‘The buck stops nowhere’, report into Department of Justice finds

Ministers and commissioners have to resign or retire ‘even for issues not of their making’

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan  resigned last year after controversies in the gardaí.  Photograph: The Irish Times

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan resigned last year after controversies in the gardaí. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

 

A high-level report into issues within the Department of Justice has found “it is as if the system has naturally evolved to ensure that the buck stops nowhere”.

This has led to a situation where Ministers, secretaries general, and Garda Commissioners have to “resign, step-aside or retire, even for issues not of their own making, simply because accountability cannot be found elsewhere”.

The report has recommended a complete reform of the department’s structures, splitting them into two separate divisions, though it does not endorse calls to have two separate departments.

One division would one deal with justice and equality (including the justice system, the courts, asylum and law reform) and the other with policing, crime, prisons, immigration and national security).

The group which produced the report was set up after the resignation of the former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald late last year, and was asked to report on the progress of reforms recommended in another document, the Toland Report, in 2014.

The secretary general of the Department Noel Waters also retired abruptly last year, while the Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan also resigned last year after controversies in the gardaí.

Their three predecessors also resigned from their posts in 2014 after a previous round of Garda and justice controversies.

Structural problems

While the report, which was approved by the Government on Tuesday and is expected to be published shortly, is replete with tributes to the hard work of civil servants in the Department, it makes clear there are structural problems and organisational failures which it says need to be urgently addressed.

No individuals are criticised, and there is a heavy emphasis on reforming the structures and architecture of the department.

“This has been a very difficult period for the department and it has taken a heavy toll on its people,” it finds.

“Despite its best efforts, the department currently is not meeting its entire functional remit. It is burdened by its historical way of working and a view of its role that has become constricted by years of being on the defensive and being battered by a world that it is no longer organised or equipped to navigate safely,” the report said.

It identifies a number of problems in the department, including “struggling to keep up with the pace now required of the Minister, and providing his or her team with required information in insufficient time for due consideration”; “limited meaningful performance measurement or performance management of the Department or the Justice sector as a whole”; and “occasional severe failure to deliver sufficient transparency for the Minister, the Oireachtas and the public.”

Reforms

It also said the department should examine converting the immigration service and prison service managed by the department into separate agencies.

It also recommends a series of reforms to the department’s management structures.

The report is critical of the department’s relationship with the Garda Síochána. It says that senior officials and senior gardaí “end up in the trenches together”.

“We believe that these outcomes are not rooted in any lack of integrity of effort, expertise, operational response or commitment in the Department, but rather in a lack of a resilient and nimble organisational structure, which prioritises effectiveness and speed of output and clarity of function,” it says.

However, the report is also clear that the department has insufficient budgetary control over the gardaí and is therefore missing a crucial tool in management and oversight.

“The vote [BUDGET]pursuant to which the gardaí are financed assigns all expenditure, this year over €1.5 billion, to a single programme – ‘Working with Communities to Protect and Serve’. This in itself provides no insight into how the voted resources are to be deployed and no basis for testing how they are used,” it finds.

“This reduces, in a fundamental way, the statutory accountability of the Garda Commissioner as it removes any structural discipline on him or her to manage resources in a 12-month framework to a fixed budget. As a result the pattern repeats in the following year,” it finds.

The report is clear about the importance of a budgetary process to drive reforms in the gardaí. “Without the structure and transparency of this budgetary process, it is difficult to see how there can ever be clarity in precisely what the Department requires of the gardaí or whether the gardaí are delivering it,” it says.

The group which produced the report was chaired by Pádraig Ó Ríordáin, a former managing partner of Arthur Cox and chairman of the National Lottery, Andrew Algeo former managing director of commercial and risk for Paddy Power, Theresa Daly, former general manager with Microsoft Ireland and Dermot McCarthy, a former secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach.