Backs to the Wall

The Department of Justice has been in the firing line for months, but worse may be to come for the civil servants, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

THE Department of Justice is on the ropes.Bloodied and bruised, it dare not stand up, lest its legs buckle.

And the bad news for the once-feared, now beleaguered, behemoth is that the fight ain’t over.

A knock-out blow could yet be on its way.

A dysfunctional department

When the Guerin report was published on May 9, it was damning in its critique of the department, and its then minister Alan Shatter.

Department bosses, it said, failed to carry out any meaningful or independent assessment of allegations made by whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

Barrister Sean Guerin said there was a “near-total absence” of written advice by officials for Mr Shatter on his legal responsibilities in addressing the complaints.

The complaints were merely handed over to Garda chiefs and their replies were unquestioned by the department.

That report was the catalyst for the Toland review, ordered by the new Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald.

That review — chaired by Kevin Toland of the Dublin Airport Authority — did its business within five weeks.

Given what the report had to say about the department, it is worth listing the calibre of people — all from institutions of justice — it sought opinions from.

They included the current minister and last three incumbents, the former secretary general Sean Aylward, the three bosses from the Garda Ombudsman, top officials from the Garda Inspectorate, Chief Justice Susan Denham, four secretary generals from other departments and the attorney general’s office.

The Toland review was stark in its findings, summed up in three points:

- The department has a “closed, secretive and silo-driven culture”;

- It has “significant leadership and management problems”;

- The management structures and processes are “ineffective” in holding agencies, such as the gardaí, to account.

It said the need for secrecy in some areas of its work had permeated the department so much that it was “part of its DNA”.

The department was “inward-looking”, with “limited learning capacity” and “reduced openness to ideas”.

It referred to recent events, taken as relating to the Guerin report and the so-called ‘Tape Gate’, which included the apparent failure of department bosses to brief Mr Shatter of an urgent letter from then garda commissioner Martin Callinan.

It said there had been “serious leadership and management failures”, particularly in the Garda Division.

This included how briefings between the minister and senior officials were handled.

In relation to these events, the review said that no one was in charge of the issues, there was no plan to deal with them, there was no recognition of their political import, and the department was unable to see where things went wrong.

Given such a shambolic state of affairs, it is no surprise the secretary general Brian Purcell stepped aside.

He maintains his rank and €200,000 pay, courtesy of his political masters.

The Government has rejected any claims this was to keep him sweet, or quiet.

Which brings us onto the next rounds facing the department.

Callinan and McCabe

Neither Enda Kenny nor Mr Purcell have been willing to discuss the exact sequence of events leading to the removal of Mr Callinan.

The Fennelly inquiry is investigating the matter, they say.

Mr Callinan resigned, we are told — but many observers believe he was sacked, Irish-style.

The Taoiseach has previously said he was so concerned by the existence of secret garda recording systems in stations, revealed by the Ian Bailey civil case, that he dispatched Mr Purcell to the home of Mr Callinan on the night on March 24 to “apprise him on my view of the gravity” of the matter.

Mr Purcell arrived at around 10.30pm.

He did not sack Mr Callinan or ask him to resign, just expressed the unease at Government level. The following morning, Mr Callinan resigned.

The manner in which the commissioner’s exit happened created enormous disquiet in political, police, and legal circles.

The Taoiseach was accused of bypassing the statutory process — including a Cabinet decision — through which a garda boss can be sacked.

Mr Kenny has rejected such claims, saying it was Mr Callinan’s own decision.

Part of the Fennelly inquiry will involve looking at what happened after Mr Callinan’s couriered a letter — about the tapes — to Mr Purcell on March 10.

The first line of the letter said to bring the matter to the minister’s attention.

But, according to Mr Purcell and Mr Shatter, the former justice minister never saw the letter until after Mr Callinan’s resignation, on March 25.

Hopefully the retired supreme court judge will be able to establish whether or not — on the balance of probabilities — Mr Purcell, or his department officials, briefed or told Mr Shatter about the letter, officially or unofficially.

Mr Purcell will continue to be the secretary general until the end of the year, as the open competition to replace him will take that long.

It is possible that the Fennelly inquiry may report on its Callinan module first, as the much-greater task of the tape inquiry ticks over in the background. It is possible that that module could report by at early as October. Indeed, Ms Fitzgerald yesterday speculated that it could be out in a “couple of months”.

And there is no reason why this could not be so. The list of people involved in the affair is relatively short and a number have already made their written and oral submissions to the judge.

This report — depending on the assessment and findings of Mr Fennelly — could be the report to top all reports this year. That would be saying something.

And that’s not all for the department.

A commission of investigation, recommended by Guerin, has still to come into the handling of investigations into Sergeant McCabe’s allegations.

This is not to include the massive shift in power that will take place with the establishment of the Garda Authority at the end of the year, removing the traditional heart from the department.

If the “fundamental change” recommended by Toland doesn’t happen — and start happening soon — the department could end up having its towel thrown in for it.

More on this topic

Judgement due on Alan Shatter's Guerin report appealJudgement due on Alan Shatter's Guerin report appeal

Shatter loses bid to quash aspects of Guerin reportShatter loses bid to quash aspects of Guerin report

Kenny apologises to whistleblower McCabeKenny apologises to whistleblower McCabe

Kenny: Guerin investigation will be announced todayKenny: Guerin investigation will be announced today


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