Michael Clifford: We need a real inquiry to unlock the truth

Two weeks ago, the justice minister ordered what now appears to be a Mickey Mouse probe into a whistleblower’s claims about the prison service, writes Michael Clifford

Generally, there are two categories of inquiry frequently undertaken by a State agency or government organ.

The standard inquiry is designed to find out whether something went wrong, how it happened, and who may be responsible.

The other category frequently used we shall refer to as the Mickey Mouse inquiry. This is designed to respond to a controversy. 

Turning over stones and digging for information is not the primary function of a Mickey Mouse inquiry. Instead, the main focus is to present the inquiry as an exhibit to show that something, anything, is being done.

Two weeks ago, the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan ordered what now has all the appearances of a Mickey Mouse inquiry. 

On November 22, this newspaper published a story about a whistleblower within the Irish Prison Service (IPS) who is claiming to have knowledge of activities including placing tracker devices on prison officers’ cars and planting surveillance devices that may have monitored conversations between prisoners and their solicitors.

The whistleblower also claims that a private investigations firm was hired to undertake much of this activity, and that results were passed on to An Garda Síochána.

The man’s name is David McDonald. He is an assistant chief officer in the IPS’s Operational Support Group and has worked in the prison service for nearly 30 years.

The allegations are extremely serious.

On November 23, this newspaper published further claims Mr McDonald is making in a sworn affidavit around how deaths in prisons are mishandled.

The allegations have arisen in the course of a dispute between Mr McDonald and two colleagues and the prison service. Mr McDonald and one of the colleagues were summarily told they were being transferred last August. They challenged the order and the High Court quashed the order relating to Mr McDonald. (The second man’s challenge is ongoing).

All three prison staff have a long record of service in prisons and appear to be of a mind that they are being treated as if they have committed some grievous wrong, which they insist is completely false and damaging to their reputations.

So much for the route that these allegations have taken to arrive in the public domain. The motive for the dissemination can be questioned, but that is irrelevant as to whether or not the claims have substance.

Enter Mr Flanagan and the Mickey Mouse inquiry. On the day the story was published, the minister announced that he knew of these allegations.

I have therefore asked the independent Inspector of Prisons, Patricia Gilheaney, to carry out an urgent preliminary investigation into the allegations to determine as far as possible the facts,” he said.

So Mr Flanagan knew about the allegations prior to the Irish Examiner story, but only once it was in the public domain did “urgency” attach to the matter.

Mr McDonald says he rang the office of the Inspector of Prisons the morning after Mr Flanagan’s announcement. He introduced himself as the man with the affidavit and allegations and said he was willing to help in any way possible.

Despite the urgency attaching to the inquiry, he has not been contacted since. This should ring alarm bells for anybody familiar with the internal garda investigation into abuse of the penalty points system in 2013.

On that occasion, the senior gardaí investigating senior gardaí never bothered to contact the man who had made the allegations, Sergeant Maurice McCabe. The sergeant could have provided chapter and verse if asked.

Instead, a report was published that was subsequently shown to have been less than rigorous. A cynic might conclude that Sgt McCabe was not contacted because he would have had plenty of uncomfortable facts to present to the inquiry.

The failure to contact the prison officer at the centre of the current claims is staggering if one were to take seriously the minister’s “urgency” to get to the truth.

Another pointer that suggests Mickey Mouse is lurking concerns the legal framework for this inquiry. The minister cited Section 31 of the Prisons Act 2007 as granting the inspector the power to examine all documents retained in prisons.

The act does exactly that, but it says nothing about prison service documents retained beyond prison walls. For instance, if there is documentation relating to a private investigations firm it is highly unlikely to be kept in one of the State’s detention facilities.

The IPS HQ is in Longford and it also has a base in Dublin that is not located in a prison.

Mr McDonald’s solicitor has written to the minister pointing out the deficit of legal power in the inquiry, but apparently to no avail. As things stand, it would seem that the inspector does not have legal power to carry out the kind of inquiry the minister indicated to parliament would be carried out.

Then there is the matter of the inspector herself. Ms Gilheaney, who was appointed inspector last April, has a long and distinguished record in the area of mental health. As such, she was a fitting candidate for her current job. Mental health is a hugely important issue in prisons, particularly as a high number of prisoners suffer with their mental health.

Prison officers doing a difficult job must also approve of an inspector who would place a high value of mental health in the prison environment.

However, the substance of the inquiry at hand might involve uncovering information some would like to stay buried, locating and interpreting various documents, following a money trail that may not be transparent and interviewing people who may not wish to divulge anything incriminating.

Is somebody with Ms Gilheaney’s background the ideal person to conduct such an inquiry? Certainly, the lack of an urgent, or even any, response to Mr McDonald’s offer of assistance would not inspire confidence.

The day after Mr Flanagan announced the inquiry, An Garda Síochána issued its own statement.

An Garda Síochána is examining matters that it is aware of relating to the Irish Prison Service that are in the public domain,” the statement said.

One element of the allegations is that material allegedly acquired illegally was passed onto to An Garda Síochána. So we have guards investigating guards once more.

Between it all, there are huge questions regarding the approach to inquiring into serious allegations of malpractice. The way things are currently stacked up, there’s a case to be made that this is a perfect template for a Mickey Mouse inquiry.


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