Tá áthas orm cúpla focal a rá faoi gach ar thárla le roinnt seachtain anuas agus, go spesialta, faoin mo taithí mar Aire Dlí agus Cirt ar feadh dhá bhliain. I was missed last week and I was flattered that it should have been mentioned on the national airwaves. Along with some Deputies opposite, I was abroad at a health conference which had been arranged for some time. Today I break a self-imposed silence of two years to talk about my experience of the Department of Justice.
As we all know, this Department is vitally important to our sense of citizenship and freedom. It is a big, complex Department. It has secrets but when one deals with organised crime, subversion and contract killing one must have secret methods and approaches. Such secrecy does not make for good PR, so for many years some prominent and powerful members of this Government have hated the Department of Justice and have wanted to emasculate, diminish and demean it. The current Minister, Deputy Owen, must seem like the answer to all their prayers because she has served them the Department on a platter. Which of them would now like to do the slicing? In so doing she follows a pattern she set from the beginning. The Minister, Deputy Owen, does not just pass the buck, she passes the blame too. Good mangers say that for every problem there is a solution, but the Minister has a new version of that: for every problem there is a scapegoat — eany meany miny moe catch the civil servant by the toe.
To the Minister's thinking, civil servants are not members of her team, professionals who are proud of what they do and committed to high performance, they are like heat logs. Any time she needs a good blaze to distract from her incompetence she sets fire to a few of them, with a great blaze and sparks, but in the end only ashes. The Minister's personal survival as Minister for Justice is worth any number of civil servants and their careers. Is it justice to demonise people who cannot defend themselves or their performance? Is it justice to portray a whole Department of people as stupid, lazy, secretive and generally useless? No, it is not. I was in that Department for two years and I know the Department and the people in it. During my time there, inevitably, given the areas covered by the portfolio, there was one crisis after another, but the crises were managed by public servants who were efficient and effective. It is amazing that a Department full of excellent people can, in less than two years, undergo such change.
As I drove into work this morning I passed the Department of Justice in St. Stephen's Green and I looked over the door to see something of which I am very proud, the name of the Department, An Roinn Dlí agus Cirt — the Department of Justice. That name was not over the door when I became Minister, but I decided in 1994 that it should be displayed proudly. The building is most unappealing architecturally and most depressing, probably the most depressing of all Government buildings in which to work. It has, however, two saving graces — the professionalism of its staff and its proximity to St. Stephen's Green with its beautiful pathways.
I remembered this morning all the survivors of the Department of Justice, many of whom are still Members of this House, such as Deputies Ray Burke, Gerry Collins, Jim Mitchell, Michael Noonan, Alan Dukes and myself, and about half a dozen other Members who acted as Minister for Justice in the absence of the Minister who must attend to business abroad from time to time.
In 1993 I was appointed to the Department of Justice. To my knowledge, in living memory Deputy Owen is the only Member of this House who asked to be Minister for Justice. Usually people are given the job, which is the most difficult of all in Government. The first greeting I received on arriving in the Department was from the private secretary and I asked him what the Department was like. He said that at the end of the day I was responsible for 10,000 gardaí, 2,000 prison officers and 800 civil servants.
On the work method adopted at the time, as everybody who has been Minister or even a Deputy in a constituency office is aware, that is devised by the political head. I examined each of the divisions of the Department and found out what work was under way and what was in the pipeline. I reordered priorities within each division.
The Minister's office is located on the fourth floor in what is referred to as the ministerial suite, consisting of the Minister's office, the private office, that is the office out of which the private secretary operates, the programme manager's office, the personal assistants' office and the constituency office, with a couple of yards between each office.
When I became Minister I discovered that a new office had been created for a programme manager. That person was supposed to smooth the operation of Government, iron out difficulties between Ministers and Departments and oversee implementation of Government policy. That was the job description then and I would like to know if and when it changed. At that time programme managers held their own mini-Cabinet meetings at least once and sometimes twice or three times a week, at which they oversaw Government decisions. The chairman of the programme managers, the programme manager for the Taoiseach, having trawled through all Government decisions, came to the meeting with an agenda and demanded to know from each other programme manager the position on the implementation of Government decisions. That person was aware on coming to the meeting of certain decisions that had not been implemented.
