Department reform needs to be proactive, not reactive

It’s default mode in Ireland. There’s a crisis in policing and the justice system — then proposals are dusted down and presented as a fresh effort to respond to the problem.

Some proposals are implemented, but often in a partial and staggered way, while some are quietly forgotten about.

Other proposals do not deal directly with the issue, but are shoehorned in regardless.

The result is that the patient — in this case the policing and justice system — has become a patchwork of scars from surgeries over the years. It continues to limp along until the next crisis erupts and it is thrown again onto the operating table.

So it is with the latest crisis. Like previous ones, the issue has become conflated with both the wider McCabe scandal and other controversies, as well as the politicisation of the issue within the Oireachtas.

As part of a desperate bid to allow Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to withdraw their guns and avert a Christmas election, the idea of breaking up the Department of Justice has been resurrected.

Its connection to the issues regarding the email (or calls and emails) and what the former justice minister, Frances Fitzgerald, did or didn’t do is not evident.

Yes, there’s a connection with the behaviour and culture of the Department of Justice, but its link with the actual structure of the department is less clear.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made his views known two and a half years ago, when, in the fallout of the Guerin review, said the department was “not fit for purpose”.

The Government then established an independent review of the department — known as the Toland Review.

Its report in July 2014 painted a picture of a “secretive and closed” department, so much so that secrecy was “part of its DNA”. It had “significant leadership and management problems” and Toland recommended “fundamental and sustained organisational and cultural change”.

Toland advised splitting the department into separate Justice and Home Affairs portfolios.

The former would include civil and criminal law reform, crime and security, and international policy, while Home Affairs should include policing, prisons, courts, courts, equality, and integration. A deputy secretary general should take over Home Affairs.

The report didn’t gather much traction and, like many before it, was left to gather dust.

The department has since received further blows, most recently in its ragged performance over the Templemore saga and, now, for its behaviour in relation to the email.

The department was without a full-time secretary general between October 2014 and October 2016 due to a lack of candidates.

Its current boss is retiring in February, leaving the Government with two bosses to appoint if the restructuring goes ahead.

One of the issues with the dusting down of these proposals is that the Policing Commission, set up by the Government, is examining the oversight and accountability relationship between the Gardai and the Department of Justice.

The Commission is also examining the issue of separating State security from policing. If it does not recommend such a separation, then gardaí will be reporting to two separate sides of the department under the plans.

The Government has already ignored calls from Commission chair Kathleen O’Toole (who was also on the Toland Review) to delay recruiting a new commissioner until her group has reported in September 2018.

If the Government presses ahead with restructuring it will be undermining a key task of the Commission — whose very purpose is to draw up a holistic blueprint for the future of policing and oversight, compared to the continuing Frankenstein

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