Liz O’Donnell

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Department of Justice has been throwing its weight around too long – it needs to be tamed

Liz O'Donnell

Published 17/05/2014|02:30

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Frances Fitzgerald

Minister Frances Fitzgerald has adopted the right approach and tone in the wake of the Guerin Report and the resignation of her predecessor.

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After months of ducking and diving by the Government, she needed to cast a cold eye on the issues on her desk. Passing the parcel to various enquiries would not suffice. By declining to express confidence in the Secretary General of her department, Ms Fitzgerald has done the right thing. It is rare that a minister would have the courage to do so. She has broken new ground.

Taking on the top brass in the Civil Service is not for the faint of heart. These are powerful people. In my experience the Secretaries General of Government departments tend to back each other if threatened by what they regard as transient political masters in the form of ministers.

A quick perusal across the top ranks reveals a cohort of ambitious career civil servants, usually on seven-year contracts, but who have come from long stints at the highest level of successive administrations. As such they harbour powerful secrets. Unlike ministers, they have enjoyed security of tenure.

Where they go after their seven-year terms is instructive. Most "retire" and reappear in key positions having been appointed to sinecures by the government or they land lucrative board positions.

Even when they leave under a cloud, like the former Secretary General of the Department of Finance Kevin Cardiff, a job will be found which is often better paid on top of their generous pension package.

Former Secretaries General of the Department of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Enterprise and Trade are particularly sought after, given their wealth of experience and influential networks in both public and private sectors.

Nobody ever gets fired. Despite the former Regulator Patrick Neary presiding over the banking collapse which brought the country to its knees, he retired with pension and lump sum intact.

The judge in the Anglo trial of two senior bankers was unequivocal about the failure of the Regulator when he essentially absolved the two accused from blame because of its inaction.

There have been numerous cases over the years of low standards in high places in government departments and state agencies. The Hepatitis C scandal and cover-up, the nursing home charges debacle, the deal with the religious orders for residential abuse, to name just a few. Some attribute these administrative and management fiascos to light-touch regulation. It is more a case of light-touch accountability.

Even the Garda Commissioner "retired voluntarily" with all benefits intact, allegedly with no political pressure. Mr Purcell is saving his account of that episode for the Fennelly Commission, rather than throw himself at the mercy of the political hounds of the Justice Committee.

Senior civil servants are traditionally well protected by the protocols of the Oireachtas. If a deputy takes a civil servant's name in vain in the Dail, the Ceann Chomhairle is quick to jump in.

One recalls 'Official A', the top official in the Attorney General's office whose role in the non-extradition of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth contributed to the collapse of the Spring/Reynolds government.

Bizarrely, the same official went on to cause more grief for the new Rainbow Government by sitting on related correspondence meant for the AG. This second error ended in his retirement but fortuitous appointment to a legal sinecure at international level. Again, the same pattern of light-touch accountability.

The justice and policing failures exposed recently by whistleblowers are truly shocking. As a former deputy and spokesperson on justice, I am heartened that two individual deputies had the courage to raise these matters in the Dail. The unfortunate TDs in turn were dismissed and victimised.

But ultimately, the Dail has won a rare victory in holding the Executive to account, which after all is its primary function. It is why TDs are granted privilege for Dail statements under the Constitution. They need to be able to speak out in the public interest without fear of libel. So in my view it was an especially scandalous offence against parliament that two TDs were deliberately discredited by the leaking of official information because they were doing their public duty.

Perhaps it is time to consider making it an offence punishable by dismissal for senior officials to deliberately mislead the Dail and ministers. People are tired of expensive and lengthy tribunals. If the Dail was working properly they would be unnecessary.

Ministers need to assert their constitutional executive power over unaccountable officials just as Frances Fitzgerald is doing.

The Justice Department has been throwing its weight around for too long, using the security of the State as an excuse for opacity and abuse of power. How ironic if that macho bastion is finally to be tamed by a female minister.

Irish Independent

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