As regards the office procedures in place in the Department of Justice when I was in office, there was a rule that any communication from a Government colleague, including the Attorney General and the Chief Whip, a judge or the governor of a prison would immediately be brought to the Minister's attention. Any correspondence that came to the office marked private, personal or confidential was brought to the attention of the personal assistant to the Minister, who opened that mail and came directly to me with it. I then made the decision, as Minister, on how it should be handled. I raise this issue because in the report of the inquiry there is specific reference to the fact that the letter from Judge Lynch, marked personal, had gone to the personal assistant to the Minister. I find it extraordinary, therefore, that that person did not, as would have happened in my time in office, immediately bring the matter to the Minister for decision.
Deputy Jim O'Keeffe is wrong in saying that the only way a person, including a judge, may hear about Government decisions is by way ofIris Oifigiúil. When I was in office I was involved in the preparation, presentation and execution at Cabinet meetings of every memorandum for Government and finally in the implementation of decisions. A pink slip, signed by the Government secretariat, was photocopied for every Member of the Cabinet and sent to the Minister's office in the Department after each Cabinet meeting. After each meeting I either returned to the Department or went to my office in the Dáil and communicated with the secretary of the Department or the appropriate official and always with the programme manager. There was then a full and detailed discussion of all the areas involving the memorandum for Government. We decided the events that had to take place in order to implement those decisions and followed through on that. That was done, inevitably, even before the pink slip from the Government secretariat arrived in the Department. The programme manager was crucial to this practice because he had to report back and would be pursued relentlessly by the chairman and other programme managers in the event that a Government decision was not acted upon.
The Minister at all times must be not only competent but seen to be in control, in charge and on top of the job. Since she may receive phone calls at all hours of the day or night, whether in regard to a prison riot, a murder, an arms find, a drugs haul, an arrest or a suicide attempt, she must be on 24 hour call.
When I became Minister for Justice I was told that the culture of the Department was secretive and closed and that the civil servants were all old, grey men who were opposed to change and new ideas. However, I found the Department open, willing to change and to work all hours to implement the Minister's desires and wishes. One of my earliest experiences was on prioritised, sensitive legislation, which every Member of this House, the public and every civil servant in the Department of Justice found extremely difficult to deal with from a personal point of view — everybody is aware of the legislation to which I am referring. Despite the personal difficulties with that legislation, the civil servants in the law division of the Department of Justice worked tirelessly and relentlessly pursued the parliamentary draftsman to bring it to fruition. I left a letter on the desk for my successor stating what I thought of the Department and its officials and she is free to publish that letter if she wishes.
The nature of the Department is that it has many secrets, and civil servants and Ministers for Justice go to their graves with many of those secrets. I regret the private secretary in the Department was the only one targeted by being named publicly in the media. That private secretary, on a day when I was answering parliamentary questions in this House based on information I had received not two hours earlier from the Garda Commissioner's office in the Phoenix Park, saw a headline in an evening newspaper which fully contradicted the information I was about to impart to Deputy Gay Mitchell, photocopied the article and the headline, ran from his office upstairs to the door of this Chamber and handed the article, with his note informing me that it contradicted the information I was about to impart, to a staff member of the House who gave it to me. Because of his quick thinking and efficiency I was prevented from inadvertently misleading the House on a serious matter. Is that the action of somebody who is incompetent?
How could things have changed so fundamentally in two years, and why? Every Minister lays down the ground rules clearly. Different Ministers operate differently but civil servants obey their political masters' instructions to the letter. Civil servants are not mind readers, however; they need clear, precise instructions.
I have not made any comment on the performance of the Minister for Justice in the past two years. In fact, anything I said about her in relation to prisons, etc. was in an effort to be helpful. The warning bells rang after the prisons fiasco. I thought the Minister for Finance had pulled a fast one at Government when the Minister, Deputy Owen, was away. I was shocked subsequently to learn in this House that the Government agenda, sent to the Minister and opened by her, stated clearly the prison scrappage as one of its items. That agenda was consigned to the briefcase and the Minister went off merrily to eastern Europe without telling anyone in the Department.
