Friday 19 December 2014

Little justice in Brian Purcell's persecution

Career civil servant Brian Purcell deserves better than grandstanding from backbenchers

John-Paul McCarthy

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

EMISSARY: Brian Purcell was sent to Callinan’s home
EMISSARY: Brian Purcell was sent to Callinan’s home

Paul Reynolds' biography of 'The General', Martin Cahill's squalid career of sadism and thievery, pauses over an especially horrific event. In response to a social welfare inspector's decision to expel him from the country's dole rolls, Cahill hired a gang to abduct him from his bed.

Before binding the inspector's arms, the gang also tied up his pregnant wife who begged them to spare their two sleeping children.

The gang of criminals then put the dole inspector in the boot of a car, covered his head with pillowcases and drove him to a railway line in Sandymount, Dublin.

Shortly thereafter, Cahill himself emerged with a .38 revolver which he duly aimed at the bound inspector's legs.

Having found his mark, Cahill ran off leaving his victim for dead. He did not reckon on the bravery and toughness of his adversary though, someone who would go on in a few years to manage hostage situations in Ireland's toughest jail.

That inspector's name was Brian Purcell, the secretary-general of the Department of Justice, and the man who showed the same characteristic dignity and stoicism before an Oireachtas committee last week.

Amidst music hall-type mutterings of the "Yes, Minister" and "we need a wholescale clearout" variety, Purcell never lost his cool.

He was respectful towards the garda whistleblowers who were treated so badly in the past, and he even told the committee in a remarkable aside that he understood why the new Minister for Justice refused to publicly express confidence in him, however uncomfortable this made him feel at a personal level.

Having worked his way up through the social welfare and prison trenches battling paramilitaries and drug lords, Purcell spoke here like someone who knows that every public official has to earn their spurs anew.

In fact, it was difficult to listen to Purcell's testimony without contrasting it to Kevin Cardiff's performance in a similar setting prior to his elevation to the European Court of Auditors despite having the clanking ball and chain of the bank guarantee around his ankles.

When charged with explaining a €3.6bn accounting error in Finance's calculation of the national debt, Cardiff mentioned something about the errors of "middle management".

Purcell had none of that abrasiveness.

But many committee members still accused him of a farcical performance because he refused to answer detailed questions about the resignation of the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

Purcell cited the upcoming inquiry into the garda taping fiasco as grounds for not engaging the committee in these kinds of details.

And that perfectly reasonable desire to keep his powder dry for Mr Justice Fennelly takes us back to the crux of the matter. Why on earth was he summoned at all to this kind of parliamentary cross-examination?

For sure, he proved easy quarry for grandstanding backbenchers, safe in the knowledge as they were that no serving secretary general can realistically allow himself to reply in kind to jeering, populist brickbats.

The person who is best placed to explain what happened prior to the Garda Commissioner's resignation is not Purcell, who was simply an envoy and an instrument of purpose, but the Taoiseach himself who ordered the secretary general to visit the commissioner's home for reasons best known only to him.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has never explained why he did not just pick up the phone himself to Martin Callinan and tell him straight out that he had lost confidence in him and would be asking the Government to cashier him for cause if he did not resign forthwith.

Instead, the Taoiseach hid behind a career official like Purcell who carried out that thankless task with the same loyalty he showed in front of the committee last week.

Evasion is an important aspect of the Taoiseach's style.

Remember how he refused to debate Vincent Browne during the general election?

He also refused to do any of the heavy lifting during Martin McGuinness' tilt at the Presidency in 2011, claiming fatuously that he might be embarrassed at his monthly meetings at the Aras if McGuinness actually won.

And he used to only mention Jean McConville when Gerry Adams had him cornered on non-Northern Ireland matters in the Dail, thereby draining that atrocity of any potency by invoking it as a mere debating point.

So many people have been damaged by the Taoiseach's white-lipped insistence on keeping Alan Shatter at Justice until the last moment.

Brian Purcell has now been damaged alongside Maurice McCabe, firstly when he was ordered to convey a message that any self-respecting head of government would have done him or herself, and secondly by having to testify in front of a parliamentary sideshow that convened itself in the full knowledge that the real investigative conclave would take place outside the Dail under the chairmanship of a judge.

Basil Chubb once wrote a wry essay suggesting that the best way to describe the function of the Irish TD was to characterise the job as one where people go "about persecuting civil servants".

Officials of the calibre of Brian Purcell deserve better though.

Sunday Independent

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