Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Human Rights Investigations

10:30 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Coghlan for his brevity. The next matter for discussion, in the name of Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, has been long outstanding.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this issue for discussion. It is a sensitive matter that dates back to 17 May 1973, when a young man of 24 years of age, Michael Leonard, was fatally wounded by an RUC officer travelling close to the Border in County Donegal.I thank my friend and colleague, Councillor Michael Naughton, for raising this matter with me. I acknowledge the search for justice by the Leonard family since 1973. They have been trying to unearth the truth since the evening Michael Leonard was shot dead just before 6 p.m. He was travelling alone in a car close to the Border and the RUC opened fire on him. An inquest was held a number of months shortly afterwards but none of the three police officers who was travelling in the Land Rover that evening was present. There was no cross-examination, therefore, of the facts as they were presented. An RUC inspector gave evidence to the coroner. However, the inquest was riddled with holes and the RUC on at least three occasions changed the details of the story concerning the unlawful murder of Michael Leonard.

This is a matter that essentially requires truth in order that the family can finally lay this matter to rest. They are not willing to do that, and rightly so. I fully support them in their endeavour to find truth and justice for the killing of this young man, who was engaged at the time, in 1973. A charity organisation in the North, known as Paper Trail, helped victims of crime, in particular those who were victims of crimes by the security forces during the Troubles. A great man, Mr. Ciarán MacAirt, has carried out research and investigations together with a cousin of Michael Leonard, Fr. Joe McVeigh. Over the years, he has unearthed research from the British authorities that clearly confirms there was collusion at the heart of the case. It is a fact that the RUC changed its story a number of times to make sure that the truth surrounding the murder never made it to the light of day. That is wrong.

I understand the Government intervened in late 1973-early 1974 and thereafter, seeking to have the truth made available. However, that never happened. There were all sorts of allegations that Michael Leonard was connected with the IRA at the time, that his father was a member of the IRA. That was complete rubbish; there was nothing like that. On that evening the RUC deliberately shot this young man. One of the stories afterwards was that there was one shot fired and another was that the shots were fired over the car, but the truth is that there were at least three shots fired on that evening. There is written evidence to back that up.

There are other cases in the North of Ireland as well where truth and reconciliation is needed to allow the truth to emerge and families to move on. It is difficult to move on when the truth is not made available. The current Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Mr. John Larkin, said that the killing was not justified. He referred the matter to the Public Prosecutions Service to review whether the police should be prosecuted before he would consider the request for a new inquest. There is a requirement for a new inquest. There is also a full requirement to call on the British authorities to release some of the information. I call on the Government and, in particular, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to make a request of the British authorities to execute a fresh and transparent inquiry at which new evidence from the British Ministry of Defence records can be considered in respect of any findings regarding the murder of Michael Leonard; undertake an immediate criminal investigation in conjunction with the British authorities, to be overseen by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland; and ensure at a diplomatic level that the British Government fully co-operates with such an inquiry. This is about finding truth and justice.

The Leonard family, who live in Pettigo, County Donegal deserves to know the truth. While the truth goes unheard, the results of that botched inquest in 1973 remain the word of the British State. That is wrong. This man did nothing wrong. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I am pleased to provide a response on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, who is unavoidably detained, as Members can well imagine.

Our thoughts are with Michael Leonard's family at this time. The finding of deeply concerning new information regarding the circumstances of Mr. Leonard's fatal shooting by an RUC officer on the Fermanagh-Donegal border in 1973, can only have compounded the enduring pain of his family at his loss, at the age of just 24 years. His family, more than 46 years later, are left now with the most serious questions as to the circumstances of his death and about the subsequent police investigation and the due process of law, which is their right under Article 2 of the Convention on Human Rights.

The Government understands that the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is actively considering the case, further to a referral by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. The Government is also aware that a complaint has been made to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland about the investigation of the fatal shooting of Mr. Leonard and that the ombudsman is assessing whether it is a matter that can be investigated by that office. The PSNI is also seized of this case and has stated that it not in a position to comment at this stage.

It is essential that nothing is said in this House that could prejudice these ongoing processes, which are of the utmost interest for Michael Leonard's family. I thank Senators for their understanding in this respect today.

I commend the work of Mr. Leonard's cousin, Fr. Joe McVeigh, and Mr. Ciarán MacAirt of Paper Trail, who brought to light the deeply concerning information held in the UK Ministry of Defence regarding Mr. Leonard's case, which has prompted the reviews by the Public Prosecution Service and the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland.

The Government will continue to closely monitor the progress of this case, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is available to be in contact with Mr. Leonard's family to discuss with them concerns they may have, as the reviews in Northern Ireland proceed. The Government, of course, expects the British authorities would co-operate fully with any further process of investigation that may follow in the investigation of this case, and, again, will monitor progress closely, in consultation with the family. The Government will also continue to engage with the British Government to seek urgent progress on legislation to implement the framework for dealing with the past provided for under the Stormont House Agreement of 2014.

Victims' families from all communities have had to wait for far too long for appropriate and effective mechanisms to fully investigate outstanding deaths from the Troubles. The framework of the Stormont House Agreement is long overdue and urgently needed in Northern Ireland, and the Government will continue to work to achieve this.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I acknowledge the position of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and very much welcome the sentiment expressed in the response. I agree with the Minister of State that, given the political impasse in the North at present, the Stormont House Agreement is an issue that needs to be addressed by all parties in the North. That in itself is a reason for the Executive to come together in the North of Ireland.

Will he relay to the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade a request that they reach out again to Mr. MacAirt and Fr. McVeigh and to extend that point of contact, which would be so useful to victim's families, not just the Leonards but other families? Could there be a dedicated point of contact with the Department where people could follow up directly on issues such as this?

I welcome the Minister of State's comments and look forward to engaging further with him and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on this matter until such time as the truth is made available.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I have taken into account the points raised by the Senator. I will convey them to the Tánaiste and his Department for further consideration. He has directed that his Department be available to discuss with the family of the late Mr. Leonard, the concerns they may have as the reviews of the case proceed in Northern Ireland, which will be closely monitored by the Government.The family of Michael Leonard remain in our thoughts as they await the outcome of these reviews, which will be so difficult and painful to them and compounded by the decades that have passed since his death.

More broadly, comprehensive progress on legacy issues from the Troubles is crucial to meet the legitimate needs and expectations of victims and survivors from all communities and to contribute to broader societal reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process. It is incumbent on the British Government to set out a clear way forward for legislation to establish the legacy framework of the Stormont House Agreement. The Government will continue to engage with the British Government in support of that consistent with our role and responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.