Towards the end of 2007, a young man, aged nineteen, from a deprived neighbourhood came to tell me that on the previous day he had been taken to a Garda Station for a drugs search, during the course of which he had beeng assaulted by several Gardaí. When no drugs were found on him, he was told to leave. He claimed that as he was leaving he was shoved forcefully towards the door by a Garda, which caused his head to smash the glass panel of the door. He said that he was then brought back into the Garda Station and charged with assaulting the Garda and causing criminal damage to the door.
I have no way of knowing whether this allegation is true or false, or possibly exaggerated, as there are no independent witnesses. Anyway, the young man’s account of the incident, even if substantially true, is only one side of the story. Nevertheless, the allegations that are made to me about Garda crimes against young working-class males in deprived areas are so frequent, so repetitive and so consistent that I am convinced there exists a serious problem that is not being adequately addressed. This young man will almost certainly be convicted in court of assaulting a Garda and smashing the glass in the door, as the Garda’s word in court will carry far more weight than his, and he may go to jail – even if his version of events is true. The Court system would grind to a halt if judges could not, in normal circumstances, accept at face value evidence given in court by the Gardaí.
If the young man’s allegations are true, then the Garda will have committed the crimes of assault, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and perjury – far more serious than the crimes most young people are arrested for – but the Garda improves his chances of being promoted and the young man (who has done nothing wrong) goes to jail.
CPT Inspection 2006
Some will write me off as a crank, or as somebody with a grudge against the Gardaí, or as someone who is all too willing to be duped by the stories of the young people with whom I work.
However, every five years, Ireland is visited by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (usually referred to as the CPT). A delegation of this Committee inspects various places of detention, including prisons and Garda stations, interviews people from a wide variety of backgrounds and positions, and issues a report. The Government is then invited to respond to the Committee’s report.
The most recent inspection by the CPT was carried out in 2006. The report on this inspection stated:
A majority of the persons met by the CPT’s delegation, which carried out the 2006 visit, made no complaints about the manner in which they were treated while in the custody of the Gardaí However, as had been the case during previous visits, a considerable number of persons did allege verbal and/or physical ill-treatment by Gardaí. The alleged ill-treatment consisted mostly of kicks, punches and blows with batons to various parts of the body. The allegations concerned the time of arrest or during transport to a Garda station and, in certain cases, the period of custody in such stations.
In a number of cases, the delegation’s medical doctors found that the persons concerned displayed injuries and scars which were consistent with their allegations of ill-treatment …1
The report highlighted a number of specific cases which it examined and found credible.
So the CPT believes there is a problem.
The Government responded:
The Government wishes to reiterate its absolute commitment to preventing, and where they occur, detecting any abuses of the rights of persons in Garda custody.2
This very positive response suggests that, now that the matter has been brought to its attention, the Government will take action, as a matter of urgency.
CPT Inspection 2002
However, the CPT had also visited Ireland in 2002 and its report on that visit had noted:
Many of the persons interviewed by the CPT’s delegation about their experience while in police custody stated that they had been correctly treated by the police.
However, a not inconsiderable number of persons claimed that they had been physically ill-treated by police officers (Gardaí).
The number and consistency of the allegations of ill-treatment heard by the delegation lend them credibility. Moreover, in some cases, the delegation’s doctors gathered medical evidence consistent with the allegations received …
It should also be noted that, in certain of the cases examined during the visit, other evidence gathered by the CPT’s delegation (e.g. from custody records, information provided by police officers) tended to support the allegations of ill-treatment received.3
So the problem had already been brought to the attention of the CPT four years prior to its 2006 inspection. Then also the Government had responded in reassuring terms:
The Government wishes to reiterate its absolute commitment to preventing and, where they occur, detecting any abuses of the rights of persons in Garda custody.4
(Computers can save us a lot of effort: the ‘cut and paste’ facility allows us to avoid having to think.)
