Coercion, confessions, and the garda code of silence

Older Dubliners will tell you that we never had anything like the street violence we see today when Lugs Brannigan was around; those whose historical glasses have lost the rose tint, however, remember the running street battles involving the ‘animal gangs’ of the 1930s and ‘40s, and the ‘Teddy Boys’ of the ‘50s (though admittedly they didn’t have guns, just knives, hatchets, bicycle chains, iron bars, knuckle dusters, and the rest). The legendary garda’s method of policing apparently consisted largely in a clip around the ear or a kick up the arse and that was enough to keep Dublin safe. Or as Mr Justice Paul Carney, a senior High Court Judge, put it in his inaugural Professorial Lecture at NUI Maynooth: ‘Had his unit, known as Prevention and Detection of Street Nuisances, been continued rather than disbanded on his retirement, I suspect that the streets of Dublin would be considerably safer than they are now.’

Nowadays, in more politically correct times, he would probably be abolished by the Garda Ombudsman Commission, and possibly also prosecuted. . . . I am dealing primarily with my experiences in trials on indictment, which evolved from a situation in my early days where there was an attack on Garda behaviour in virtually every case, to a situation in which there is now virtually no criticism of garda conduct in my court.

It could just be me, but I find Justice Carney’s nostalgia for Garda abuse of prisoners very worrying—and not a little disingenuous: a 1977 Amnesty International report looked at 28 cases involving evidence-backed allegations of wrongdoing by members of the gardaí and found that

the names of certain Garda members appeared repeatedly in cases where they were dispatched from Dublin to serious crime investigations nationwide and where confessions were then secured.

The abuses ranged from pushing and shoving to severe beatings, and food and water deprivation. ( here)

Barry O’Halloran points out in his book, Lost Innocence, that throughout the seventies the so-called Heavy Gang—officially known as the Investigating Section of the Technical Bureau or the Murder Squad—‘had come to rely more and more on signed confessions as the sole basis for getting convictions’.

Court trials became swearing matches, with the accused claiming that the statements had been beaten out of them, or concocted by the gardaí, and the gardaí counter-claiming that the statements had been given freely and voluntarily by the accused.

A result is a result

The ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and noughties saw a number of garda scandals involving the alleged coercion of confessions in high-profile garda investigations: the five cases I highlight in this series generated between them three Public Tribunals, two Commissions of Investigation, an internal Garda investigation (the Byrne-McGinn inquiry), and a commissioned report that was later removed from the Government website.[1] These investigations proved what most of us already strongly suspected—that there was a structural problem within the Garda Síochána. In case after case, the gardaí seemed more intent on prosecuting specific suspects—even when those cases were clearly wrongheaded—than they were on finding the actual perpetrator. A result is a result.[2]

Following the Sallins train robbery in 1976, five members of the IRSP (Irish Republican Socialist Party) were arrested and all but one signed confessions during garda interrogation. All later claimed the confessions were false and all had injuries they said were inflicted by gardaí in the course of the ‘interrogation’. They were all, nevertheless, convicted by a non-jury Special Criminal Court on charges for which the IRA later claimed responsibility; in May 1980 those convictions were quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. The case remains unresolved and no further convictions have been sought.

In an Orwellian 1984, a more or less randomly chosen woman was accused of killing a baby that had washed up on a beach at Cahirciveen in Co. Kerry, badly beaten and repeatedly stabbed. Aggressive garda interrogations produced confessions—containing details known only to the gardaí at the time—from the accused woman and members of her family that were contradicted by forensic and other evidence. From the beginning, the legitimacy of these confessions was in question. Even after it was established that the accused woman had no connection with the baby whose murder was being investigated, gardaí continued to attempt a prosecution that came to resemble a ‘Monty Python’ sketch rather than an evidence-based investigation. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) declined to prosecute and a Public Tribunal of Enquiry was established to investigate the actions of the gardaí in obtaining those confessions.

Other than a scandalous determination to convict an innocent woman in the face of an overwhelming lack of evidence, no attempt was made to find the person responsible for the assault and murder of the baby found on Cahirciveen beach. The so-called ‘Kerry babies’ case remains unsolved today.

On 6 March 1997, Sylvia Shields and Mary Callinan, patients at St Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital in Grangegorman, Dublin, were murdered at their sheltered accommodation. Dean Lyons, a 24-year-old homeless heroin addict with a diagnosed ‘moderate general learning disability’ was arrested and interrogated to such good effect that he confessed in a statement—once again containing information known only to the murderer and the gardaí at the time.

Lyons was questioned by detective gardaí in a video and tape-recording suite.

The transcript of the taped interview showed him as confused and incoherent. In the interview, he admitted to every charge put to him. His parents visited him and said he appeared completely disoriented and was swaying and slurring his words when they met him.

After his parents left, he was questioned again. As a result he made another, written, statement. But when this statement was made, there was no video or audio taping. The statement contains a chronologically correct narrative about the murders. There are also accurate descriptions of the interior of the house and the actions of the murderer inside. How he broke a window to get into the house. Where he stacked the broken glass. The layout of the staircase and bedrooms of the house. What the victims looked like. What they were wearing. How they died.

Dean Lyons, the man the Garda Síochána now accept had no part in these murders, was able to describe in his statement with chilling accuracy—and in clear grammatical English—how he emptied the kitchen drawers and took all the long knives and a carving fork to mutilate his victims. This information was not published in the media at the time of the murders.

On the basis of this ‘confession’, he was charged with the murders. (Pat Rabbitte, here)

A Commission of Investigation established to investigate the circumstances of Lyons’ confessions—bending over backwards with remarkable agility—found that gardaí made no ‘deliberate attempt . . . to undermine the rights of Dean Lyons’ but that ‘inappropriate leading questions were inadvertently asked of him by interviewing Gardaí—a failure which equipped him with the information to maintain a credible (albeit false) confession’. The Commission found that Lyons’s ‘prior existing vulnerabilities . . . compounded by his heroin addiction’ were responsible for the false confessions.

