Justice Minister pushed for promotions amid scandals

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald pushed for a "package of promotions" for her staff at the height of a series of scandals in justice and policing to replace officials who were retiring or taking three-year career breaks.

While the Department of Justice was attempting to examine serious complaints against 120 gardaí, Ms Fitzgerald made urgent attempts to promote staff so as not to lose “the best and brightest”.

The Irish Examiner has obtained details which show the extent to which the department tried to cope with the fallout from the garda whistleblower revelations and justice-related scandals.

Only weeks after replacing Alan Shatter as minister in May, Ms Fitzgerald wrote to Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin and made an “urgent” appeal over staff levels.

With upcoming retirements, the Fine Gael minister told her Labour Cabinet colleague that her department needed senior staff to “keep the lights on” this year.

Gaps were emerging at assistant principal and principal officer areas, Ms Fitzgerald said.

“I would be obliged if you could arrange to have the previously submitted proposals considered urgently,” she wrote on May 29.

She enclosed an earlier letter from then-department secretary general Brian Purcell to his counterpart in Public Expenditure who had warned about losing “the brightest and best”.

Justice officials said 76 staff were on or about to begin career breaks, the average length of which was three years, Freedom of Information documents reveal.

At the time, the force was facing claims of misconduct and of canceling penalty points, and Mr Shatter had resigned after a report into claims made by a whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe.

The Guerin report was critical of how a number of agencies — including the Department of Justice — handled Sgt McCabe’s damning claims against gardaí.

The documents show that in the same month Ms Fitzgerald sought a series of promotions for her staff, the department was moving around officials to help categorise complaints against gardaí.

The minutes of its management advisory committee show 120 complaints against gardaí were received.

The previous month, in April, a department committee elevated its risk status to “red”, and decided that divisions must record if bodies they oversee have complied with reporting obligations to the minister.

The Guerin report later raised concerns about how complaints were handled in the Department of Justice at the highest level.

A survey of staff contained in the documents show department officials at the time of the justice scandals wanted to attend “business process improvement courses” to help them decide on strategic priorities to be tackled.

Justice staff also admitted there was a “prevailing culture of risk avoidance” in the civil service as a whole that needed to change.

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