There was an unusual exchange in the Dáil last Thursday about a cover-up or conspiracy.
Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness raised the case of Shane O’Farrell with the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan.
The case concerns the circumstances that led to the death of Mr O’Farrell in a hit-and-run incident in Co Monaghan in 2011. The O’Farrell family believe, in light of considerable evidence, that the perpetrator should not have been at liberty at the time.
In February, Mr Flanagan announced a scoping inquiry into the case to examine whether it merited a further, fuller inquiry.
This week, it emerged that the O’Farrell family are extremely concerned that the Department of Justice has narrowed the terms of reference of the inquiry to such an extent that the truth will not emerge.
The department claims the restriction on terms is required, following advice from the Attorney General, but it’s unclear how the advice could have led to a narrowing of the terms.
This was reported in the Irish Examiner on Tuesday. Two days later, Mr McGuinness raised the issue with the minister.
Mr Flanagan responded: “I want to make it very clear: there’s no conspiracy here; there’s no cover up here. I want to uncover the facts as much as any deputy in this House.”
Mr McGuinness hadn’t mentioned a conspiracy or cover-up. Why did the minister react as he did? Is it because the department’s actions have the whiff ofa cover-up and the minister wanted to reassure us that just because it looks like a cover-up, that doesn’t mean that it actually is one?
The Department of Justice has a vital function in government, overseeing security, policing, and an array of state-related services. Its wide remit brings it into contact with huge numbers of the public, through various agencies.
The nature of the department’s remit means that these people are often vulnerable.
For instance, the O’Farrell family are still, as they would see it, without closure on the tragic death of Shane. In another sphere, the department deals with refugees fleeing war and with host communities here.
Another element of the department’s brief, through various agencies, including An Garda Siochana and the prison service, requires interaction with criminals in one guise or another. And perhaps that is why a culture in the department treats all outsiders with some form of suspicion, irrespective of the nature of their interaction.
Five years ago, in the wake of the Maurice McCabe affair, a review was conducted of departmental culture. The Toland Report found that the department was home to a “closed, secretive, andsilo-driven culture”. Toland contended that the culture had inhibited the organisation’s capacity to question, challenge, and learn.
“The need for secrecy in particularly sensitive areas has not been restricted to those areas,” the report concluded.
Toland was supposed to be a springboard for change. In the intervening period, there has been plenty of talk about change. Just this week, the Public Accounts Committee heard that the department paid €2.9m to consultants as partof a restructuring initiative. Yet it would appear that the advice has done precious little to tackle the corrosive aspects of the culture in justice.
In the O’Farrell case, for instance, there may well be no cover-up, but the actions of the department suggest that its priority is to limit any inquiry into Mr O’Farrell’s death, rather than deliver the best obtainable version of the truth.
There are other examples of the kind of culture that appears to persevere within the department.
Earlier this week, a High Court judge compared the actions of the department, concerning an application for asylum, with that of the pig dictator Napoleon, the “pitiless protagonist” in George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm.
The case involved a Georgian woman, who, when she came forward to claim asylum, admitted that she had, yearsearlier, entered the country using false documents.
Judge Richard Humphreys found that the department had “not altogether appreciated the potential distinction between visiting stern consequences on wrongdoing that officialdom has uncovered, and humanely affording at least some credit in the case of undiscovered wrongdoing that a person voluntarily discloses themselves”.
The approach, as interpreted by Judge Humphreys, suggests a culture in which the department begins from a position of suspicion and works its way back from there.
This apparently dismissive or suspicious approach is not confined to asylum seekers. Last June, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties made a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice about the system of direct provision. In the submission, the author, Maeve O’Rourke, noted that, within the department, there was a “culture of disbelieving survivors” from Magdalene laundries, and that the department was “going overboard to protect against fraudulent claims”.
The secrecy that appears to be integral to the department’s culture can be seen in the handling of direct provision. Issues around contracts and tendering may well mitigate against open engagement with prospective host communities.
But sensitivity and plain common sense would also dictate that some way be found to smooth the path when any centre is about to open. As things are currently handled, host communities are viewed, first, as being possibly hostile to the department’s aims rather than as citizens who are entitled to information, but also could be perfectly willing to co-operate, if approached in a timely and sensitive manner.
Then we have the prison service, the ugly duckling within justice. In recent years, there have been a number of controversies and upheavals within the prison service, reaching all the way to senior management. Most of these have been reported in the Irish Examiner. One involved allegations of illegal surveillance within the service. Only when it was reported in the Examiner did Mr Flanagan order an “urgent” inquiry.
The urgency soon went out of the inquiry and the report was published after an extended delay in the last week of July, when politicians and most others had safely gone on holidays. (Incidentally, the terms in the O’Farrell inquiry were released on July 20, again after an extended delay, and at a time when the political focus was understandably switched off).
At a management level, the response to various controversies appears to be to squeeze out the people who actually run the prisons. The executive management team of the prison service used to include three governors. Now, it has none.
The solution to problems within the service would appear to be to exclude those who run the prisons from management input. Such a move might be considered ludicrous according to all management theory, but certainly conforms to a culture where everybody, bar those inside the department, is regarded with a certain amount of suspicion.
What’s the point in obtaining advice from expensive consultants if the same old cultural shortcomings are not addressed?