The Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has addressed the Dáil in the wake of the scandal which led up to Frances Fitzgerald's resignation as Tánaiste.
Read the full script of his speech, provided by the Department of Justice, below:
Ceann Comhairle, I wish to thank you for allowing me to make a statement to the House and I want to address a wide range of issues that have arisen in recent days.
At the outset, I want to apologise to Deputy Alan Kelly on two counts. First, my intemperate comments in the House on November 15th when I stated that Deputy Kelly was engaged in a smear campaign against me. I had been told by some people in my constituency that Deputy Kelly had made very negative comments about me in their presence. I always considered Deputy Kelly a good colleague both in parliament and in government and I confess that I was taken aback and offended when these allegations were made to me.
I fully accept that I reacted badly and I apologise to Deputy Kelly and to the House and withdraw my remarks.
Secondly, on the matter of replies to Parliamentary Questions on matters relating to the treatment of Sgt. Maurice McCabe. Deputy Kelly put down a series of detailed questions over the last number of weeks primarily about the activities of officials of my Department, primarily in the period prior to my appointment. I was consistently advised in my Department that to engage in issues that are under the remit of a sitting Tribunal and accommodated within its Terms of Reference would breach the Standing Orders of the Dáil; would improperly encroach on the workings of the Tribunal; and would amount to a parallel process thereby undermining the Tribunal. I accepted that advice at the time in good faith and, indeed, I note the Tribunal’s Public Notice last Friday.
It is only right to acknowledge that Deputy Kelly’s parliamentary questions should have been better handled by me and I am respectfully now asking the Ceann Comhairle to assist in providing guidance in terms of how to respond to issues that fall within the terms of reference of sitting Tribunals.
Further, I want to record my thanks to Deputy Kelly for his PQs which led to the unearthing of an email that had not been sent to the Tribunal. As the House is aware, the Taoiseach subsequently ordered a search and retrieval of documents which resulted in the retrieval of a further email chain, now with the Tribunal.
I was shocked and, frankly horrified, that there were records in the Department of Justice that should have been provided to the Disclosures Tribunal. As Minister I have repeatedly emphasised the vital importance of full cooperation by the Department with the Tribunal. I have taken every opportunity to stress this within the Department and it is an understatement to say I am bitterly disappointed by the events of recent weeks.
It has been a major challenge at every step to obtain complete information in a timely manner, indeed, on a few occasions recently, information has been provided to me, to the Taoiseach, and then to this House, which has proven subsequently to be inaccurate. This is completely unacceptable and I wish to formally apologise to the Taoiseach, to you Ceann Comhairle and to the House.
The fact is, that in recent days it has been clear that information in the possession of journalists and members of the Opposition has not been forthcoming to me as Minister.
Furthermore, the House may wish to be aware that as Minister I have received 12,000 emails since my appointment on 14 June, along with approx. 500 per week as a constituency TD.
I want to say that there has been commentary on the emails to the Tánaiste to that effect, that it was significant that they came from a senior official. The reality of Departments is that almost everything that comes to a Minister internally comes from a senior official.
The proper practice for conveying important information to a Minister is through what’s called a “submission”. Since 14 June I have dealt with 341 submissions from senior officials in my Department. Each of these is carefully considered upon receipt – I know the information must be significant because of the manner in which it is conveyed. A clear lesson from this episode is that officials should not use emails to convey information which should properly be transmitted to the office in a formal “submission” document.
It has been said that I sat beside the Taoiseach and allowed him to misinform the Dáil. That is not correct and I wish to explain to the House the sequence of events of the last few days from my perspective. On Monday, 13th November, I was in my constituency office in Portlaoise as well as undertaking an official engagement at the Midlands Prison. During the day I received a phone call from the Secretary General of my Department. He informed me that having reached 40 years’ service, he now intended to retire and he asked me to inform Cabinet the following morning.
For me, this was unexpected and I was taken aback and began to worry. I was still digesting the news when reference was made to an email pertaining to the O’Higgins Commission and Sgt. McCabe that had been discovered in the Department. I responded automatically that anything potentially relevant to the Tribunal should be immediately conveyed to Judge Charleton. I simply missed the significance of the email, which I viewed as just another addition to the 230+ documents already discovered to the Tribunal from the Department. I did not see the actual email until a week later, on the night of Monday, November 20th; that is why I did not raise it with the Taoiseach.
Ceann Comhairle, every Department has its own unique challenges but I am strongly of the view that the scale of certain Departments requires a fundamental rethink of the structure of ministerial offices.
I was appointed Minister for Justice and Equality some 23 weeks ago; this includes a two month Dáil recess. Since June, I have dealt with 12 items of Private Members’ Business; brought the Heads of three Bills to Cabinet; steered four Justice Bills through the Houses; and a further 26 Bills are in the course of being drafted. I want to acknowledge the invaluable and generous help of my colleague Minister Stanton in all this work.
