Department of Justice chief in crosshairs of latest review sparked by Garda controversies

Brian Purcell’s fate depends on outcome of review after Guerin findings

 Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald:  “Any decision that I  make... will be based on objective evidence.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: “Any decision that I make... will be based on objective evidence.” Photograph: Eric Luke


The question right now is whether Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell can survive the fallout from the Garda controversies.

With the outcome still awaited from the investigation into the alleged bugging of the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), the uncertainty over Purcell’s position is one of several unsettled questions arising from the affair. But it is also one of the most immediate issues for resolution.

It was but weeks ago that Purcell was centrally involved with Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the events that led to the departure of former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. Only seven days have passed since the Guerin report prompted the resignation of Alan Shatter as minister for justice.

Now Purcell’s own fate depends on the outcome of a formal review of the department, a Government-led initiative that follows on from the unambiguous criticisms of senior counsel Seán Guerin.

Shatter’s successor Frances Fitzgerald declined on several occasions yesterday to express confidence in Purcell, saying her eventual deliberation will be evidence-based. This is quite an extraordinary situation, and adds to the cloud of doubt over the Department of Justice.

Last weekend, Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said the department was not fit for purpose.

Now the woman charged with cleaning up the mess left by Shatter has suspended judgment on the very civil servant who would be charged with executing a fundamental overhaul of the policing and justice system.

“What I’m saying is any decision that I make in relation to that question will be based on objective evidence,” Fitzgerald told reporters when asked if she had confidence in Purcell.

“It will be based on the responses which I get from the department in relation to what is identified in the Guerin report and that is the way that I will make that decision. I think there are also questions obviously of natural justice, which clearly would form part of any response that I would make.”

Fitzgerald’s position has been endorsed by the Taoiseach, whose spokesman said last evening that Enda Kenny shared his Minister’s stance. “There is a job of work to be done which does not begin and end with the secretary general of the department,” the spokesman said.

That task is indeed a mammoth one. The review of the department is the latest in a series of efforts by the Government to re-establish confidence in the policing system .

This work is likely to be carried out by a retired civil servant, not a management consultant, and Fitzgerald believes this should be completed before the Dáil and Seanad rise for the summer recess.

It will examine the performance, management and administration of her department. To obviate any doubt, Fitzgerald made it clear yesterday the department will be included in the “root-and-branch” reform of the justice system to which she has committed.

By way of a template, a 2010 review of the Department of Finance by a panel chaired by Rob Wright is seen as a precedent in Government circles. This followed the banking crash, which badly damaged the reputation of the Department of Finance.

It was one of a series of reform initiatives that eventually led to the installation of a former banker, John Moran, as secretary general. (Moran resigned last week, only two years into his seven-year mandate, saying his work was essentially done.)

All of this is just one part of the jigsaw. Even before the imminent report by retired High Court judge John Cooke into the GSOC bugging allegations, the Government pledged yesterday to strengthen GSOC’s operation.

Comprehensive inquiry
It has also called for a a comprehensive inquiry into serious crime investigation, management, operational and procedural issues by the Garda Inspectorate.

This is in addition to moves already under way to speed up the establishment of an independent Garda authority to oversee the force.

The aim now is to have the authority in place by the end of the year. Even without all the other questions facing Fitzgerald, this would be a highly ambitious deadline.

We will know soon whether Purcell will be tasked with implementing the new Minister’s plan.

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