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Michael Clifford - "Once again, agencies of the state appear to have been more concerned with protecting themselves rather than the citizen"

Sunday Tribune, 3 May 2009 by Michael Clifford

Michael Feichin Hannon: suffered at the hands of the state

THEY came for Michael Feichin Hannon early in the morning. He was awoken and told he was being taken away for questioning in relation to an alleged sexual assault of a 10-year-old.

What followed was a nightmare for a man who was just 22 years of age in 1997, when the matter arose. He was convicted of sexual assault two years later. Fortunately, his sentence was suspended for four years. He moved away from the area, in an attempt to come out from under the dark cloud that envelopes anybody convicted of sexual assault of a minor. In the ignorant discourse that often surrounds sexual offences, he could have been classified as a paedophile.

Last week, he received a certificate of miscarriage of justice following the retraction of the allegation by the girl, who is now a young woman.

A great wrong was perpetrated by the girl, Una Hardester, against Hannon, but he also suffered at the hands of the state. He had no complaint about how the case was investigated, prosecuted or tried. But his experience since the girl's retraction raises a recurring question about how the state conducts itself when innocent people have been wronged in one form or another.

Hardester made her retraction in a statement to a solicitor in November 2006. She had duped the gardaí, prosecutors and the jury at Galway Circuit Criminal Court into believing her story. (The trial largely hung on her word against Hannon's).

Hannon only found out about the retraction by chance. His sister encountered Hardester at a petrol station in Galway. He contacted his solicitor, who got in touch with the local gardaí. They confirmed that Hardester had made a retraction.

The matter was straightforward. Hannon's solicitor should have been supplied with the statement, which would have allowed for an application to the Court of Criminal Appeal to quash the conviction.

The statement was not forthcoming from the gardaí. It was not forthcoming from the DPP, which had received a copy in November 2006. After numerous attempts, Hannon's solicitor, Michael Finucane, was finally furnished with the statement in March 2008. A letter from the DPP apologised for the delay, saying that the file had been mislaid.

The way was then opened up to have Hannon's name cleared in the Court of Criminal Appeal (CCA). Once the conviction was quashed, Hannon then applied for a certificate of miscarriage of justice. The certificate means that he is entitled to seek compensation from the state.

The DPP objected to the certificate being granted. The office's claim was on the grounds that the state or its agents had done no wrong in the case. The CCA rejected the arguments.

Judge Adrian Hardiman said that the issue was a narrow one –whether a man who was convicted and was now recognised as having been innocent all along was entitled to a certificate. He and his colleagues ruled that Hannon was entitled to it.

The delay in supplying Hannon with the document that would clear his name, and the objection to declaring the case a miscarriage of justice, show the state's agents in a harsh light.

A grave wrong had been perpetrated on a citizen. The state's function is to protect and serve the citizen. Yet there appears to have been a reluctance to acknowledge that something terrible had befallen an innocent man.

Once again, agencies of the state appear to have been more concerned with protecting themselves rather than the citizen, with serving the agency's interests, rather than those of the citizen.

So it was with Brigid McCoole, the woman who was poisoned by blood supplied by the state, and fought all the way through the courts when she attempted to have the wrong righted. So it was with the McBreartys in Donegal, who had to fight the whole way to get the state to acknowledge how badly served, how badly protected, they, as citizens, had been. So it goes in other cases, in health, in education, anywhere that the institution's function is questioned.

The culture of circling institutional wagons, rather than rushing to effect reparation is a damning indictment on a state which classifies itself as republican. Opposition politicians often point out these shortcomings. And then, when they join government, they quietly drop their objections. Somewhere along the line, the primacy of the citizen has been lost.

The other feature of the Hannon case is that it throws into sharp relief the might of the state in the criminal justice system. It is fashionable these days for comment on the system to focus on the rights of the accused versus the rights of the victim. This ignores the power of the state that is behind prosecutions, on the same side as the victim, although acting for all citizens.

In such a mismatch, safeguards, checks and balances are always going to be important. The fashionable view is that these safeguards weigh the system heavily in the defendant's favour, despite conviction rates of around 95%. In Hannon's case, it appears there weren't enough safeguards to detect that something was amiss.

Then, when the wrongly convicted man and his accuser both moved to have the wrong righted, it was the state that foot-dragged and attempted to block the process of complete vindication.

The system needs tweaking to respond to the likes of organised crime in today's world. But caution must accompany every change. Nobody wants to be another Michael Feichin Hannon.