#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 14°C Sunday 20 June 2021

Mary Lou's 20-minute wonder underlines the need for top official to explain Gardagate - for his own sake

Department of Justice Secretary General Brian Purcell is at the centre of several controversies, but the biggest questions concern the events leading up to the departure of Martin Callinan in March.

JUST BEFORE MIDDAY on Thursday the word was out: Sinn Féin were about to break something big about the Gardagate controversy during Leaders’ Questions.

That furore surrounding the resignation (or retirement, as he maintains) of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and the recording of calls in and out of garda stations for decades had been off the agenda since a Commission of Inquiry was established and Supreme Court justice Nial Fennelly began his preliminary work.

But now Sinn Féin were about to blow the whole thing wide open again, right in the middle of an election. Journalists are usually left underwhelmed by political parties promising big announcements or big speeches, but this one was promising.

We were told that Mary Lou McDonald would be revealing new details about contact Taoiseach Enda Kenny had with the now departed Justice Minister Alan Shatter and his officials in the days before Callinan resigned/retired.

Sure enough, the Sinn Féin deputy leader stood up in the Dáil chamber just after 12.10pm and began to disclose details of the Taoiseach’s diary (obtained under FOI), including a previously undisclosed meeting between Kenny, Shatter and officials at 7.30am on Sunday, 23 March:

Taoiseach s diary Pg 1-page-001

If true, this was some 36 hours before a previously disclosed meeting on the Monday evening, 24 March where Shatter was first informed of the garda recordings.

It was also around 11 hours before the Attorney General was said to have informed Kenny of the recordings issue for the first time – 6pm on that Sunday.

But just 20 minutes later it transpired that it wasn’t true as a government spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that in fact there had been a mix-up.

The meeting was inputted in the diary after the event in the interests of “transparency” and it should have been placed at 7.30pm on the Monday.

A “clerical error” was how it was officially described. “A f*** up,” said another senior government official privately.

Either way, it seemed a potentially explosive development was in fact nothing more than a damp squib.

But the brief scandal, totalling some 20 minutes, underlines the need for certain officials to provide a more detailed account of just what happened in the days and hours before Callinan departed.

Among them is Brian Purcell, the secretary general of the Department of Justice, who is embroiled in some considerable controversy at the moment.

File Photo Enda Kenny said he felt it was his duty to send a senior official, secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell, to Garda Headquarters to meet Martin Callinan. Asked if Mr Purcell had been instructed to ask Mr Callinan to resign Former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, Secretary General of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell, and former Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Purcell is a veteran of the public service. As an executive officer in the Department of Social Welfare in the 1980s he famously went where others dared not by signing the papers which cut off Martin ‘The General’ Cahill’s dole. The criminal boss later kidnapped Purcell and shot him in the legs twice.

Purcell later became head of the Irish Prison Service where his reforms would earn him the role of top civil servant in the Department of Justice in July 2011. But his tenure there, much like Shatter’s, has been riddled with problems not least the handling of the garda whistleblowers.

This week Purcell agreed to go before the Oireachtas Justice Committee to answer questions in relation to the Guerin report, most likely the week after the next. TDs and Senators will want to question Purcell about why there was “no detailed assessment” of any of the allegations made by the garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

The Guerin report was so damning of the Department of Justice, Shatter was left with no choice but to resign and his successor Frances Fitzgerald has been left without any way of expressing confidence in her secretary general despite being asked five times in the last week or so.

But politicians don’t just have questions about Guerin they are also keen to find out more about the events surrounding Callinan’s departure. Yes, these are matters for Justice Fennelly to consider but if Purcell can give a detailed account of his version of events perhaps it could go some way to saving his own skin in the Department of Justice.

DOJ memo The Purcell memo details his version of events surrounding the record of calls in garda stations

So far all we’ve heard from Purcell on the matter is a six-page memo issued on 1 April (above). From this we know that Callinan first informed Purcell of the garda recordings issue, specifically in relation to the Ian Bailey case, in a letter on 10 March.

Yet there has been considerable controversy caused by the fact that the contents of the letter did not come to Shatter’s attention until 24 March and he was not physically presented with it by Purcell until the following day – over two weeks after it landed on the SecGen’s desk.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

Purcell’s memo explained that while the 10 March letter referred to ”the systemic issue” of garda station recordings going back decades “there was little discussion of that particular issue and certainly not in any red flag manner”. The letter mainly concerned the Bailey case and the implications recordings would have on that matter.

Purcell’s memo also disclosed both his and the Minister’s busy schedules in the days following Callinan’s letter. There was the publication of another penalty points investigation by the Garda Inspectorate among other events on 12 March, Purcell went before the Public Accounts Committee on 13 March, and then Shatter departed for Mexico on 14 March.

screenshot.1400254306.21782 Brian Purcell was answering questions about a "comedy of errors" over the abandoned Pathology Office at a PAC hearing on 13 March. Source: TheJournal.ie

In addition Purcell, for family bereavement reasons, was out of the office from 15 to 24 March.

Still a key question remains as to why, when Purcell and Shatter met with the Taoiseach and his top official Martin Fraser on Monday, 24 March, Shatter was not given the 10 March letter from Callinan.

Also key among the questions is why Purcell was dispatched to the home of Martin Callinan that very night to, in the Taoiseach’s words, ensure that the Commissioner “be made aware of the gravity of how I felt about this and its implications”.

Many believe that this was Kenny effectively sacking Callinan. The Taoiseach denies it. But what does Purcell think?

In the Dáil this week, the independent TD Róisín Shortall pointed out that if Purcell does go before the Justice Committee he cannot divulge private conversations with Kenny unless the Taoiseach lifts the confidentiality on those discussions:

Source: Hugh O'Connell/YouTube

That and other matters should be addressed and Purcell should be allowed to go before the committee and answer any and all questions that TDs and Senators have have for him. Several have already indicated privately that even if their remit is Guerin they will try to ask about the Callinan issue.

And given that Purcell has a minister, and indeed a government, who cannot express confidence in him, it’s in his interests to answer the questions that linger as soon as possible.

Read: Everything you need to know about GardaGate in one place

Official report: Justice Dept didn’t think Callinan’s taping revelations were that important

Here’s Martin Callinan’s 10 March letter to Alan Shatter…

About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

Read next: