For Justice, a serious wake-up call akin to a black card

As a report card, you could hardly get much worse. Secretive. Closed. Inward looking. Limited learning capacity. Not taking responsibility. Unable to see where things went wrong. Needs to fundamentally change.

For any secondary school student this would be aserious wake-up call, but for the Department of Justice its akin to the GAA black card. It’s no surprise then that its head — secretary general Brian Purcell — has had to step aside. But, as Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald yesterday said, that’s only a start.

The report stresses that this is a cultural problem, one that is so deep it is “part of its DNA”. That will take more than one 21-page report to change, something the minister says she is aware of. It is something she is battling in the other key agency of justice: the gardaí. Indeed, the review group highlights this “shared culture of secrecy” in both agencies.

This is all part of a bigger crisis in our justice institutions — one that has seen the exit of a minister of justice, a Garda commissioner and now the head of the department of justice.

The review group was set up on the back of another damning report: that of Sean Guerin SC into how the allegations of whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe were handled by the Department of Justice, as well as the gardaí.

It found they were handled and investigated very poorly and that the department failed to conduct any independent examination of McCabe’s complaints and the Garda response to department inquiries.

The group led by David Byrne SC refers to a “differential attitude” by the department towards the gardaí. The report’s analysis of the department’s culture, while not entirely new, is as sharp and it is stark. It talks about a “secretive, closed and silo driven culture”, a department with “significant leadership and management problems”.

It refers to “recent events” — a reference most likely to the Guerin report and possibly the department’s handling of the Garda tapes issue — where there were “serious leadership and management failures”, including in briefings to the minister.

No one took charge of these events, it says. No plan was developed. There was no recognition of the potential impact, and the department was “unable to see where things went wrong”. Also, there was “no evidence” of any internal review of these events. The report calls for “fundamental change”.

Despite its criticism, it finds qualities among its staff: professionalism; loyalty; experience; a sense of duty and a hard-work ethic.

They will all be needed, because there is an awful lot of work to be done by whoever takes over.

To conclude, a word on Purcell, a man heavily criticised in the report (implicitly at least) and still subject, along with others, to the Fennelly inquiry. Purcell was abducted by the General’s gang 25 years ago after he stopped Martin Cahill’s dole payment. The gang tied up his pregnant wife and shot him twice in the legs. Something, really, that should not be forgotten.


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