ON taking over the troubled Department of Justice two months ago, Frances Fitzgerald promised a “new era of transparency” in the delivery and administration of what is the most vital of services to citizens in this democracy.
As sincere and well-intentioned as the minister’s promises might be, her efforts to move beyond an era characterised by secrecy and a lack of accountability will not be realised so long as the Taoiseach’s refusal to tell the public about a certain event continues to epitomises this very culture.
Enda Kenny has not only failed to give a full account of events leading up to the resignation of former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan in March — he has also failed to give any satisfactory explanation or compelling reason as to why he should not do so.
Instead, he says, the issue will be dealt with by the Fennelly inquiry which is looking into the broader issue of phone tapings at Garda stations and the Garda investigation into the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.
That inquiry will examine a broad range of issues dating back to the 1980s, and while a timeframe has been given to report by the end of this year, it can take as much time as is needed.
Mr Kenny has rejected calls to have its modules on events leading up to the resignation of Mr Callinan frontloaded. “It is more appropriate to give the commission full flexibility on the nature, timing, or sequencing of any part of the investigation,” he said.
It is unknown when the commission will report and whether its hearings will be held in public.
Consequently, there are no certainties on how much we will know about the Taoiseach’s role in the commissioner’s departure, and if the public will know the full facts before the general election.
Mr Kenny recently made a written submission to the inquiry but his office has refused to release it following requests from this newspaper.
So what information is there to go on? There is Mr Kenny’s own explanation for why he dispatched the secretary general of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell, to Mr Callinan’s home on the night before he stepped down as chief garda.
Mr Kenny told the Dáil this information — that telephone calls were being recorded at Garda stations — “which I had never had before, was brought to my attention”. He was informed of it at 6pm on Sunday, March 23, by the attorney general and sent Mr Purcell to Mr Callinan’s home on the Monday night.
“It was of such serious importance that I felt it right and proper that the Garda commissioner of the day be informed of my concern and my anxiety,” Mr Kenny said. This is far from a full explanation and leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Why did he only then become aware of the issue of phone recordings given that the practice was highlighted by GSOC the previous June, and reported in the Irish Examiner?
Why did Mr Kenny feel the urgent need to inform the commissioner about the practice when it was Mr Callinan himself who sought to bring it to the Government’s attention in a letter to the Department of Justice two weeks earlier?
Another person able to explain events of that night is Mr Purcell — the only person other than Mr Kenny and Mr Callinan to know the exact nature of the conversation.
At a meeting before the Oireachtas Justice Committee at the end of May, Mr Purcell said he was “precluded” from discussing “certain matters” which are included in the terms of reference of the Fennelly inquiry until the “appropriate time” when its work is complete. “I am deeply concerned that my giving evidence might prejudice the work of that commission,” he said.
Another version of events comes from Mr Callinan’s camp. Although the former commissioner has not spoken publicly about his resignation, those close to him have been critical of how he was treated. “He was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency to save other people,” a source close to Mr Callinan told Irish Examiner journalist Cormac O’Keeffe at the time. “Democracy and democratic accountability has died in this country.”
A second senior garda said Mr Callinan had been made a “scapegoat for other people”, referring to the need for a head to roll over a series of scandals including the treatment of a garda whistleblower. “For the Garda Síochána, it is not so much we need to have trust in the Government, it’s more about being treated with respect, and what happened to Martin Callinan showed no respect,” he said.
It is not just the opposition parties and senior gardaí who have raised questions. Labour’s Alex White, now a senior minister in Mr Kenny’s cabinet, said in a letter to party members that he believes Mr Callinan was sacked.
Does it matter? Yes. Because if Mr Kenny did what he was accused of, then it amounts to a subversion of the legislation setting out a process on how a Garda commissioner should be sacked.
Only a Cabinet can sack a Garda commissioner — and this Cabinet had no knowledge of Mr Purcell’s Monday night visit until it met the day after. And Mr Callinan must be given an opportunity to defend himself to the Cabinet to allow fair process and avoid political interference in the administration of justice.
There might be a perfectly legitimate explanation surrounding what the Taoiseach asked Mr Purcell to tell the commissioner, and if it directly resulted in his resignation.
If there is, then why not hear about it in the interest of the “new era of transparency” we’ve been promised.