Department of Justice: searching for answers

Pledges of change will offer little reassurance

Former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald with then Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan  at Templemore Garda College in April 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald with then Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan at Templemore Garda College in April 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

No satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming as to why the email accounts of senior Department of Justice officials were not examined following requests from the Charleton tribunal involving whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. An investigation by barrister Micheal Collins found “no evidence” to suggest the deliberate concealment or withholding of material concerning a legal strategy.

The resignation of former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald, last December, arising from these email discoveries, lead to Collins’s appointment. He concluded that because senior officials had taken a view the Department had only “peripheral relevance” to the tribunal’s terms of reference, a comprehensive search was not made. It was for the tribunal to decide, he insisted, whether its orders had been flouted.

Taoiseach Leo Varadar, who misled the Dáil and almost lost a government because of incomplete information, can hardly be reassured

Twenty years ago, the introduction of freedom of information legislation encouraged civil servants to exercise extreme caution when making observations on departmental files. A reluctance to search for potentially embarrassing material could account, in part, for a restricted response to tribunal requests. The tribunal itself appeared to take that view. At one stage, it advised the Department to take account of its complete terms of reference.

The “closed and secretive culture” of the Department of Justice, as described by the Toland report in 2014, may be relevant. It could account for a reluctance to publicly expose the detailed workings of the Department, with it symbiotic links to the Minister for Justice and the Garda commissioner. Whatever the reasons behind this failure to discover and disclose relevant emails, connecting these management centres at the highest level, the Department has reviewed its practices and procedures and promised change. The Government has “noted” the report and the Department’s commitment to improve its information and retrieval systems. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who misled the Dáil and almost lost a government because of incomplete information, can hardly be reassured.

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