Thursday 17 January 2019

Flanagan hits out at senators and Law Library 'insiders' who oppose reforms

The veteran Fine Gael politician says it's hard to see how bill will pass before end of the year, writes Philip Ryan

PROPER GAUGE: Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan TD, who wants to be measured by his department’s true output
PROPER GAUGE: Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan TD, who wants to be measured by his department’s true output
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Charlie Flanagan says one of the first things that became clear to him when he took up the reins of the Department of Justice was "less is more".

"This is a department where ultimately my tenure will be gauged by the amount of work that we've put through," he says. "Rather than doing a lot of high horse announcements and launches, I would prefer to be gauged and measured by our true output."

Asked if he's suggesting other ministers should focus more on their departmental work rather than media appearances, he laughs. "No, no, no, I'm not having a pop at anyone."

However, the veteran Fine Gael politician's comments could serve as good advice for some of his younger Cabinet colleagues.

The minister is more direct in his comments about opponents to his reforms of how judges are appointed by the State. Mr Flanagan notes the main objectors in Leinster House to the legislation are "insiders" who also work in the legal world. The new laws will give non-members of the judiciary more of a say in the appointment of judges.

"I find resentment towards this legislation from people who would describe themselves as 'insiders'. I speak about the Law Library in particular and some of the senators who have most vociferously railed against this bill are 'insiders'," he says. His spokesperson later confirms the insiders to whom he is referring are Senator Michael McDowell and Ivana Bacik who both practise law. He says he listened with interest to Mr McDowell's contributions in the Seanad but failed to see why the debate took 60 hours.

He says due to the length of the debate, it is hard to see how the legislation, which is a key government commitment to Independent Alliance Minister Shane Ross, will be passed before the end of the year.

"It's more than a Shane Ross Bill, it's a commitment in the Programme for Government," the minister says.

"I'm intent on fulfilling the Programme for Government commitment that the new commission will be chaired by an independent person and will have a non-legal majority and these are the issues that are causing angst among insiders," he adds.

Moving on to other matters, the minister says the Sinn Fein and dissident republican strategy of using Brexit to push for a border poll on a united Ireland is causing instability within "loyalist enclaves" in Belfast which could lead to serious violence.

The minister says "conflating" Brexit with the possibility on a united Ireland referendum was "particularly dangerous".

"I have seen since Brexit some political instability within loyalism as a direct response to those on the republican side calling for a border poll as a precursor to a United Ireland," he says.

"I have to say to the dissidents, who are, along with Sinn Fein, speaking in terms of border polls, my response to them is we must abide fully with the terms and conditions of the Good Friday Agreement and in particular, the principle of consent and I don't believe that the time is now ripe for a border poll," he adds.

Mr Flanagan also says hundreds of dissident republican terrorists with links to Dublin-based drug gangs pose a major threat to the country's security if a hard border is erected in Northern Ireland as a result of a no-deal Brexit.

He says there is "clear evidence" of links between former terrorists in Northern Ireland and criminal gangs in Dublin involved in drugs, organised crime, racketeering and violence.

His comments come after the PSNI refused to rule out the possibility of dissident republicans being behind the murder of Jim Donegan, shot dead in broad daylight outside a school in West Belfast.

Mr Flanagan says he regularly speaks to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris about the threat of both loyalist and republican militants who could wreak havoc after Brexit.

He says Mr Harris is "best placed" to oversee the garda response to dissidents due to his time serving as a senior PSNI officer.

"In recent times we've seen success after success on the part of the Garda Siochana in the south working in close cooperation and collaboration with the PSNI in the North and the various custom and excise tax agencies to actually bring people before the courts.

"This year there were a number of high-profile convictions and lengthy custodial sentencing in Portlaoise Prison and I'm very keen to ensure that government continues to resource An Garda Siochana to put these people out of business," he says.

Despite his regular contacts with the commissioner, Mr Flanagan is keen to ensure there are clear separations of the powers between the two organisations.

The recently published report on the Future of Policing in Ireland made some stinging criticism of the relationship between the Department of Justice and An Garda Siochana. Former US police chief Kathleen O'Toole's report found "blurred roles" and "mutual dependence" between the organisations which she said was "unacceptable".

She said justice officials were too involved in garda operational matters and called for gardai to be given more autonomy over their budgets. She specifically said the Garda Commissioner, not the Justice Minister, should play the lead role when it comes to pay talks for gardai.

Mr Flanagan says he will bring forward legislation to ensure these recommendations are implemented. "I want to ensure that we have a fundamental demarcation line between government and politicians on the one hand and the Garda Commissioner and policing on the other.

"There have been suggestions over the years that governments have been too close to Garda Commissioners and to An Garda Siochana. Even if that perception wasn't true, it still is an unhealthy perception and I want to ensure that all operational issues are matters exclusively for An Garda Siochana and not for government," he says.

He says the Department of Justice role will be setting policy but the operation of the force will be a matter for the Garda Commissioner. However, Garda headquarters will be subjected to "appropriate checks and balances" and be asked to provide the minister with regular reports.

"I see a greater role for the Dail Justice Committee interacting with the Commissioner," Mr Flanagan adds.

"I want to change the ad hoc funding, for example, with An Garda Siochana or the ad hoc funding arrangements between government and An Garda Siochana. I'd like to move towards a more multi annual funding arrangement."

On Brexit, Mr Flanagan says one of the key challenges will be immigration. However, he insists the common travel area between Ireland and Britain will be maintained no matter what is the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

He also believes the Government will be able to handle any increase in EU migrants coming to Ireland once Britain tightens its immigration rules after Brexit.

"We manage our own migration policies irrespective of the situation in Britain, of course we acknowledge the fundamental pillar which is the Freedom of Movement of people from within the EU and that will continue to be the case but I don't see an influx of migrants coming to Ireland that we are in some way unable to cope with.

"Any new citizen coming over to Ireland will seek employment, we now have full employment here, we have opportunities of employment particularly the entertainment and catering industry, so I would be very keen to ensure that we monitor the situation and deal with it accordingly, but there's no evidence that Ireland will be a favourite place of destination," he adds.

The minister believes the housing crisis means we can no longer rely on EU workers to fill construction sector jobs and visa programmes will be needed to hire people from outside the union.

"Our housing challenge will give rise to greater requirement of foreign construction workers because we don't have them here.

"I don't think we can rely on construction workers from within the European Union as we did 15 to 20 years ago because they are otherwise engaged across Europe," the minister says.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section