I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the House for allowing me, as I requested this morning, to make this statement. I want to address a number of issues that have arisen in recent days.
I apologise to Deputy Alan Kelly on two counts. First, for my intemperate comments in the House on November 15 when I stated that Deputy Kelly was engaged in a smear campaign against me. I had been told by people in my constituency and beyond that Deputy Kelly was making very negative comments about me in their presence. I have always considered Deputy Kelly to be a good colleague, both in this Parliament and Government. I confess I was taken aback and offended when these remarks were made to me. I fully accept that I reacted badly. I apologise to Deputy Kelly and to the House and withdraw my remarks in their entirety.
Second, I apologise in respect of the matter of replies to parliamentary questions on matters relating to the treatment of Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Deputy Kelly put down a series of detailed questions in recent weeks primarily regarding the activities of officials of my Department, particularly in the period prior to my appointment. I was consistently advised in my Department that to engage in issues that are under the remit of a sitting tribunal and accommodated within its terms of reference would breach the Standing Orders of the Dáil, improperly encroach upon the workings of a tribunal and amount to a parallel process, thereby undermining the tribunal. I accepted that advice at the time in good faith and I note the tribunal’s public notice last Friday, to which the Leas-Cheann Comhairle referred. It is only right to acknowledge that Deputy Kelly’s parliamentary questions should have been better dealt with by me. I am respectfully asking that the Ceann Comhairle offer his assistance in the provision of guidelines in respect of how to respond to issues that fall within the terms of reference of sitting tribunals and how such issues can be dealt with by the House while tribunals are sitting. This is a matter which should be considered at the earliest opportunity. I look forward to receiving a report from the Ceann Comhairle in respect of it.
I wish to record my thanks to Deputy Kelly for his parliamentary questions which led to the unearthing of an email that had not been seen or sent to the tribunal. As the House is aware, the Taoiseach subsequently ordered a search and retrieval of documents which resulted in the retrieval of a further email chain that is now with the tribunal. I was shocked and, frankly, horrified that there were records in the Department of Justice and Equality that should have been provided to the disclosures tribunal. As Minister, I have repeatedly emphasised the vital importance of full co-operation by the Department with the tribunal. I have taken every opportunity to stress this within the Department. It is an understatement to say I am bitterly disappointed by the events of recent weeks. It has been a major challenge at every step to obtain information of a complete nature in a timely manner. On a few occasions recently, information has been provided to me, to the Taoiseach and then to the House which has subsequently proven to be inaccurate. That is completely unacceptable. I wish to formally apologise to the Taoiseach, the Ceann Comhairle and the House for this. In recent days, it has been clear that information in the possession of journalists and members of the Opposition has not been forthcoming to me, as Minister for Justice and Equality.
As Minister, I have received 12,000 emails since my appointment on 14 June and, as a Deputy representing my constituency, approximately 500 per week. There has been commentary on the emails to the Tánaiste to that effect, namely, that it is significant that they came from a person described as a senior official. The reality of Departments is that almost everything that comes to a Minister internally comes from a senior official. The proper practice for conveying important information to a Minister is through a submission. Since 14 June, I have dealt with 341 submissions from senior officials in my Department. Each of these is carefully considered upon receipt. I know the information must be significant because of the manner in which it is conveyed. A clear lesson from this episode is that officials should not use emails to convey information which should properly be transmitted to the office of the Minister in a formal submission document.
It has been said that I sat beside the Taoiseach last week and allowed him to misinform the Dáil. That is not correct. I wish to explain to the House the sequence of events of the past few days from my perspective. On Monday, 13 November, I was in my constituency office in Portlaoise as well as undertaking an official engagement at the Midlands Prison. In the course of the day, I received a phone call from the Secretary General of my Department. He informed me that having reached 40 years’ service, he intended to retire and asked me to inform Cabinet the following morning. This was unexpected and I was taken aback. I became worried. I was still digesting the news when reference was made to an email pertaining to the O'Higgins commission and Sergeant McCabe that had been discovered in the Department. I responded automatically that anything potentially relevant to the tribunal should be immediately conveyed to Mr. Justice Charleton and the tribunal. I simply missed the significance of the email, which I viewed as just another addition to the more than 230 documents already discovered to the tribunal from the Department of Justice and Equality. I did not see the actual email until a week later on the night of Monday, 20 November. That is why I did not raise the matter with the Taoiseach.