The first the Department knew of the decision was when the Government pink slip decision arrived. What did the Minister think would happen? Did she think in innocence the proposal would be postponed in her absence or that one of her colleagues at the Cabinet table would stand up for her Department when his or her own Department was being slashed also?
What should the Minister have done? She should have cancelled the trip abroad and immediately alerted the secretary and the assistant secretary in the prisons section. They should have prepared her battle lines for the next morning's Government meeting. At that stage her actions could have been put down to inexperience but it should have been a lesson that was learned.
I want to know about the Minister's relationship with the Attorney General. Do these two members of the Government talk to each other? Do they discuss issues of common interest? Do they ever communicate by telephone? Why would an Attorney General of the calibre of Dermot Gleeson, on being told by Judge Harvey Kenny that a Government decision had not been complied with resulting in persons being held in unlawful custody in our prisons, write to the Minister for Justice? Why did he not pick up the telephone and ring her? If he did not want to talk to the Minister on the telephone, why did he not ring her and say he wanted to talk to her about an urgent matter? Why would he not have asked to see her?
The Attorney General would have clearly understood the absolute urgency of getting the message to the Minister. One wonders if he made any effort to contact her. Did he mark his letter to the Minister "For the Immediate and Personal Attention of the Minister"? Was the letter marked "Private and Confidential"? If not, why not? This was not an ordinary matter. The security of the State and the constitutional rights to personal liberty of persons were at stake.
One month went by. How many times did the Minister and the Attorney General meet during that month? At all Government meetings? At a number of the Northern Ireland talks? Did they meet socially? I find it unbelievable that during that time this experienced, eminent lawyer, the Attorney General, did not at any stage mention the Judge Lynch matter to the Minister.
The Attorney General is very close to the Taoiseach. Why did he not mention this serious matter to him? The Attorney General knew for a full month that certain citizens were being deprived of their liberty contrary to article 40.4 of the Constitution, and we are being asked to believe that all he did was write two letters. It beggars belief. That is why the Attorney General must answer for himself and that can only be done before a committee of this House.
This brings me to the events of the past two days. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the Cabinet room last Tuesday evening. One can picture the scenario inside. The report is distributed. It is read but the result is unsatisfactory because no person has been found guilty. One can picture the scenario outside the Cabinet room. A Dáil and a country convulsed, and Government backbenchers muttering in the corridors.
I must be forgiven for thinking aloud at this time but I wonder if a head-hunting expedition was organised. Was a head sought and, if so, whose head? Knowing the head-hunters involved, I would have thought a relatively junior head would not have been enough. I have my suspicions in that regard but unfortunately I was not a fly on the wall and I do not know.
If the Minister was a manager in private enterprise she would not get away with the disgraceful badmouthing of her own team. Her board of directors would quickly cut through the blame laying and buck passing and tell her it is bad management when a chief executive officer does not know what is going on in the plant. They would say that performance is what matters and a consistently incompetent performance is not and cannot be justified by reference to the alleged failure of subordinates.
This Government does not carry out any performance appraisal. It simply circles the wagons around its failures, throws out a few human sacrifices — civil servants are in great supply — and sets out to bore the nation into moving away from the current disaster.
Deputy Nora Owen is Minister for Justice. Deputies will remember a Department that existed once upon a time and did a good job under the enormous pressures of active subversion until a Minister came along whose approach was pleasingly simple. She did not achieve control of the complexities of the Department. She presided over a series of mismanaged messes. She could find time for every photo opportunity but no time to get to grips with what happens in the Department. When her own title came under threat, she was quite happy to collude in the destruction of a whole Department.
The Minister is still Minister and that is all that matters to her. For what is she Minister? For Justice? Tell that to the civil servants and listen for the bitter laugh. She is Minister in the Department of Justice. What Department? Deputy Owen is now Minister of what is left of a once great Department. She presides over the bits that her Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left colleagues have allowed her to hang on to. She will go down in the history of the public service as the Minister who sacrificed her Department in the interests of her title.