Something sensational!

Opinion: Head of Prison Service shows how accountability should work

‘Only in our most distressful country are the actions of Michael Donnellan (above)  extraordinary.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘Only in our most distressful country are the actions of Michael Donnellan (above) extraordinary.’ Photograph: Eric Luke


The best April Fool joke I came across last week was an announcement on the Penguin Books website. The publisher said it was planning to create new editions of classic novels tailored to the tastes of a new generation by replacing all the full stops with exclamation marks! I thought I might try this today because something genuinely sensational happened recently!

A man in a position of public responsibility read the newspapers, listened to the radio and watched the TV news! He realised there was a problem in another public body and wondered whether there might be the same problem in his organisation too! And he did something about it!! He worked through the weekend to find out what was going on!!!

And when he discovered that there was indeed a problem he told people about it straight away!!! And then he went on the radio to explain himself!!! And he uttered the most astonishing words ever heard from a senior figure in the State: “This is a problem of our own making. . . that I’m responsible for”!!!! I’m off for a cold shower to calm my excitement so please insert your own expressions of amazement in what follows.

Illegal recordings
The man in question is Michael Donnellan, director general of the Irish Prison Service. On Wednesday, March 26th, when the story about the illegal recording of phone calls to and from Garda stations was all over every form of media, he had the kind of thought that might occur to an ordinary person: holy God, I wonder did anything like this happen in my outfit?

He asked his IT people to do a general check on the recording of all phones within the prison system. “I was aware of the public issues in relation to recording and I wanted to assure myself personally that the prison service were doing things right.” Initially, he was worried about calls between members of staff: there was no problem there. But having raised the question, he got inklings that there might be an even bigger problem. Calls from serving prisoners to their solicitors might have been recorded. By Sunday, these fears had been confirmed. He called the Department of Justice with the news on Sunday evening. By Tuesday last week he had sent a detailed note to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. By Wednesday, he was on Morning Ireland on RTÉ radio, giving an honest and open account of what he had found out, saying it was his responsibility to deal with it and apologising.

How hard was all that? Not very. Donnellan is widely admired as an excellent public servant but in a functioning State everything he did might be regarded as standard operating procedure. Stay alert, ask the intelligent question, follow the truth wherever it leads and if you find something nasty don’t cover it up – tell your bosses and remember that those bosses include the citizens of Ireland.

Only in our most distressful country are Donnellan’s actions extraordinary. And it’s only when you see things done so intelligently that you are reminded of the real standard operating procedure: keep your eyes shut, don’t go looking for trouble and if trouble finds you say as little as possible to as few people as possible for as long as possible. Above all, don’t worry about accountability: if you follow these rules, you’ll be just fine.

Political handling
The peculiar mixture of farce and nastiness in the political handling of the crisis within the Garda has tended to distract from the most obvious aspect of what’s gone on: lack of management in the Garda and the Department of Justice.

In the period when many of these messes were being created, these managers were among the best paid in the world: the secretary of the department of justice was taking in €233,610; a deputy secretary €186, 891 and an assistant secretary up to €158,644. The Garda commissioner was on €232,500, deputy commissioners on €166,978, assistant commissioners on €143,729 and chief superintendents on up to €109,539. Was it too much to ask that between them all these well-paid people could devise and run a penalty points system for traffic offences? Apparently so.

The recent Garda Inspectorate report describes the system as “technically deficient, managerially uncoordinated, inefficient”. It notes: “With few exceptions, the Inspectorate found no meaningful evidence of consistent quality management supervision of the cancellation process either at Garda Headquarters, Regional, Divisional, District or any level that would have detected and rectified these problems.” Not only was the system a shambles because it was badly managed, it was so badly managed that those in charge didn’t know how much of a shambles it was. Left to themselves, the report noted, “the extent of the deficiencies . . . would not have been detected”.

Has anyone been sacked or demoted because of this? Will whoever decided, as late as 2010, to set up a system of recording calls from prisons that apparently did not take account of the existence of mobile phones pay any price? When the political heat is off, will we get any sense of personal responsibility by senior managers for what they did and failed to do? Sure!!!

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