere in the region of 400,000 to 500,000 cases in the District Court alone. These procedures work in the vast majority of cases but as I said earlier, no Minister can stand up in the House and say that errors will not occur in the future. What is essential is that we learn from the mistakes that took place in this particular instance and to ensure that everyone is clear about their role and that they can be accountable for what is done and not done.

I know it is of little consolation to the Keegan family but thankfully the failures that occurred in this case will make the officials and people involved in the system learn from the mistakes that were made to ensure that something like this does not happen again.

What I can say is that we can ensure there will be accountability in the future, and that what is achieved by the implementation of these recommendations will ensure that this type of incident does not happen again.

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