News Comment

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Damning report on Justice unearths a rot that Fitzgerald will find hard to treat

Published 29/07/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald TD speaking to media following the publication of the Report of the Independent Review Group on the Department of Justice and Equality at Government Buildings, Dublin Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald TD speaking to media following the publication of the Report of the Independent Review Group on the Department of Justice and Equality at Government Buildings, Dublin Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

IT IS hard to know what the most damning finding is against the Department of Justice in the review led by Dublin Airport Authority chief Kevin Toland.

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Maybe it is the fact that the review found significant leadership and management problems; ineffective management processes; an insufficiently focused management advisory committee (MAC) – or that its relationships with key agencies tended to be informal, unstructured and mostly unaccountable.

Maybe it is the fact that the department is home to a "closed, secretive and silo-driven culture".

Given its history and sensitive workload, a certain securocratic sub-culture is expected at the Department of Justice, or indeed any government department dealing with such confidential matters of state.

But the Toland review points not just to a culture of confidentiality, but one of extreme secrecy, one – its authors contend – that has inhibited the capacity of the organisation to question, challenge, learn and adapt.

"The need for secrecy in particularly sensitive areas has not been restricted to those areas," it says.

"It permeates much of the department's remit and has become part of its DNA, to the detriment of other areas that should be open."

Maybe it is the fact, so evident in the recent garda controversies that led to the departure of former Justice Minister Alan Shatter and former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, that there is no clear ownership of issues.

Or perhaps, rather frighteningly for such a security sensitive portfolio, that the department has a "poor political antennae for issues with serious potential impact".

There is more.

Toland's eloquent description of the department's "deferential relationship" with the gardai paints a picture of a police force that is practically unanswerable to its seemingly impotent political masters.

Such is the deference, Toland found, that there is "a lack of strategic accountability being brought to bear upon them by the department".

Toland found that the 2005 Garda Siochana Act, the post-Morris Tribunal "watershed" law aimed at overhauling the gardai, has been diluted in its implementation.

The department had adopted what the review describes as "a passive approach", stepping back from taking the opportunity to exercise the necessary power and influence at its disposal to "encourage improvements in management and discipline".

In other words, the review found that the gardai are pretty much a law unto themselves when it comes to political oversight.

Like the report into the handling of allegations of garda malpractice conducted by Senior Counsel Sean Guerin, Toland and his team had little time to conduct the review.

But even with the very real time constraints, Toland – like Guerin – has confirmed many of our suspicions about the operation of the Department of Justice and the culture of secrecy that supports it.

The Toland Review also confirms how blind the Department of Justice became to major issues in the pursuit of key legislative projects – some might say pet projects – pioneered by ministers.

In yet another eloquently phrased section, 'Imbalance between Minister and Management', Toland outlines how the intensive focus at political level on key areas of legal reform meant that other "distinctly critical priorities" – as well as a widening remit – did not get adequate attention.

Indeed, one of the criticisms of Mr Shatter's leadership style was that the prolific legislator and draughtsman was so intent on his legislative agenda, that he kept his eyes off the ball in respect of political hurricanes forming in his midst.

Toland, like Guerin, has uncovered a department that, in many ways, is not fit for purpose.

But how many government departments would survive a similar, cursory review?

Toland is at pains to compliment the professionalism, competence and resilience – as well as high levels of loyalty – of Justice staff to their department, minister and Government.

This is important to note at a time when the civil service is under its own particular strains.

For the review is also a tale of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, another institution ravaged by what Toland describes as "a real reduction in corporate experience".

Toland outlines how the department, stretched by an ever-increasing workload, new agencies and a heavy burden of legislation, has also been depleted by budgetary cuts, retirements and non-replacement of a number of senior, highly skilled and experienced staff.

The review does not acquit the department of its failings, but it is hard to ignore the consequences – and the very real costs – of rationalising in the wake of the financial crisis.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has her work cut out for her.

As well as reforming the gardai, she has mere months to address what appears to be decades of secrecy and poor management in the department she has inherited.

It remains to be seen if there is broad political and public support for that mammoth task.

Irish Independent

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