Saturday 7 December 2019

Three questions for the secretary general who has answers we need on Shattergate

Brian Purcell, Secretary General of the Department of Justice. Photo: Tom Burke
Brian Purcell, Secretary General of the Department of Justice. Photo: Tom Burke
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Would the real Brian Purcell please stand up? He is man in the middle; man of mystery. But is he Muppet man or Machiavelli man? Either way, we need answers. Recent weeks have witnessed a blizzard of who knew what and when. We urgently need to separate wood from trees. It's impossible to decipher/distil what happened without the Secretary General of the Department of Justice answering detailed questions in a public forum. The issue at stake is the reputation of esteemed pillars of democracy.

Here are the questions that must be addressed:

* Question 1

A letter is couriered on March 10 from Phoenix Park to St Stephen's Green. This is no ordinary letter. It's the culmination of months of analysis by a working group involving gardai, the attorney general's office and civil service into three decades of undiscovered taped conversations from garda barracks. First line of the letter from Martin Callinan to Brian Purcell recites the Commissioner's wish to "bring the following to the minister's attention in accordance with Section 41(d) of the Garda Siochana Act 2005". This legal requirement on the Commissioner to notify the minister is unambiguous. Next day, most senior officials in the department start working on responding to an imminent crisis comprehensively.

Yet more than a fortnight elapses before Alan Shatter receives this letter in the middle of a cabinet meeting or is briefed about matters. Purcell is away from office for over a week during this period due to a family bereavement. Why did Purcell not tell the minister sooner, especially given the primary core tenet of any civil servant is "cover your ass" by passing on key information?

* Question 2

Week ending March 21, following months of red-hot controversy, Martin Callinan rings the Department of Justice seeking guidance on a public statement effectively retracting his "disgusting" remarks about whistleblowers on January 23. Did the official consult his boss Purcell and, if so, what part did Purcell play in the advice given to Callinan?

* Question 3

Enda Kenny convenes a crisis meeting in his office on March 24 to deal with the tapes controversy. Such is his disquiet upon hearing of this practice and imminent release of legal discovery material in the Bailey case, he decides to establish a Commission of Inquiry under 2004 Act. Something only done in emergencies; a decision he resisted for months in relation to garda whistleblowers' allegations and failure to respond to them.

Brian Purcell is summoned to this meeting and asked to convey personally to Callinan the Government's deep concern about the tapes issue. Why does Purcell fail to notify the Taoiseach of the steps Callinan has taken: ceasing the practice since November, establishing working group to deal with it, preserving the tapes since 1997, making them available for the Bailey civil proceedings? This concealment is profoundly pertinent to the fairness of whether Callinan deserves to lose his job over this issue.

Whatever way you slice and dice these issues, Purcell has a lot of explaining to do. He provided Government with a six-page explanation, published this week. It raises more questions than answers. Neither the minister's absence in Mexico or Purcell's nine-day bereavement leave begin to adequately explain matters.

He is at the epicentre of resolving inevitable future sourness and mistrust that will exist between these offices, institutions and individuals.

Administration of justice and security of state depend on harmonious teamwork. The Secretary General leads these structures, sets out strategy and oversees its nerve centre.

Any Secretary General is the key person in running a department. He chairs weekly meetings of the MAC (Management Advisory Committee), which effectively runs the entire show, separately to a minister. His job description: manipulating situations, massaging egos, playing politics with a large and small 'p', protecting the system, its culture of secrecy and permanency. It requires deft diplomatic and political skills.

Relationships between ministers and Secretary Generals are so pivotal to ministerial performance – it makes or breaks a political career. What's the score between Shatter and Purcell? Are they friends, do they trust each other, how well do they communicate or is it toxic between them?

Government parties suggest these specific, most recent, politically charged, unanswered questions are to be resolved by Supreme Court Justice Nial Fennelly as chairman of Commission of Investigation.

This could take years and will be in private. Failure of the Oireachtas Justice Committee to establish such a hearing is ominous. Similar attempts to prevent PAC from dealing with penalty points were resisted by the forcefulness of John McGuinness, MaryLou McDonald and Shane Ross.

We have too many Oireachtas committees, rewarding government backbenchers with pay and perks as consolation prizes for not being a junior minister.

The Government stands accused of a Haughey-esque approach to transparency, far from what was promised.

Purcell's testimony is a prerequisite to drawing a line under this entire Shattergate saga. Respecting Purcell's public service to date is not in dispute.

As of now, his decisions and actions as Secretary General seem extraordinarily bewildering and bizarre. I want to believe Shatter and Kenny. It's time for Brian Purcell to step up to the plate and reveal all.

Irish Independent

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