Every Department has its own unique challenges but I am strongly of the view that the scale of certain Departments requires a fundamental rethink of the structure of ministerial offices. I was appointed Minister for Justice and Equality 23 weeks ago, which includes a two-month Dáil recess. Since June, I have dealt with: 12 items of Private Members’ business; brought the heads of three Bills to Cabinet; steered four justice Bills through the Houses; and a further 26 Bills are in the course of being drafted. I acknowledge the invaluable and generous help of my colleague, Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in all this work. Since 14 June, 1,829 parliamentary questions have been responded to and I have dealt with 341 formal submissions. I have brought 58 memorandums to Cabinet. I have received 435 invitations or requests to attend or speak at events. Last weekend, between Friday and Monday, 163 questions were put to the Department's press office by the media. A handful of people worked diligently throughout the weekend trying to ensure that these press queries were dealt with. I am advised that approximately 420 media queries were received during past three weeks, of which 235 related to matters directly pertaining to the Charleton tribunal. A further 185 other questions related to a wide range of other issues under the remit of what can only be described as a vast Department.
I am not objecting to my workload - far from it - but I believe that the scale of sensitive and important issues that land hourly on the desk of the Minister for Justice and Equality who, in terms of senior staff, has a single policy adviser points to a need for further external expertise in the Minister’s office.
It would be completely wrong to imply that the fault for the problems in the Department lies with every member of its 2,000 strong workforce, a workforce that exceeded 3,000 prior to the economic collapse of the State. Today, officials are thinly stretched. A legacy of dealing with terrorism and serious crime has had an effect. I refer, in particular, to the period when the State was under serious threat from the Provisional IRA and other terrorists. What in modern times might be seen as secretive or siloed was at the height of the Troubles, no doubt, a necessary state of affairs. It should be acknowledged that the Department continues to deal with very serious threats to the State. However, there is more to it than crime and security; its remit now encompasses everything from gender equality to policing and from counterterrorism to insolvency. In fact, it is three Departments in one.
This evening the Secretary General, Mr. Noel Waters, informed me that he had brought forward his retirement to today. I acknowledge his long service to the State over five decades. My experience of him is as a very capable Secretary General who has led his staff with dedication, a clear sense of civic duty, humility and kindness in extremely difficult times. He will be hugely missed by all in the Department, including me, as Minister, and my team.
Since my appointment as Minister, I have worked with some exceptionally diligent, civic-minded and honourable officials in the Department. We owe it to them, as well as to this House and the country at large, to ensure the Department is equipped to meet the many challenges it faces. In particular, it is important that the Toland report's recommendations be implemented in an effective way.
The problems in the Department are not new. There seems to be an inevitability about former justice Ministers appearing before tribunals. I read this morning that in 2003 the former Ministers Ray Burke, Padraig Flynn, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Nora Owen and John O'Donoghue gave evidence to the Morris tribunal, for example. The fate of my two predecessors is well known to everybody. We need to reflect on all of these matters and ask why that is the case. Today we have seen the resignation of the former Tánaiste, to whom I pay tribute. I believe Deputy Frances Fitzgerald is fundamentally a good person of the highest integrity and compassion. Without question, she did her very best as Minister for Justice and Equality in difficult circumstances. Her commitment at all times was to making a positive difference to the lives of the people of the country.
Fundamentally, when everything else is peeled away, the essence of this issue is that Sergeant Maurice McCabe and his family must have truth and justice.