As I have said, since 14 June 1,829 parliamentary questions have been responded to and, as I’ve said I’ve dealt with 341 formal submissions. I have brought 58 memorandums to Cabinet. I have received 435 invitations or requests to attend or speak at events. Between Friday and Monday, i.e. over the weekend, 163 questions were put to the Department press office by media. A handful of people worked throughout the weekend trying to ensure that these press queries were dealt with. I am advised that over the last three weeks, approximately 420 media queries were received of which 235 related to matters pertaining to the Charleton Tribunal while 185 other questions related to a wide range of other issues under the remit of what can only be described as a vast Department.
I am not objecting to my workload as Minister, far from it but I believe that the scale of sensitive and important issues that land hourly on the desk of the Justice Minister, who has a single policy adviser in terms of senior staff, points to a need for further external expertise in the Minister’s office.
Ceann Comhairle, it would be completely wrong to imply that the fault for the problems in the Department of lie with every member all of its 2,000 strong workforce.
Indeed, a workforce that exceeded 3,000 prior to the economic collapse of the State. Today, officials are stretched thinly. A legacy of dealing with terrorism and serious crime has had an effect. I refer in particular to the period when the State was under serious threat from the Provisional IRA and other terrorists. What in modern times might be seen as “secretive” or “siloed” was, at the height of the Troubles, no doubt a necessary state of affairs. Indeed, it should be acknowledged that the Department continues to deal with very serious threats to our State. However, there is more to the Department than crime and security, and its remit now encompasses everything from gender equality to policing and counterterrorism to insolvency. In effect, the Department is three departments in one.
This evening the Secretary General, Noel Waters, informed me that he has brought forward his retirement to today. I want to acknowledge Noel’s long service to the State over five decades. My experience of him was of a very capable Secretary General who led his staff with dedication, a clear sense of civic duty, humility and kindness in extremely difficult times. He will be hugely missed by all in the Department, including me and my team. Ceann Comhairle, since my appointment as Minister, I have worked with some exceptionally diligent, civic minded, and honourable officials. We also owe it to these people, as well as to this House and to the country at large, to ensure that the Department is equipped to meet the many challenges it faces, in particular, it is important that the Toland Report’s recommendations are effectively implemented.
The problems in the Department are not new. Indeed, there seems to be an inevitability about former Justice Ministers appearing before Tribunals – I read this morning that in 2003 former Justice Ministers - Ray Burke, Padraig Flynn, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Nora Owen and John O’Donoghue – gave evidence to the Morris Tribunal for example. The fate of my two predecessors is well known. We need to reflect on all of these matters and ask why this is the case.
Today the Tánaiste tendered her resignation. I believe Frances Fitzgerald is a fundamentally good woman and a person of integrity and compassion. Her own record tells us more about her than any emails and the Taoiseach eloquently outlined some of her achievements earlier. She may have forgotten emails describing an aggressive line of questioning in 2015 because of the shocking contents of leaked transcripts from the O’Higgins Commission that emerged a year later. That was a failure of memory for which Frances is now paying a very high price. I believe, without question, that she did her very best as Minister in very difficult circumstances, and her commitment was, at all times, to making a positive difference to the lives of the people of this country. Her resignation today is a loss for the country as many who’ve worked closely with her will attest and as I am sure will be fully realised in time.
Fundamentally, when everything else is peeled away, the essence of this issue is that Sgt. McCabe and his family must have truth and justice. In pursuit of that truth and justice, the Disclosures Tribunal has a critical job to do and I believe Judge Charleton has acted in the public interest by bringing forward to 8 January public hearings at which he will examine the allegations of a malicious campaign against Sgt. McCabe during the O’Higgins Commission. I acknowledge the many journalists that have written on this issue, I acknowledge this House, but I think we can all agree, a Tribunal offers a special order of depth and rigour and I wish Judge Charleton well in his vital work.
Ceann Comhairle, I have spoken at length and covered a range of issues. I thank you for facilitating me. I hope my colleagues on all sides will appreciate that my focus over the last several days was to ensure that the Taoiseach’s instructions for a search and retrieval took place. I do not believe he should be criticised for waiting until that search was complete
before publishing documents and I believe it should be acknowledged that when those documents were discovered and a final report was ready, it was published. There has been criticism of the delay – that was because personal information was referred to in some of the documentation and we wished to seek appropriate permission to published unredacted documents. Once that was achieved, the documents were published.
I wish to advise the House that I am currently considering what further steps I can take as Minister to protect members of An Garda Síochána who might find themselves subjected to bullying or harassment, to complement the protection for whistleblowers introduced by my predecessor.
There are stark lessons to be learned here and I intend to take on board these lessons and do my very best to ensure this does not happen again.