'Judge Mary Devins is alcoholic' by Maura Harrington

News & SocietyPolitics

  • Author Maura Harrington
  • Published October 16, 2011
  • Word count 2,431

DISCLAIMER: all views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the position of Shell To Sea or any organisation or cause

I have wanted to write this piece for many years, but felt it best to wait until such time as my cases had resolved themselves in the Circuit Court and indeed other cases taken by the state against my colleagues had been rightfully dismissed too. As will be obvious from the title, my concern is our local District Judge Mary Devins here in County Mayo on the West coast of Ireland and a problem she has struggled with for many years. A problem that, unfortunately, has a marked and negative impact on the lives of us locals.

Stories have circulated for nearly a decade now about Judge Devins being encountered in a highly intoxicated state at various Mayo restaurants and one hotel bar in particular. Usually these stories (which change slightly depending on who is telling them) also feature her ex-Fianna Fáil husband Jimmy Devins trying to placate her. In the interests of accuracy there are a couple of very important points to make about these rural myths right from the start.

Firstly, it's now accepted by most solicitors, Gardaí, social workers and residents here in District 3 that such tales have not only been exaggerated but quite possibly multiplied and result mainly from one incident in 2002. Admittedly, the incident in question was noteworthy, occurring as it did in the social life of a Irish District Court Judge. It seems that many guests and members of staff at a well known hotel near Castlebar witnessed an incident during which Devins verbally abused both an elderly female friend and her own husband. Perhaps more worryingly, they also observed her repeatedly banging her head against a cigarette dispenser a short while later. This much behaviour seems certain, as so many present that night provided corroborating details and in fact to this day many people in Mayo know someone who knows someone who was eating or drinking in the hotel restaurant that night. In other words, it has become accepted as fact throughout Mayo. In my personal opinion, the story is perfectly true. I shall neither debate nor reproduce the various other anecdotes that circulate about Judge Devins being drunk in various places at various times simply because I don't have that same feeling of total confidence they are all true. Maybe the other stories are true, maybe they are not. Maybe some of them are true and some of them are not. Maybe none of them are true. It is only because I firmly believe the hotel incident is absolutely true that I have reproduced it in good faith.

The second thing it's important to stress - with great haste - is the aforementioned incident really would have very little bearing on Mary Devins being a District Judge if there were not already extremely obvious problems with her. As a campaigner for the better part of my life, I want to be absolutely clear on this point. If we didn't have other reasons for concern, the nearly 10 year old episode would fall into the realm of the woman's personal life and not warrant reproduction here or anywhere. After all, who hasn't been drunk and behaved regrettably at least once or twice in their life? I myself am nearly 60 and more than a few times over the years have gotten tipsy and emotional. Haven't we all!

It is when one starts to examine Judge Devin's far more relevant public court record, that her 2002 hotel incident becomes valid. That is because it's very clear to everyone that over the nearly fifteen year period since she was appointed to the bench in 1997 her record has brimmed with thousands of irritable exchanges, breathtaking mood swings and frankly bizarre rulings - many of which it is roundly agreed are profoundly unjust. It is the opinion of us locals that she has repeatedly come to work while still actually under the influence of alcohol.

She has questioned whether she can trust any Gardaí in Mayo. Refused to adjourn a man's case when he was in hospital with injuries sustained in her very courtroom and a letter from the hospital was presented to her saying he could not leave their care. The judiciary itself has repeatedly had to censure her after finding that she has exceeded her jurisdiction.

"Why, when the country is on its knees do we have to pay for a Polish interpreter?" she blurted one day.

Everyone in the courtroom fell silent including the Polish defendants - and several people noticed that Judge Devins was visibly shaking.

"You have been in this country for seven years" she seemed on the verge of tears, "and you haven’t learned at least one of our languages?!"

As my astute blogger friend Gombeen points out, she was clearly not referring to Polish or Chinese which classify as our most widely spoken second and third languages when she referred to the plurality of dialects spoken in present-day Ireland. Nor did she seem particularly concerned with the fact that a courtroom can be a very intimidating place for a non-native English speaker. Or the fact there is a well established precedent for interpretation. On the contrary, the local wisdom was: "she's pissed again..."

Another day, when dealing with a form of urban acrobatics in which participants known as 'freerunners' who use cities and rural landscapes to perform movements through their structures, Judge Devins said the new Defence and Dwelling Bill should make people think twice about freerunning through people’s property.

"The new bill is about household defence and people protecting their property" she literally seemed to slur her words, "if you do this [freerunning] through the property of a person who has a legally held shotgun, just think about it! If the bill goes through, people are entitled to take action they see necessary in their home or the curtilage of the home..."

There was a stunned silence - and almost unanimous agreement among us that this was inflammatory, incitement to violence and that once again she was not sober while speaking. Yet what could anyone say? She is a judge.

On yet another occasion she described a farmer who let a line of traffic build up behind his tractor as "arrogant and individualistic". She then banned the driver, Michael Nevin, for one year although he maintained he had pulled over at the earliest opportunity to let traffic pass. Sound fairly unimportant? Consider that she herself has repeatedly courted controversy by consistently parking not just on double yellow lines outside Ballinrobe Courthouse but with poor co-ordination and sometimes one wheel on the path/one off, a practice highlighted by local councillor Harry Walsh. It seems that the issue of a District Court Judge blatantly flaunting the law - while doling out sentences to others - has raised the hackles of some locals. "Lawmakers should not be lawbreakers" Walsh reasonably maintains, adding: "I honestly don’t see why a Judge, or any servant of the State, or anyone else going into town for business should be allowed to flaunt the law by parking on double-yellow lines. I can see why prison vehicles and garda cars need to be adjacent, but not a private car."

