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After refusing to back him for 80 days, Frances Fitzgerald now needs a new secretary general

The Justice Minister has accepted a request from Brian Purcell to be reassigned in the wake of a damning report.

Frances Fitzgerald
Frances Fitzgerald
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Updated 5.40pm 

FOR 80 DAYS Frances Fitzgerald refused to back her top civil servant Brian Purcell as secretary general of the Department of Justice, but now he’s offered to be reassigned.

It comes after a damning report by an independent review group found a “closed, secretive and silo driven culture” operating within the department and recommended wide scale reforms to its administration.

Speaking to reporters this evening, Fitzgerald said Purcell had “decided that it was in the best interests of the department” that he offer to be reassigned in the wake of his reading the report. She said he felt it would be a “distraction” if he remained.

“In fact he said to me that it was in the best interests of the department, of my role as minister and personally himself to take this decision. I think it was an honourable decision,” she said.

Fitzgerald said this evening that it was important to note that the report “does not name any individuals” and that Purcell has “served the State for 28 years to date” noting he was shot at when he worked at the Department of Social Protection in the 1980s.

She said “there’s no secret deal” with Purcell and he will not be reassigned within the department.

The Minister said she believes his successor will be appointed after an open competition process which will take around two to three months although she admitted there will be difficulties with it being August.

No statement of support

Purcell was previously criticised in the Guerin Report over his handling of garda matters including the situation surrounding garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

In the wake that report the then newly-appointed justice minister refused to officially show or deny her support for – or confidence in – Purcell remaining as her Secretary General.

On May 9, Fitzgerald would not explicitly state whether or not she had confidence in her top civil servant, despite being asked three times.

The following week, the minister was asked again about her confidence in Purcell and replied that she would base her decision on whether he should remain in his post on “sound advice, expert advice” following the independent review of the department’s management and administration.

Fitzgerald said there were “questions obviously of natural justice which clearly would form part of any response that I make” in relation to Purcell’s future at the department.

In a statement today responding to the report’s publication and noting Purcell’s offer to be reassigned to other duties in the public service, Fitzgerald thanked Purcell for his years of service and noted the Cabinet’s decision to proceed with the open recruitment of his replacement.

She said the “newly appointed Secretary General will play a pivotal role in managing and embedding the recommendations of the report in the workings of the Department”.

Response to report

On the independent review group’s report in general, Fitzgerald said she had confidence in the current staff in her department to implement its recommendations, noting this was the view of the review group.

“It’s a critical report but it’s a constructive report, it maps a way forward for the department,” Fitzgerald said of the 21-page document that she described as a “really valuable tool”.

She also rejected suggestions she had delayed publishing the report though acknowledging she has had it for two weeks and that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were given the report last Tuesday.

The Fine Gael TD said there may well be decisions and changes to staff on foot of the report but stressed the review group had shown confidence in the staff at her department to carry out the reforms.

She had had discussions with Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin about providing additional resources to the department to implement the recommendations of the report.

Fitzgerald also suggested that similar reviews should be carried out in other government departments, saying: “Some of the issues identified in this would be common across a number of areas.”

“This is a valuable tool to understand how the department is functioning and the challenges that it faces and what we need to do going forward is to make sure that it’s fit for purpose,” she later added.

- additional reporting from Susan Ryan 

First published 5.11pm 

Read: Justice Dept boss to be reassigned after report finds “closed, secretive” culture >

Explainer: What is the Guerin report and why was it needed? >

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Hugh O'Connell

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