LAST week, another blow was dealt to democracy in this country and it has passed with little comment.
On Wednesday, the Oireachtas Justice Committee met to canvas opinion on the drafting of a new bill on policing. One of three witnesses heard by the committee was Brian Purcell, Secretary General of the Department of Justice.
Nominally, Purcell is obliged to answer to the Oireachtas. We, the people, elect the Oireachtas to govern on our behalf, and, nominally, both the executive and the permanent civil service are answerable to the parliament.
In reality, that vital cog of our democratic system is a sham. Purcell refused to answer questions about the departure from office of former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan. As far as Purcell was concerned, his actions in that matter are not answerable to the Oireachtas — certainly not now, at any rate.
The manner in which Callinan left office is vitally important. In a despotic state, a junta or dictator can remove a police chief who isn’t doing his master’s bidding.
That dangerous state of affairs would not be tolerated in an alleged democracy. Yet, Callinan’s departure has raised major questions. By far the most important is whether or not the leader of the country had the most senior police officer removed from office for nothing more than political expediency.
If that happened, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny will have to go. No democracy could tolerate that kind of behaviour.
Callinan resigned on March 25, or, as he portrayed it, he “retired”. He issued a statement that read: “In the best interests of An Garda Siochána and my family, I have decided to retire. I felt that recent developments were proving to be a distraction for the important work that is carried out by An Garda Siochána.”
Most people thought Callinan had gone in a fit of pique, rather than apologise to the whistleblower gardaí, whose actions he had descried as “disgusting” some six weeks earlier. The ‘retirement’ announcement was a shock. After all, while the “disgusting” remark was embarrassing for Callinan, it could have been handled with a modicum of compromise.
Hours later, it emerged that another issue was behind the former commissioner’s decision. Kenny told the Dáil that, two days previously, he had been informed by the Attorney General that there was a major issue around tape recording in garda stations. The practice had been going on for 30 years. It had the potential for serious problems.
On the evening before Callinan resigned, Kenny met with former Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, who was also under pressure over the garda controversies, and the secretaries general of their respective departments. Following that meeting, Kenny dispatched Purcell to Callinan’s house, to express the “disquiet” of the Cabinet about the taping revelations.
Firstly, this communication was inaccurate. The Cabinet, which would have to approve the removal of a commissioner, was unaware of the situation. Only Shatter and Kenny were in the loop. Secondly, it was unprecedented for Purcell to visit the commissioner at home. If all he was expressing was “disquiet”, why didn’t he just pick up the phone?
Is it really possible that Purcell was dispatched to convey to Callinan anything but the fact that the Taoiseach wanted rid of him? After all, if Callinan were to go, then the pressure on Shatter might ease. Was Kenny intent on sending Callinan on his way, in order to save Shatter? (As it was to turn out, Shatter only got a reprieve. He was gone within another two months).
As Kenny said himself, days later, he doesn’t have the authority to dismiss the commissioner, but all the circumstantial evidence suggests that he forced Callinan from office.
On the day of Callinan’s “retirement”, the leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin, accused Kenny of sacking the commissioner. A few days later, “sources close to” Callinan revealed that he was “shocked” at the visit from Purcell, and felt he was left with no option but to resign.
In an alleged democracy, a prime minister would want this matter dealt with immediately, in order to allay any suspicion that he had acted like a dictator.
Not here. Instead, Kenny moved to ensure the facts surrounding Callinan’s departure from office be buried for the medium term, at least.
Kenny insisted on including the events around the commissioner’s departure in the commission of inquiry set up to examine the taping issue. The proper forum to deal with the events of March 24-25 would have been an Oireachtas committee. Instead, the truth of the matter has been long-fingered, and, in political terms, what’s been long-fingered can often end up in never-never-land.
What exactly did Purcell say to Callinan? Why was Purcell sent at all, as the records suggest that Callinan had moved with probity and speed to resolve the tape-recording matter once it came to his attention? Did the content of Purcell’s message leave Callinan with no option but to resign?
All of these questions require answers. Otherwise, we accept that a Garda Commissioner can be fired, not for his performance in office, but for the political imperatives of serving politicians. That would be a very dodgy place to go.
Last Wednesday, the Justice Committee looked for answers, but Purcell said he wasn’t going there. He claimed that he couldn’t discuss the matter, as it was included in the commission of inquiry terms of reference. In reality, if he so wished, there was nothing to stop him providing answers to the Oireachtas. Ironically, at the same meeting he was perfectly happy to discuss other matters, which are also the subject of a commission of inquiry, because it suited him to do so.
This is an old trick, perfected by Fianna Fáil back in the days of the planning tribunal. Issues that Bertie Ahern considered politically desirable to air — such as his dig-out finances — were dealt with, but anything awkward was parked by referring to the sanctity of the tribunal.
Purcell’s fate is tied to Kenny’s. If the suspicions were confirmed, then both of them would have to go. But the fact that the civil servant was not obliged to answer the questions of the Oireachtas demonstrates the weakness of our democracy.
Elsewhere, checks and balances in the system are taken seriously. Parliamentary committees have real power to hold the other arms of government to account. Here, the executive does as it pleases, and, in this case, it would appear that the Taoiseach, alone of the executive, may have actually abused his power to a worrying extent.
“Paddy likes to know what’s going on,” Kenny said on the night of the 2011 general election. Right now, he seems determined to ensure that Paddy stays in the dark on this matter. As long as that pertains, a big dirty cloud will hang over him.
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