Nothing changes because Establishment takes care of its own

After stepping down from Justice, Brian Purcell was handed a plum job at the HSE

“Brian Purcell was assured that he would keep his pension entitlements and his salary of more than €180,000”. Photograph: Frank Miller

“Brian Purcell was assured that he would keep his pension entitlements and his salary of more than €180,000”. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

In October 2014, the Health Service Executive created a new high-level job: head of compliance. The job is to monitor all organisations contracted to the HSE and blow the whistle on any funny business that might be going on – a role, surely, for a hard-nosed, hyper-vigilant sceptic .

And who was the best person for the job? Brian Purcell, who had just “stepped aside” from his previous job as secretary general of the Department of Justice, in large measure because of the abject failure of the department to listen to whistleblowers in An Garda Síochána, most notably Sgt Maurice McCabe. In taking up his new job, Purcell was assured that he would keep his pension entitlements and his salary of more than €180,000.

Purcell had stepped down from running the Department of Justice in part because the Guerin report into the handing of the claims by whistleblowers had found that the department’s standard operating procedure when it received confidential internal complaints of malpractice in the Garda “was invariably to refer the issues that had been raised to An Garda Síochána . . .

“In effect,” the report continued, “the process of determining Sgt McCabe’s complaints went no further than the minister receiving and acting upon the advice of the person who was the subject of the complaint . . . Indeed, in all the papers furnished by the department, I can find no evidence of any detailed assessment within the department of any of the allegations made by Sgt McCabe or of the responses received from the Commissioner”.

Silo culture

The management of the Department of Justice while Purcell was at its head was also the subject of a scathing report by an independent review group. The review said the department had “a deferential relationship with An Garda Síochána with a lack of proper strategic accountability being brought to bear upon them”. It found “a closed, secretive and silo culture which has inhibited the capacity of the organisation to question and to challenge, and therefore to learn and adapt”.

Guerin also found “a lack of cohesive leadership and management practices” and noted “No clear ownership of issues – A lack of responsibility and accountability.”

Specifically in relation to the handling of the whistleblower claims and the recording of phone calls at Garda stations, it summarised the situation thus: “(1) No one person in charge of the overall issue. (2) No overall plan to deal with the issues as they unfolded. (3) No recognition of the serious potential impact of the issues. (4) Unable to see where things went wrong.”

Last year’s O’Higgins report noted that in February 2013, then Garda commissioner Martin Callinan sent a report to Purcell replying to a query about allegations made by McCabe. Purcell told Judge O’Higgins that Callinan’s report should have gone to the minister at the time, Alan Shatter, “but for whatever reason that didn’t happen”. It was, in fact, exactly a year before Purcell gave Shatter the report.

Brian Purcell is a hard-working public servant and a personally brave man who stood up to the notorious gangster Martin Cahill and was shot for his trouble. He has had absolutely nothing to do with the smearing of Maurice McCabe. But he is a central figure in the broader McCabe saga. He ran a department that was supposed to supervise the Garda but that in fact treated the force, and in particular its commissioner, with undue deference.

If the department Purcell headed had insisted on a thorough independent scrutiny of McCabe’s claims, this whole train of events might have been stopped before it became such a toxic mess – and before public trust in the Garda was so deeply eroded.

Once in . . .

The scathing independent review of the Department of Justice was published in July 2014. It is what happened next that illustrates exactly why things don’t change: if you’re part of the Establishment, you remain part of the Establishment, come what may.

Even with that report on the table, it seemed in October 2014 obvious to enough within the system that the best person to enforce accountability on publicly funded health bodies was the same person who had come from the heart of the “closed, secretive silo culture” that was no good at questioning or challenging at least one major publicly funded body, the Garda.

Perhaps there was a reluctance to be harsh on Brian Purcell because of what he had suffered in the course of his public duties. Perhaps there was some unease that he had been sent to do the Taoiseach’s dirty work: it was Purcell who was dispatched to visit Callinan at his home late at night and, in effect, tell him that his position as commissioner was untenable.

Whatever the reasons, a central figure in the State’s failure to respond adequately to the questions raised by Maurice McCabe was given a plum public job with a salary of €180,000-plus. To put it at its mildest, this kind of thing hardly creates a fear of failure at the top of the public service.

Voltaire joked that the English liked to shoot an admiral every now and then “to encourage the others”. The Irish system encourages the others by letting them know that, whatever happens, they will be just fine.  

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