Leo Varadkar’s plans to divide the Department of Justice have been severely criticised by three former ministers at the department, one of whom said it would be a “massive mistake”.
The Government is under fire after committing to implement the 2014 Toland report which recommended dividing the department up and creating a separate Home Affairs division.
After Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation in November, the Taoiseach committed to the proposal but former justice ministers Dermot Ahern, Gerard Collins, and Nora Owen have all expressed concerns at the proposal. The comments are contained in a report on the crisis-ridden department in today’s Irish Examiner.
“I have heard all this stuff about dividing the department into home affairs and all this stuff,” said former Fianna Fáil minister Mr Ahern. “To be honest I wouldn’t agree with that. You see there is in Ireland a huge overlap between the ordinary criminal and the paramilitaries, which still go on.”
Mr Ahern served as minister between 2008 and 2011 under Brian Cowen.
Mr Collins, minister for justice between 1977 and 1981 and again between 1987 and 1989, added his voice in opposition to the proposal.
“Splitting the thing up would be a massive mistake,” he said. “It is a recommendation by people who are not at all familiar with how things work. Dividing it would be a mistake.”
Ms Owen, Fine Gael’s justice minister from 1994 to 1997, said the department has become too big and needs to be downsized.
“Therefore for Frances Fitzgerald, the whole thing was fraught and when the Toland report looked at breaking up the department, I would say some of the agencies have got too big to be under the one roof,” she said. “I mean, look at the Tusla report into Maurice McCabe.
“At this stage, it really is necessary to take a good look at what is under the department’s control. There is no doubt in my mind that some of the units and agencies, something like 40 agencies, need to be moved away.”
Mr Ahern said what is needed is “less workload”.
“It is a department that has far too much of a workload,” he said. “I think you have to hive off some of the agencies elsewhere; there is a good deal of the workload that could go away from the department. Also, they should be less inclined to take on the work that should really be done by other departments.”
In relation to the events which led to Ms Fitzgerald’s resignation, both Mr Ahern and Ms Owen criticised the role of Ms Fitzgerald’s political advisers in not spotting the dangers of the emails relating to Garda whistleblower Mr McCabe.
“It was unfortunate that Frances had it [the email] and four or five people got them but I am surprised that maybe she wasn’t made aware,” said Ms Owen. “She probably should have spoken to her advisers and asked: ‘Jesus, did we ever see that email?’ ”
Mr Ahern said: “I would also question the advisers to the minister. My advisers were not Fianna Fáilers but were exceptionally clued in. Frances Fitzgerald appeared to hire FG people and they should have smelled this thing immediately.”
The slow pace of reform also came in for criticism.
Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, said that even though the Government commissioned and has received numerous reports into reforming the Department of Justice, we have yet to see any reform.
“Last Christmas, it was announced that the department would be split into two portfolios. This has yet to occur. The Government must ensure that this reform takes place immediately.”
In response, the department said the recommendation to divide it came with the proviso that any definitive division would require “further detailed analysis”, and any decision to formally split the department is a “political call”.
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