Wednesday 21 February 2018

Shatter back in firing line over Ombudsman appointment

Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank McGrath
Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Photo: Frank McGrath
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

Alan Shatter is at the centre of another battle with an Ombudsman – but this time the embattled Justice Minister finds himself at loggerheads with the army.

The soldiers' union, the Permanent Defence Forces' Other Ranks Representative Association (PDFORRA), has lodged an appeal in the Supreme Court challenging his decision to appoint a retired army colonel, rather than a civilian, to the position of Defence Forces Ombudsman.

In his other cabinet role as Minister for Defence, Mr Shatter appointed retired colonel Anthony McCourt to the position previously held by the civilian lawyer Paulyn Marrinan-Quinn. She was appointed in 2005 after the Defence Forces was alleged by a whistleblower to have been systematically covering up sexual abuse up to and including rape and widespread bullying.

Ms Marrinan-Quinn's appointment as full-time Ombudsman was welcomed among Defence Forces' rank and file members. Her replacement in 2012 by Mr Shatter with a retired colonel in a part-time role was unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court last year by PDFORRA. They have now lodged an appeal in the Supreme Court, the Sunday Independent has learned.

PDFORRA challenged the appointment of the retired military court judge, Col McCourt, by Mr Shatter on grounds that it created a perception of bias among military personnel and also that the reduction of the Ombudsman job from a full-time to a part-time job was contrary to the Act setting up the office.

Last November, Judge John Hedigan rejected the PDFORRA challenge. He said they had not proved there was any basis for a belief among military personnel that the appointment of a retired senior officer was grounds for a perception of bias. He also said the Minister was within his rights to reduce the Defence Forces Ombudsman from a full- to part-time office.

During her time in office, Ms Marrinan-Quinn held press conferences and media interviews to coincide with the issuing of the reports. Her media appearances were known to be a major irritant among some senior staff.

She was appointed by the last government after Captain Tom Clonon of the army blew the whistle on widespread abuse suffered by women members of the Defence Forces. This led to the setting up of an independent commission in 2002 which recommended the establishment of the Defence Forces Ombudsman (DFO) office.

In her last report for 2011, Ms Marrinan-Quinn said she had dealt with 116 cases, 28 of which related to bullying. She upheld 38 per cent of complaints, she reported.

Following the non-renewal of her contract in 2012 by Mr Shatter and the appointment of the retired colonel, PDFORRA decided on its legal challenge in response to pressure from members.

PDFORRA insisted it had no specific objection to Col McCourt who was held in high esteem in his role as a military judge but objected to the former civilian role being passed to any retired member of the Defence Forces.

In his rejection of their application last November, Judge Hedigan said Col McCourt had a long and distinguished career in the Army serving as Judge Advocate for 12 years until his retirement.

The judge also upheld Mr Shatter's decision to cut the Ombudsman role from a five-day week to a three-day one with no remuneration for extra working hours. He said this was in line with a reduction in budget for the office from €510,000 to €450,000 in 2012 and also in line with a reduction in the number of complaints.

He also heard from the army's lawyers that there had been an increase in "internal" resolutions of complaints in the Defence Forces without recourse to the Ombudsman.

Sunday Independent

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