The finding of innocent inadvertence on the part of the gardaí was, however, contradicted by the wealth of detailed description in Lyons’s ‘confession’ and the Commission’s further findings that

  • some of the Gardaí who interviewed him openly expressed scepticism as to his credibility at case conferences, but these doubts were never conveyed to the DPP as they should have been prior to the latter’s initial decision to direct charges;
  • the Garda written records of some of the interviews with Dean Lyons were incomplete, potentially misleading and could have led to a miscarriage of justice;
  • the decision of the original investigation team, three months after their original recommendation, to further recommend to the DPP that the existing charge of murder against Dean Lyons should proceed and that an additional charge should be laid in respect of the second fatality is described as ‘difficult to understand and even harder to justify’. ( here; emphasis added)

Subsequently, Mark Nash,  a man already serving a life sentence for a double murder, confessed to the Grangegorman murders and was convicted in 2015.

In October 1996, the body of Richie Barron was found on a roadside outside Raphoe in County Donegal. Gardaí initially attributed his death to a hit-and-run accident, but subsequently inexplicably decided, despite a startling absence of evidence, that Barron had been killed by Frank McBrearty Jnr and his cousin, Mark McConnell. In all, twelve members of the extended McBrearty and Quinn families were arrested in relation to a crime that had not happened. Again, the DPP refused to bring a case against the accused.

The outrageous determination on the part of the gardaí to gain a conviction cost the entire McBrearty family several years of their lives, their reputation in their hometown, their business, and, in the case of Frank McBrearty Snr, his health.

Having failed to bring a case against the McBreartys for Barron’s death, ‘Gardaí then turned their attention to McBrearty Snr’s business, with one garda claimed to have remarked: “It might have taken you 20 years to build it up, but it will take us six weeks to shut it down” ’ according to Anita Guidera:

During a six-month period in 1997, 57 summonses [an average of more than two per week] and 157 charges [an average of more than six per week], mainly for breaches of the licensing laws, were brought against the wider McBrearty family.

There were dozens of hoax bomb scares at the club, resulting in patrons standing out on the street. Disgruntled customers were encouraged by gardai to take legal action against staff. 

Checkpoints were set up as close as 20 metres from the bar and cars searched and checked for tax and insurance. ( here)

In 2005, the Morris Tribunal (Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Gardaí in the Donegal Division) was established, in large part due to a determined crusade by Frank McBrearty Snr. The Report found that the investigation was ‘an extraordinary shambles’ with ‘evidence of wilful blunders, gross negligence, laziness, emotionally wrong-headed rushes to judge people as guilty and a determination by some parties to ensure that, even if there was no evidence, that the suspicions formulated were going to stick and stick permanently’.

The Tribunal ruled that

the arrests consequent on that ‘murder investigation’ were unlawful, being the product of a statement manufactured in police custody of an arrested person, namely Robert Noel McBride . . . . The arrests were in reality based upon a fraud.

 . . .

Once again, the Tribunal was faced with Gardaí who were determined to hide the truth of what happened. They made statements to their superiors which were in many instances minimalist in their detail and failed to give a fully truthful account; in a number of instances the statements were a complete fabrication. It was disturbing to find a deep-seated reluctance to concede that a colleague had acted incorrectly or wrongfully or that the complaints made by the detainees were true—the wall of silence was maintained. Unfortunately, this approach extended to and was encouraged by senior officers in this investigation and in the overall approach adopted by An Garda Síochána to external complaints. ( here)

The accused were fully vindicated of any involvement in the death of Richie Barron and substantial amounts of compensation were paid to members of the extended Quinn and McBrearty families in the civil actions which they brought against the State. Nobody has ever been convicted of the ‘hit and run’ offence.

The Morris Report resulted in the resignations of one Chief Superintendent and three Superintendents following criticism for negligence, and the dismissal of another Superintendent for corruption. Several other gardaí were found to have lied or to have acted corruptly and/or were criticised for negligence.

The Garda Síochána Act 2005, and the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015 were designed to correct the errors that led to the wrongful accusations and/or convictions due to garda malpractice—inadvertent or otherwise—demonstrated in these four cases. A serious obstruction to the practices promised by these two acts was made visible from within the Garda itself when whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson became the targets of campaigns of intimidation for reporting inefficiencies and bad practice within the force. More on that tomorrow ( here).




[1] Three Public Tribunals: (‘Kerry Babies Case’, Morris Tribunal, the Disclosures Tribunal); a Commission of Investigation into the Dean Lyons case and the O’Higgins Commission; the Byrne-McGinn inquiry, and the Guerin Report.
[2] The Irish gardaí weren’t alone in valuing a ‘result’ over finding and convicting the actual perpetrator. In one notorious example, the UK’s West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was responsible for the ‘unjust and unsatisfactory’ conviction of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and the Maguire Seven by means of coerced confessions, and more than 40 other convictions that failed or were overturned in the 1980s as a result of malpractice. The Squad was disbanded in 1989, following an investigation, although findings of incompetence and abuses of power did not lead to prosecutions due to ‘lack of evidence’.



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    About Dr. Jeannette Boyne

    Dr. Jeannette Boyne: former out-of-work actor, former working academic and Mellon Fellow, current contributing editor of, born in Ballyfermot, raised in Birmingham, educated by Columbia (the university, not the country). The old cliché says that journalism is the first draft of history; as Jeannette sees it, the job of an online journal like leftbucket is to provide its first edit. View all posts by Dr. Jeannette Boyne →