How much longer can politicians hide behind their civil servants?
Mandarins have a tale to tell about how this Justice shambles came about
Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30
WAS Brian Purcell, secretary of the Department of Justice, emissary or executioner?
From the moment that Purcell rang Martin Callinan's front door bell last Monday night, the Garda Commissioner was a dead man walking. And Callinan must have known his fate the second he saw the face of the official in the hallway.
Historians will dispute the words exchanged between the two men behind the closed doors of Callinan's private residence on Dublin' s northside. No doubt the emissary/executioner did not pull the trap door, but the commissioner spotted its unmistakable shadow in the background. Purcell's visit conveyed one message: he came straight from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice; the Cabinet would meet in the morning; they were far from pleased with the explosion of a new garda scandal over the telephone recordings in garda stations. Martin Callinan should, of course, now make up his own mind about the appropriate action – before dawn.
The next morning, before the cabinet meeting, Martin Callinan resigned. "Voluntarily," as the Taoiseach insisted.
Callinan was sacked. Purcell was both emissary and executioner.
Since that meeting, conflicting accounts and denials have emerged about the dialogue. Former comrades are at war. Spinners are in overdrive.
The choice of Purcell to deliver the coup de grace to Callinan was peculiar. Why was a top civil servant selected to, in the words of Micheal Martin, "sack" the commissioner? If the Cabinet was so displeased with Callinan, why did Shatter, Callinan's former friend and political boss, not pick up the telephone and tell him?
Politicians have not left many footprints in this controversy. Instead, they have asked their unaccountable, anonymous mandarins to implement their decisions. They can distance themselves, at arm's length from direct involvement, when it saves their skins.
Such use of civil servants gives ministers cover. They do not have to answer questions
to the Dail or the media. Ministers can plead that they were not privy to the final discussions. The official version, according to the Taoiseach, that the top Justice mandarin was despatched simply to convey "the gravity of how I felt about this" does not cut mustard. Everybody knew the score. Callinan was toast.
Civil servants were again centre stage in the mysterious 15-day lacuna after Commissioner Callinan's letter landed in Alan Shatter's department on March 10. The minister says he did not see the letter until 12.40pm on March 25. He fingered his officials. It was apparently opened in the department on March 10. What happened in the intervening days?
God knows. But so do the mandarins. The minister was supposedly kept in the dark by his civil servants, an extraordinary situation, not least because this method of communication had a special legal status.
The letter was sent under section 41 of the Garda Siochana Act 2005, a highly formal mode of contact between the minister and the Garda Commissioner specifically spelled out in law for matters of such importance.
Amazingly, intelligent civil servants kept the minister out of the loop for over two weeks. Are we expected to believe that the top mandarins did not want to trouble him with matters of such national importance? They generously decided to let him saunter off to Mexico for St Patrick's Day, oblivious of the presence in his office of a political grenade that could see convicted criminals freed to roam the streets.
Did they really decide to withhold this information from him until he returned, refreshed, from Central America? If they did, they seem to have been utterly negligent. If they did, someone should have been fired already. No one has been. Is there another explanation? Remember that Callinan specifically asked that the minister be informed. In any case, it is a requirement of the Act. Consequently, officials are carrying the can for the debacle. So far.
Another public servant provided further cover for Shatter during his feeble half-apology to the whistleblowers. Instead of acknowledging them as the heroes they are, he reached for an excuse for his behaviour, dumping on Assistant Commissioner O'Mahoney, the man who produced the original, flawed report on the whistleblowers' allegations.
According to Shatter, the O'Mahoney investigation "should have done more to obtain information from and ascertain the views and experience of the whistleblowers". He is right, but that does not justify Shatter's claim that he got it wrong because a public servant gave him inadequate information. Another body in blue – after Callinan's – had provided protection.
More casualties were to come. The body of one of the highest officials in the land was jettisoned by the same minister on Wednesday when he threw no less a person than the Attorney General into the mix. He pointedly drew attention to her.
"Whilst the Attorney General ... was made aware of the existence of the tapes and the possible existence of other tapes, I am advised that she had no knowledge at that time of the making of the ... "
Maire Whelan was now outed. Focus was transferred on to yet another unaccountable figure lurking in the political shadows.
Only days earlier, sources close to Callinan claim he had been advised by other faceless powerhouses in the Department of Justice not to apologise for his "disgusting" remarks about the whistleblowers.
The department has said there was communication in relation to the issue, but the matter of an apology was entirely Callinan's decision. There was clearly some communication between them. Was this at the behest of the minister? Were they acting on political orders? How could the mandarins give him such advice when Shatter himself was shaping up to say sorry? Whatever was said, it set Callinan on the road to the gallows that was waiting for him on Monday evening.
All along, in the background, public servants have been proactive, moving invisibly behind the scenes, either as emissaries or executioners. It is difficult to know whether they are their masters' voices, doing the Government's bidding, or simply providing buffers or scapegoats if politicians run into trouble. In the recent saga they have been giving politicians the space to deny knowledge. They are like great lumps of mercury, untouchable yet indestructible. And they can be sacrificed if needed.
Martin Callinan has bitten the dust. Certainly it was right that he should go for a multiplicity of reasons, not least for his despicable remarks about the actions of whistleblowers John Wilson and Maurice McCabe. But the manner of his departure stinks. At the end of the day, it became a political, not moral, imperative that he was removed to save the new Kenny/Shatter axis.
Ironically the Kenny/Shatter duo are among the loudest voices demanding a banking inquiry, specifically to discover what happened on the night of the bank guarantee in September 2008. Its findings may look like a tea party compared with the deniable gymnastics of civil servants in the Department of Justice in the nights of March 2014.
The way forward lies in hearing publicly from the top civil servants. What happened in the Department of Justice between March 10 and March 25? What cabals made the fateful decisions? Who read the letter from Callinan? Did the commissioner write the letter due to a sense of impending doom of an ambush from an unexpected quarter? Did he want to put it on record that the minister knew about the Garda tape recordings? Did no mandarin really try to tell the minister? And we should hear from the traditionally inaccessible Attorney General about her role? These unaccountable but powerful people can verify or contradict their masters' versions of the stories. Or they can spill the beans.
Shane Ross is the Independent TD for Dublin South