Senior civil servant: Dysfunction that led to Frances Fitzgerald resignation 'could have arisen in any department'

Senior civil servant: Dysfunction that led to Frances Fitzgerald resignation 'could have arisen in any department'
Former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald

The dysfunction in the Department of Justice which led to the resignation of former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald “could have arisen in any department”, according to its most senior civil servant.

Secretary-General of Justice Aidan O’Driscoll told the Oireachtas committee relating to his department that “as a secretary-general of two departments I can say this could have happened in any department”.

Ms Fitzgerald left her post as Minister for Justice in November 2017 after a protracted saga regarding her emails and what and when she had or had not known regarding an alleged smear campaign against Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. The Disclosures Tribunal under Justice Peter Charleton subsequently found in late 2018 that the now MEP had behaved properly and that she had “selflessly decided to resign in the national interest”.

The alleged dysfunction at the heart of the Department of Justice led to the comprehensive restructuring of its core, with regard to which Mr O’Driscoll was appearing before the committee today.

If you look at individual departments across the years you will see that one department after another has fallen into difficulty.

“My own former Department of Agriculture fell into great difficulty in the 1990s and underwent major reform, the Department of Public Expenditure was judged very harshly at the time of the economic crisis. The Department of Health periodically falls into this type of crisis.

“We can go on having those individual incidences and fixing the particular leak in the system, or we can do something much more radical, which is looking at how departments should be structured for the 21st century,” he added.

Mr O’Driscoll discussed the €2.97m paid out to consultants EY with regard to the wholesale restructuring of his Department, a process that is now complete and which has gone “very well, but will take more time”.

As a result of that restructuring, the Department has been split into two pillars, one concerned with civil justice, equality, and immigration, and the other with criminal justice.

He said he “disagrees profoundly” with the suggestion that if the Toland Report into reform of the department - which was published in 2014 and was harshly critical of a culture of indiscipline in An Garda Síochána - had been actioned that the fee paid to EY for its six months of work this year would not have been necessary.

Asked whether the “culture of deference” that had heretofore been in place between the Department and the gardaí would be eradicated by the organisational restructure, Mr O’Driscoll said “that is the purpose of the reform”.

With regard to Direct Provision, and the protests seen on Achill Island and at Ballinamore and Oughterard in recent times, he said that the Department is “learning lessons about communication”, citing the approach taken regarding a proposed Direct Provision centre in Borrisokane, Co Tipperary, which saw each local resident written to individually and the establishment of a unique website on the subject.

“There is now perhaps a long-overdue public debate taking place on Direct Provision,” he said, adding that he hopes an interdepartmental group set up to look at the issues in the medium term regarding the asylum system “will think radically”.

He agreed that the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) needs reform and “accepted the challenge” to improve how it treats applicants.

Mr O’Driscoll said he was “absolutely staggered” by the IT failings of the immigration service and said he “fully acknowledges that we need to do better”.

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