Review of Justice Department must be thought out

Noel Waters

The Department of Justice has received a hammering before, but few can recall a time when its own minister and the Taoiseach gave it such a public tongue-lashing, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.

Sandwiched between the two attacks, the Department’s top civil servant, secretary general Noel Waters, announced he was immediately leaving, but with a parting salvo, blasting “unwarranted criticism” of the department.

The upheaval is set to continue. Firstly the department faces a Taoiseach-ordered review of the email fiasco. Then it, and its senior officials, face the scrutiny of the Disclosures Tribunal.

An irate Mr Varadkar laid much of the blame for the resignation of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at the door of her former department.

“The events of the past few days have again exposed major problems within a dysfunctional Department of Justice, including the way important emails were not found and therefore not sent on to the Charleton Tribunal during discovery,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said he had ordered a trawl of emails and documents, because he was “not confident” the department had released all the information it possessed, saying he had twice been forced to correct the record.

Chastising the department, he said he never wanted to be “put in that position again”.

“The house can be sure, I will be holding the department and its senior officials to account.”

Waters then announced he was suddenly leaving, having indicated previously he would retire next February.

In a leaked internal email to colleagues, he said: “The department has been subject to a barrage of unwarranted criticism in recent days and most particularly today.”

If all that wasn’t enough ground hurling for one day, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan got togged out and entered the fray.

He said he was “shocked and, frankly, horrified” about the discovery of the email chain.

“It has been a major challenge at every step to obtain complete information in a timely manner,” he said in a devastating attack on his own department, though he did say officials were “stretched thinly”.

He described Mr Waters as a “very capable” secretary general who led his staff with “dedication, a clear sense of civic duty, humility and kindness in extremely difficult times”.

However, he said the Department was really three departments in one and that it inherited a culture that has been described as “secretive” and “siloed”, stemming from its role in combating Republican subversives.

Recent events follow the Department’s poor performance in relation to Templemore College and, before that, in the events leading to the effective removal of former commissioner Martin Callinan.

The “external” review has, it appears, until Christmas to report, which is a short time frame.

However, it’s not dissimilar to the five-week turnaround for the Toland Review in 2014, though the latter comprised six members.

There has been speculation that a current or retired secretary general would conduct the review, though how that would be considered “external” is not clear.

Also, what will happen on the back of the review is also not clear, not least given the low-key response to the Toland Report.

Splitting or restructuring sounds good, but the devil is in the detail, given the multiple overlaps in some areas, particularly involving the Gardaí and garda oversight. That is not to say it should not be done, but let us make sure it is thought out properly.

Ideally, the review should feed into, not preempt, the work of the Policing Commission, which is also looking at the relationship between the Department/Government/oversight agencies and the Gardaí, but which is not due to report until next September.

Also, as with the Gardaí, it’s not just about the structures, it’s also about the culture, with the Department traditionally disliking, or certainly unused to, transparency, outside interference or oversight.

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