News Colum Kenny

Friday 29 August 2014

Questions remain over Purcell’s side-stepping of whistleblowers

Justice Department mandarin saw Guerin report as main risk while taping scandal grew

Colum Kenny

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

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Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and former Justice Minister Alan Shatter
Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and former Justice Minister Alan Shatter
Brian Purcell

‘I certainly hope it does not come back to haunt me.” Secretary General of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell was not talking about his refusal to answer certain questions at an Oireachtas committee last week.

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He was instead referring to his blunt criticisms of the recent Guerin report into his department’s handling of serious complaints by garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson, yet he did not sound too worried about speaking his mind.

He had earlier given the garda whistleblowers an Irish apology. One that includes a big IF. He was not quite admitting that his department got things wrong. But, insofar as it MAY have, he was sorry.

Later, interim Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan phoned Sergeant Maurice McCabe. They had, McCabe told me, a “nice” and “constructive” conversation and he is looking forward to meeting Assistant Commissioner Kieran Kenny on Wednesday.

O’Sullivan had been wrong when she told the same Oireachtas Committee that senior garda management had been actively supporting Sergeant McCabe in recent weeks.

Instead of being promoted to pursue the reform agenda that he has championed, he has continued to suffer low-level resentment and resistance.

But now he says that he is “happy” because the interim commissioner contacted him directly and sorted out some facts. 

For his part, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice told deputies and senators: “With the benefit of hindsight would we have done the same thing again? I don’t know.”

Really, Mr Purcell?

Members of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice failed to pin Purcell down on what if anything he thought that his department had in fact done wrong.

Or on why, when a solicitor for Sgt McCabe had made it clear to the department that existing procedures were inadequate to deal with the severity of the sergeant’s complaints, McCabe’s concerns appeared to make no difference to how those complaints were handled.

Deputies and senators huffed and puffed as

Purcell refused to disclose details of how he came to visit Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan’s private home shortly before Callinan felt obliged to step down. Or of what was in certain letters from the Attorney General and the Garda Commissioner that he may or may not have shown to former justice minister Alan Shatter as soon as he ought.

The Department of Justice clearly believes that Sean Guerin SC did not inform himself adequately of what the gardai, GSOC and the DPP had done or not done on foot of Sgt McCabe’s complaints prior to Guerin writing his recent report damning the department.

Purcell dismissed “some of the relentless criticism of the department” as “not well-founded”, but was not challenged by deputies and senators to identify precisely what those ill-founded criticisms were.

He was given great latitude to read detailed prepared statements

and answer short questions at length during his

four hours before the committee.

His refusal to answer any questions about his controversial meeting with the Garda Commissioner was based partly on an argument that to do so might prejudice a current official inquiry.

He was referring to the Commission of Investigation that the Government in April appointed under Judge Nial Fennelly to investigate the taping of phone calls at garda stations.

The Government bolted on to its terms of reference “the sequence of events leading up to the retirement of the former Garda Commissioner in March 2014”. Critics claim that it did so in order to postpone indefinitely revealing what actually happened at that time.

Purcell is following in the Taoiseach’s footsteps by hiding behind the pending investigation rather than simply letting the public know what occurred. If the Oireachtas Committee on Justice has the power to do so, and the nerve, it will seek an injunction to

force him to talk. Put up or shut up, and don’t blame Purcell for emulating the Taoiseach.

Of course the committee may have no such powers. For that is how we do things in Ireland. We put in places systems that are ineffective when push comes to shove. It is the appearance of accountability, regulation and transparency, when in fact the powerful slip through loopholes or hide behind weak systems for which they have lobbied.

From the point of view of a busy senior civil servant, the system is the system set up by elected politicians and it was working as intended when Sgt McCabe blew the whistle. If the system is weak, blame the government.

Alan Shatter had to resign because this was ultimately not an administrative failure but a political one. The resistance that whistleblowers experienced had the full force of political support. There was a tone to their treatment, and if it emanated from senior gardai or senior civil servants it should not have been echoed for as long as it was by the government and others. 

Few stay the course of marathon hearings at Oireachtas Committees, except the hapless witness in the firing line, as well as Oireachtas officials and a minority of the journalists who turn up.

There are 15 deputies and senators on the Justice Committee, but never more than 10 were present for Purcell’s hearing last week, and only two remained towards the end.

As he batted for four hours without a break last week, Purcell came across as a man intent on overturning the Guerin report; as a very busy civil servant in a department vital to national security who followed the procedures put in place by politicians for dealing with whistleblowers; and who followed normal procedures in referring only what was necessary to the minister’s office.

His refusal to answer various questions was frustrating, but was understandable in light of the Government’s ruse of folding into the judicial enquiry on the garda taping of phone calls events leading to the Garda Commissioner’s resignation.

Purcell said last week that he did not wish to be “unfair to myself” by answering questions in public that others can respond to in private when appearing before a commission of investigation. Just like the whistleblowers, he wants a fair hearing for his point of view.

Sunday Independent

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