Clearly, the CPT did not find that the problem it had highlighted had been solved in the four years between its 2002 and 2006 visits.
CPT Inspection 1998
An even earlier visit by the CPT had taken place in 1998. Then it concluded:
In the report on its first periodic visit to Ireland [in 1993] the CPT was led to conclude, in the light of all the information at its disposal, that persons held in certain police establishments in Ireland – and more particularly in Dublin – ran a not inconsiderable risk of being physically ill-treated.
In the five years since that visit, the CPT has continued to receive allegations of physical and psychological ill-treatment of persons held in police custody in Dublin and elsewhere in the country.
In the course of the 1998 visit, the CPT’s delegation again spoke to many persons about their experiences while in police custody. A significant number of those interviewed alleged that they had been physically ill-treated by police officers. As had been the case in 1993, their allegations tended to be consistent as regards the forms of ill-treatment involved (namely, slaps, punches, kicks and/or blows with batons).
… the persistence of such allegations regarding the use of excessive force by police officers highlights the need for the Irish authorities to remain particularly vigilant in this area.5 (emphasis original)
Judging by the two subsequent reports that the Irish authorities ‘the need for the Irish authorities to remain particularly vigilant in this area’ has gone unheeded.
In response to the Committee’s report on its 1998 visit, the Government stated:
The Government and the Garda Síochána fully share the view that no individual who comes in contact with the Gardaí should become the victim of police ill-treatment either at the time of first contact or subsequently and whether detained or not.
The Government affirms its commitment to preventing all such activities and, to this end, has put in place various legal, administrative and other arrangements to foster respect for the rights of those detained and, in particular, the right to be protected from all forms of physical and psychological abuse …
Where lapses in the care of detainees occur, for whatever reason and of whatever nature, the Government is fully committed to acknowledging, addressing and rectifying, where possible, these wrongs. To this end, the Government continues to ensure that there are rigorous, transparent and effective statutory and non-statutory mechanisms in place to deal with allegations of physical and psychological ill-treatment of persons detained in Garda custody.6
The Government went on to draw the attention of the CPT to the ‘legal, administrative and other arrangements’ that had been put in place to foster respect for the rights of those detained. We now know, of course, that these are still not effective.
CPT Inspection 1993
There was a still earlier visit by the CPT – this took place in 1993. In its report on that visit the Committee stated:
The CPT’s delegation spoke to many people about their experiences in police custody in Ireland. The majority were persons held in the places of detention visited; however, they also included some persons currently at liberty who had recently been detained by the police.
A certain number of those interviewed alleged that they had been physically ill-treated whilst in police custody in Dublin. Their allegations were consistent as regards the forms of ill-treatment involved (slaps, punches and/or kicks by police officers).
… In the light of all the information at its disposal, the CPT has been led to conclude that persons held in certain police establishments in Ireland – and more particularly in Dublin – run a not inconsiderable risk of being physically ill-treated.7
The Government responded:
Indications that persons in custody might be abused or open to the risk of abuse, or left without recourse to redress where abuse occurs, or is threatened, has to be a matter of concern to any Government. The Government wishes to stress that its firm policy is that abuse in any form will not be tolerated, that any perpetrators will be rooted out and where possible prosecuted or otherwise disciplined. Those in custody must at all times be provided with the means necessary to secure the protection of their safety and their rights …8
And again, as it was to do in 1998, the Government drew the attention of the CPT to the ‘various legal and other instruments as well as administrative arrangements necessary to foster respect for the rights of those in custody’ that had been put in place over the years to prevent such abuse!
The four reports by the CPT following its visits to Ireland have a depressing similarity, suggesting that little has changed during the fifteen years since the first report. The equally depressing similarity in the Government’s responses suggests that little is going to change.
