Purcell profile: civil servant could not escape scandal that engulfed policing and justice

Third high-profile departure from the key justice and security posts in last two years

Brian Purcell:  squeezed from office because of the disastrous handling of the allegations. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Brian Purcell: squeezed from office because of the disastrous handling of the allegations. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

The now departed secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell is one of the most experienced senior civil servants in the State.

He has also gone much further in the line of duty than others and paid a heavy price, long before being moved very publicly sideways yesterday.

His is the third high-profile departure from the key justice and security posts in the State since policing scandals began closing in on the Government and Garda about two years ago when Garda whistleblowers made more and more noise.

The allegations they made, mostly about the termination of penalty points, need not have cost any of the departed men their jobs. No corruption has been uncovered.

Disastrous handling

Alan ShatterMartin Callinan

Mr Purcell found himself at the centre of the political controversy surrounding the 16-day gap in March between his office receiving a warning letter from former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan about the system of Garda recording calls and Mr Shatter receiving that letter. The delay occurred despite Mr Callinan requesting the letter be brought to Mr Shatter’s attention.

In his defence, Mr Purcell took a break from work at the time that coincided exactly with Mr Shatter’s ministerial St Patrick’s Day extended trip overseas. He was grieving the death of his mother at the time.

However, others who know Mr Purcell described him as a micro manager. They suggested it was possible because he insisted on directing everyone around him that his office stopped working when he was absent in March and that the letter was delayed as a result.

And just as details of that delay were emerging, it was Mr Purcell who was sent by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the home of Mr Callinan in late March to explain to him the difficulties caused in Government over his use of the term “disgusting” to describe the Garda whistleblowers and of the emerging scandal around the Garda tapes. Mr Callinan made the sudden decision to retire just two days later.

In the debate that followed, the letter sent to Mr Purcell but not passed on to Mr Shatter emerged and Mr Purcell became mired in controversy; a position he never recovered from. The Guerin report into the Department of Justice’s handling of the whistleblowers’ allegations – on penalty points and malpractice in Cavan-Monaghan – emerged last month and was highly critical of the department. Mr Shatter resigned at once ensuring Mr Purcell remained on the ropes.

No confidence

Frances Fitzgerald

He took the well-worn path to the job of secretary general, coming from director general of the Irish Prison Service.

Some 15 years ago, when he worked as a higher executive officer in the Department of Social Welfare, he signed the paperwork stopping weekly dole payments of £92 to the Dublin underworld boss Martin Cahill. As a result, Mr Purcell was abducted from his Dublin home by four hooded men, who tied up his pregnant wife.

They drove Mr Purcell to Cahill. The criminal shot him twice in the legs. He sent Mr Purcell a get-well card in hospital that read: “The General prognosis is good.” Mr Purcell made a full recovery and went on to resume his career, spending time in the prisons division of the Department of Justice before becoming prison service director general in 2004.

His tenure as director general coincided with the darkest days of the prison system, with the gang culture, rising levels of violence and drug smuggling.