As election recedes, Department of Justice placed under scrutiny

Leo Varadkar vows to restore public confidence in ‘dysfunctional’ State department

The political temperature dropped like a stone in the aftermath of the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald on Tuesday, as the tension built up by the prospect of an imminent general election dissipated.

That is the way such political controversies usually work: the resignation is cathartic. It solves the problem, and the politics moves on.

But for the Department of Justice, the fallout may be just beginning.

The Taoiseach’s comments on Tuesday left the Dáil in no doubt about his feelings towards the Department of Justice. Describing it as “dysfunctional”, he said the department was largely responsible for Fitzgerald’s resignation.


“Had all of the questions been answered and the emails found and put in the public domain seven or 10 days ago, I do not think it would have been necessary for the tánaiste to tender her resignation this morning,” Varadkar said.

Civil servants are accused of all sorts of things regularly in the Dáil. But rarely by Ministers. And never by the Taoiseach. Senior civil servants privately expressed astonishment at his comments.

But Varadkar went much further, saying he was “planning radical action to restore public confidence in the Department of Justice”. Ministers are talking about the department in the way they talk about the Garda – an agency not subject to political control that is in dire need of being reined in.

I remind the Deputy and the House that the only reason those emails came to light was that I ordered a trawl of emails and documents last week

An external inquiry, likely to be headed by secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser, will now take place, and a series of reforms designed to make the department more transparent to the political system will be introduced.

Personal accountability

Furthermore, Varadkar took the unprecedented step of saying that he would seek personal accountability from senior civil servants.

“I remind the Deputy and the House that the only reason those emails came to light was that I ordered a trawl of emails and documents last week because I was not confident or satisfied that the department had released all of the information it had because I had to come in here on two occasions and correct the record,” he said. “I never want to be put in that position again.

“The House can be sure I will be holding the department and its senior officials to account to ensure that neither I nor any Minister or member of the Dáil will ever be put in that position again.”

Asked at the Cabinet briefing for further information on what the Taoiseach was planning, his spokesman said last night that “accountability is very important to him . . . accountability in the public sector is very important”.

In the wake of the Taoiseach's comments in the Dáil about the Department of Justice, its secretary general, Noel Waters, announced his immediate retirement.

Government spokespeople insisted that the early notice of Waters's retirement was not connected in any way to the McCabe controversy. It was a coincidence

It was the second announcement about Waters's retirement in as many weeks. A fortnight ago, he told Minister for Minister Charlie Flanagan he was going to retire next February. He also told him, in the same phone call, that the department had found an email regarding Sgt Maurice McCabe, though that was not made public at the time.

Retirement of Waters

This email, as it turned out, ignited the current controversy over when Frances Fitzgerald as Minister for Justice first learned of the Garda legal strategy to attack whistleblower Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission examining issues in the Garda’s Cavan-Monaghan division. It emerged last week she had received an email about the strategy in May 2015, a year earlier than she and the Taoiseach had stated.

Government spokespeople insisted that the early notice of Waters’s retirement was not connected in any way to the McCabe controversy. It was a coincidence, they said. They weren’t saying his abrupt departure on Tuesday was a coincidence.

A number of senior officials are named in the subsequent internal Department of Justice emails released by the Government. Waters, Michael Flahive, Ken O'Leary and Martin Power – senior officials in the Department of Justice and some of the most powerful civil servants in the State – were all in the emails circulated to Fitzgerald's office. There is no suggestion any of them have acted improperly. But the department they serve is likely to see unprecedented scrutiny in the coming weeks.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times