In 2004, the report of the Morris Tribunal, investigating abuse of power by some Gardaí in Donegal, stated that:
… the combination of corruption and negligence which characterised the relevant period in Co. Donegal could easily occur again under different circumstances but obviously in a different way …
The Tribunal has sat through a year of evidence and read thousands of documents and as a result has come to the conclusion that An Garda Síochána is losing its character as a disciplined force. Ultimately, the gradual erosion of discipline within An Garda Síochána is a developing situation that will, sooner or later, lead to disaster.9
Between 2002 and 2006 inclusive, a total of €10,287,533 was paid by the Gardaí to civilians for assaults, unlawful arrests and for other reasons such as malicious prosecution.
In that five-year period, €1,936,641 was paid to civilians claiming they had been assaulted by members of the force; €5,794,561 was paid to people claiming they had been unlawfully arrested, and some €2,556,330 was paid for civil actions taken against the force under the heading ‘other’. A spokesman for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform said this section included malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and breach of various rights. Few of the Gardaí involved were disciplined; some were promoted.
There is a problem. It is not a problem of some ‘bad apples’ in the barrel. It is a culture where ‘it’s good enough for them – they’re little thugs who deserve nothing better’ can thrive without being challenged. It is a culture of ‘see nothing, hearnothing, say nothing’. It is a culture where respect for human rights does not extend to everyone. It is a culture where even the best Gardaí can become corrupted, as Donegal has shown. It is culture where those Gardaí who want to abuse their power can usually do so with impunity. It is a culture which makes it very difficult for those many Gardaí who object to what is happening to do anything about it.
There is a problem. The problem has been officially highlighted since 1993. Whatever measures have been put in place since then by the authorities to respond to this problem are clearly not working. There is no evidence that this problem has been fully acknowledged or taken seriously by the Government or that there is any urgency about trying to prevent its continuance. The losers are not just those young people who are abused by Gardaí: the whole of society suffers when its police force fails to live up to the standards that are required of the body responsible for the enforcement of the law.
1. Council of Europe, Report to the Government of Ireland on the Visit to Ireland Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 2 to 13 October 2006, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 10 October 2007, CPT/Inf (2007) 40 [EN], par. 15–16, p. 13.
2. Council of Europe, Response of the Government of Ireland to the Report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on its Visit to Ireland from 2 to 13 October 2006, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, CPT/Inf (2007) 41, p. 10.
3. Council of Europe, Report to the Government of Ireland on the Visit to Ireland Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 20 to 28 May 2002, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 18 September 2003, CPT/Inf (2003)36[EN], par. 11–12, pp. 10–11.
4. Council of Europe, Response of the Government of Ireland to the Report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on its Visit to Ireland from 20 to 28 May 2002, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 18 September 2003, CPT/Inf (2003)37[EN], p. 6.
5. Council of Europe, Report to the Irish Government on the Visit to Ireland Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 31 August to 9 September 1998, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 17 December 1999, CPT/Inf (99)15[EN], par. 12, p. 14; par. 14, pp. 15–16.
6. Council of Europe, Response of the Irish Government to the Report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on its Visit to Ireland from 31 August to 9 September 1998, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 17 December, 1999, CPT/Inf (99) 16 [EN], par. 8; par. 9; par. 11.
7. Council of Europe, Report to the Government of Ireland on the Visit to Ireland Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 26 [September] to 5 October 1993, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 13 December 1995, CPT/Inf (95) 14, par. 13, p. 14; par. 20, p. 15.
8. Council of Europe, Response of the Government of Ireland on the Visit to Ireland Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 26 September to 5 October 1993, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 13 December 1995, CPT/Inf (95) 15, par. 6, p. iii.
9. Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry Set up Pursuant to the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921–2002 into Certain Gardaí in the Donegal Division, (Chairman: Judge Frederick R. Morris), Report on Explosives ‘Finds’ in Donegal, Dublin, 2004, p. 453; p. 490.
Peter McVerry SJ is a member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice team and an Executive Director of the Peter McVerry Trust, which provides accommodation and care for homeless young people.