First published 22 May 2016 in the Sunday Business Post
What was the purpose of the Guerin, Fennelly, O’Higgins and all the other Garda inquiries? Here we go again. The Irish disposition to disremember. This inability to bridge Ireland’s implementation deficit.
What was the Beef Tribunal about? Something to do with the bad blood between Des O’Malley and Albert Reynolds was the response by an overwhelming majority of respondents to an Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll two weeks after the report was published in 1994. The original motivation for establishing the inquiry was lost on a public that didn’t care anymore.
The lessons were lost and Ireland repeated the same sorry saga of tribunals all over again for the next 20 years. What was the O’Higgins inquiry about? Something to do with the Garda Commissioner questioning the motivation of Sgt Maurice McCabe is probably the answer the public will give.
It was about a series of policing failures in Bailieboro garda station in Cavan identified by McCabe which raised the most serious questions about our entire police service.
McCabe went on to uncover the scandal of the cancellation of penalty points. Eleven reports later and with the unprecedented resignation of a Justice Minister, the “retirement” of a Garda Commissioner and the reassignment of the Secretary General of the Department of Justice – what has actually changed?
This is what the reform of penalty points actually looks like through the pages of just one local newspaper.
Limerick Leader, December 2013:
A Limerick judge highlighted an anomaly in how fines for motoring offences are served on alleged offenders but “for some reason no one is doing anything about it”.
Judge Eugene O’Kelly was speaking after a Galway man told Limerick Court that he didn’t receive a speeding fine and only received a court summons by registered post. The case was struck out. It is “common knowledge”, the newspaper noted, that if a person is prepared to state under oath that they didn’t receive the original notice the prosecution will be struck out.
Limerick Leader, June 2015:
Dozens of motorists who were prosecuted before Kilmallock District Court for speeding offences avoided convictions and penalty points as their cases were either dismissed or withdrawn.
The reasons included defendants giving evidence, under oath, that they had not received the Fixed Penalty Notice and that the first correspondence they received related to the court proceedings. Other reasons included incorrect registration number appearing on the court summons.
Limerick Leader, February 2016:
“Kilmallock Court last week was the busiest this reporter can ever remember in more than five years covering.” Local journalist Donal O’Regan noted that there was standing room only as people awaited their cases to be called.
“The reason? 118 motorists were up for speeding. It makes you wonder how many more did pay their fines in time.” Thirty-five were withdrawn by the state, 35 struck out, 30 fined and 18 adjourned. 21 were struck out because the defendants said they didn’t receive the Fixed Charge Penalty notice in the post. O’Regan recalled how one such unfortunate person not to get this vital piece of post was a postman. The judge, with tongue firmly lodged in her cheek, asked: “Maybe you can help me – why are all these fines not being delivered?”
“I don’t know, to be honest,” the postman said.
These three Limerick Leader stories mirror the beginning, middle and end of the penalty points controversy. The problem has not changed. People still get away without receiving penalty points.
Although gardaí are now prohibited from arbitrarily cancelling penalty points, the problem has simply moved from points being cancelled on the Pulse computer system to summons not being delivered – 93,500 summons for penalty points were not served in 2011 and 2012 according to the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Between January 2013 and September 2015, nearly 150,000 drivers summonsed for penalty point offences were not convicted because they never got the summons.
Even if they did get the summons, motorists can still avoid penalty points. Seventy per cent of those before the court in Kenmare in Kerry between 2013 and 2015 avoided an infringement on their licence because they donated to the poor box.
It is against the law to use the poor box for penalty points offences. The Road Traffic Act 2010 prohibits it. But sure what does that matter.
Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald appointed Judge Matthew Deery to independently oversee the operation of the penalty points system. His January 2016 report expressed concern about a substantial number of penalty points notices which were being returned “undelivered by post”.
Under persistent questioning by independent TD Tommy Broughan, the minister told the Dáil last April that a project was “currently in technical development” to address the problem.
The problem is Pulse, the grossly outdated computer system used to administer the nuts and bolts of the Irish justice system. “It’s time to retire Pulse,” was the message from Chief Inspector Rob Olsen of the Garda Inspectorate at the Oireachtas Justice Committee 18 months ago.
It poses a number of troubling questions. How many people have died or been seriously injured because repeat offenders broke road safety laws with impunity? How many more people will die because Pulse and the penalty points system have not been reformed?
And if the lessons are not being learned, what was the purpose of the Guerin, Fennelly, O’Higgins and all the other Garda inquiries?