Frances Fitzgerald has insisted however that she was unaware of the sheer scale of the problem
The Tánaiste and Justice Minister has admitted she was aware as far back as June 2016 that there was an issue regarding wrongful convictions in the Irish District Courts.
Frances Fitzgerald has insisted however that she was unaware of the scale of the problem until it was revealed by gardaí last week.
The minister has come under fire in the Dáil this evening for her response to the scandal.
Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on justice, Jim O’Callaghan accused her of "doing nothing," even though she had been “aware for nine months that there were wrongful convictions that took place before the District Court.”
It comes after garda officials revealed that thousands of court summonses were issued over a ten year period for road offences that did not require them.
Nearly 15,000 drivers could have some portion of their penalties overturned as a result.
It also emerged that official garda figures had recorded almost one million roadside breath tests that never occurred.
In her opening statement to the Dáil this evening, Minister Fitzgerald stressed the "utmost seriousness with which the Government regards “these important and very disturbing issues.”
She said her department was first informed in June 2016 that the gardaí had been issuing summonses over invalid NCT certificates to people who should have received fixed charge notices instead.
She said the figures involved were unclear at the time adding that she only became aware of the scale of the problem on Thursday.
“At that point, the full scale of this issue was being examined to see precisely what the implications of this were,” she said.
“I was aware that action had been taken, so no further such mistakes could be made. I was awaiting the result of the full audit.”
She insisted that her department had sought regular updates from the gardaí regarding the progress of the audit.
“I became aware of the figure of some 14,700 cases where a conviction took place after an incorrect procedure when An Garda Síochána made that information public last week,” she said.
She said it is a “matter of great regret” to her that anyone should have been summonses to court wrongfully, “with all of the consequences that follow for individuals.”
“It is absolutely critical now that these mistakes be resolved and that the necessary remedial actions be taken,” she said.
Pushed by Deputy O’Callaghan as to how the state proposed to “rectify this miscarriage of justice done to so many people” the minister said the issues would be addressed “comprehensively.”
She said each one of the 14,700 cases involving wrongful convictions will have to be dealt with individually and separately.
“In terms of the numbers, we are not clear on the detail until all of the information emerges after the court cases,” she said. “Hopefully, they will be dealt with speedily.”
She told the house she was first informed in the summer of 2014 that concerns over roadside breath testing procedures had been investigated within the gardaí - however she said no issue was found.
She said the force had indicated at the time that it was satisfied that correct procedures were in place.
She said she was then informed in June last year that further discrepancies had been identified. At the time the force was commencing a national audit.
She said her department had been given no indication given as to the scale of the problem at the time – adding that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan had made it clear to her that Garda management was also unaware of how deep the discrepancies ran.
“Of course, I am not satisfied that the Gardaí and the Commissioner have not been in a position to outline why this happened,” she said.
“We have to get to the bottom of this and find out why it happened.”
"Clearly, there is a need for an investigation to hold responsible those people, at all levels of the Garda organisation, who allowed such large discrepancies in the breath-testing figures to arise."
She said the government had announced an independently-run root and branch investigation into garda procedures.
She said consultations are underway with the Policing Authority to decide how to run the investigation.
Independents 4 Change TD Mick Wallace said the Tánaiste had failed to depoliticise the situation adding that the Policing Authority was "toothless" and not the body needed to create a buffer between policing and politics.
He again called for the commissioner to resign or be sacked:
“The gardaí on the ground who the Minister says are doing great work up and down the country have had enough of the Garda Commissioner,” he said. “They cannot wait for her to be gone.”
“In the past couple of months, I have been approached by a huge number of gardaí wondering when in God's name are we going to get rid of the commissioner.
“The Minister has to stop delaying it. The Commissioner has not a hope of seeing out the year.”