I invite the reader to examine Judge Devin's public court record themselves, some of which is reported through the print media and in other words available online. It speaks for itself. This servant of the state, who regularly breezes into court wearing massive earrings and sassy jackets, is not entirely in control. At the same time, I would remind people that not everything she does is reported by the media and that Devins herself knows this. Sometimes her worst abuses and offences take place when she is confident very few are watching. Therefore, it's also important to ask around and hear personal stories. Anyone who does so will soon discover that her drinking is regarded as a local 'problem'.

There will doubtless be some people reading this who will assume that because I have protested against and appeared in the District Court regarding Shell's proposed pipeline, that all my ideas about Judge Devins must be based on that experience. However, the truth is her court record in general is a damning indictment of the Irish judiciary and that it's important someone stands up and says so. Important that someone refers to the elephant in the room in the Mayo judiciary. Ultimately, this has got little to do with Corrib or myself - and everything to do with the individual Mary Devins.

Nonetheless, I would concede the orders that took me aback most were related to my own court appearances and because it's difficult for to remain subjective in such instances will instead quote Senator David Norris who raised my case in the Irish Seanad.

"She then referred Ms. Harrington for psychiatric examination in addition to jailing her for 28 days," Norris said of Devins and myself. "Are we returning to eastern Europe? Is it an attempt to use psychiatry to control political expression? This is terribly dangerous territory!"

In fact, having a ridiculous report like that ordered on me was not what irritated me the most about Judge Devins. It was once suggested in court that I had been acting under the influence of alcohol while climbing a fence as part of my legitimate campaign against Shell. I believe that was probably the moment that most stuck in my craw. Everybody and his dog knows this Judge very has a serious drinking problem - I thought to myself privately - yet people in court are falsely suggesting the problem instead applies to me? You can imagine how infuriating that was. I suppose it's understandable that I have ended up being the one who says aloud what is on the tip of everyone's tongue. Yet I emphasize, once again, this is not about me or what I campaign for. This is a significant problem that touches the lives of thousands of people whose cases pass through the courtroom of Judge Mary Devins. I am merely the one who is saying enough is enough.

The question we are all baffled by in District 3 is how do you fix a problem like Mary?

From a legal point of view, the answer is simple. We have an appellate system in this country and when Devins rules in a way viewed as scandalous - as she so often does - the applicants or defendants or DPP may appeal. The case in question then gets kicked into the Circuit Court where there is no Judge Devins.

Does that mean it doesn't matter how bad she is? Does it mean, essentially, that even though she might make some controversial decisions, our greater legal system provides plenty of space for us to remedy them? That she is just a soused regional dinosaur who should be forgotten about?

I don't think so.

In case there exists any doubt in the mind of a reader out there, all of this constitutes totally inappropriate behaviour for a sitting Judge. A significant and consistent number who come before Mary Devins are being openly and egregiously abused. The vast majority understandably come away distressed, concerned, shocked and appalled. Yet those who who question or resist Judge Devins invariably face indifference or risk paying an even heavier price at the time or if they come before her again. The existence of an appellate court does not mean anything should be tolerated in a lower one - obviously there should always be a certain standard demanded. This is to say nothing of the standard fact that appealing a case involves more money, time and stress which many cannot afford.

In the interests of balance it's important to say that in addition to her aforementioned problems, Judge Devins does also have some redeeming qualities. At times, she appears to slice through layers of bureaucracy of the state, scheming by local solicitors and evasion by laypersons. Myself and many others sincerely believe that if she completely stopped drinking, she might actually be a good judge. That a certain genius we sometimes catch brief glimpses of - and which occasionally inspires people who spend only limited amounts of time in her courtroom - could blossom into something positive and genuine for the community.

"She does have a good side" a local solicitor reassured me after my pychological report was ordered. "But it's subsumed by an overwhelming belief in authority and what I think it's fair to say is at this stage a fairly well known problem with alcohol. She appears to completely lose control about two or three times a week. The processes and evidence that satisfies her tend to be highly questionable. In effect, she's a rogue judge and there's nothing we can do about it..."

This is quite true. In 2006 then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Brian Lenihan Jnr was approached at an event, asked in a forthright way "when are you folks going to do something about the problem in District 3?" and responded by saying that impeachment of Judges is virtually unheard of in Ireland and in recent times only applied to Brian Curtain who was discovered to have purchased child pornography online with his credit card. It's worth remembering that, even in that instance, another Irish Judge tried to prevent the evidence coming to light on the basis the warrant used for the house search had recently expired. When judges are presented with evidence against other judges, their tendency is to sneeze at it. The chances of Devin's impeachment ever occurring or indeed any form of inquiry into her alcoholism are virtually nil. She will most likely do what nearly every Judge does: serve her time and retire.

The only thing people of courage can really do is talk about this - raise consciousness.

People outside our county and indeed country need to understand there is quite literally a climate of fear in County Mayo on the West coast of Ireland not unlike that which Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy spoke of experiencing in and around government buildings in the 80's during the reign of Taoiseach Charles Haughey. To those who don't know, he was leader of the government of this sorry state in which Judge Devin's husband Jimmy Devins was a TD until recent years when our country voted to remove them from power due to the profoundly decimated state of the economy they governed for 18 of the preceding 20 years.

(C) 2011, harrington.maura26@gmail.com

Maura Harrington has been jailed on numerous occasions and has fought for the rights of English coal miners and local Irish residents

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