I wish to announce for the information of the House that I am advising the President to accept the resignation of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald as a member of the Government and that I have accepted the Minister's resignation with regret. I have nominated myself to serve as Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation for a temporary period in addition to my existing duties pursuant to section 4(1) of the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 1946.
This morning, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald came to me to offer her resignation as Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. She did so to avoid an unnecessary and early general election that could have left the country without a functioning Government and Oireachtas for several months at a crucial time for Ireland. Over the coming months, the Government needs to focus on phases one and two of the Brexit negotiations, enact the Finance Bill and the appropriation Bill and pass legislation to provide for public sector pay restoration and pension and social welfare increases. The Committee on the Eighth Amendment must also complete its important work to pave the way for a referendum next year. All of those tasks would fall in the event of a general election. The work of the Government and Parliament must not be interrupted during this important period so it is with deep regret that I have accepted her resignation.
It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing. Deputy Fitzgerald has been an exemplary member of Government and a loyal colleague. She established the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla and twice changed the Constitution to enshrine in it children’s rights and the right to marriage equality. She was one of the most reforming Ministers for Justice we have ever had, setting up the independent Policing Authority chaired by Josephine Feehily, the Legal Services Regulatory Authority and bringing in a raft of reforming legislation, including the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act. She always supported whistleblowers and enshrined a code of ethics in An Garda Síochána to protect them.
In the past few days, a drip-drip of information may have made certain things seem greater than they are. There was a feeding frenzy and it became impossible for her to get a fair hearing based on the full facts. I hope that will change in the period ahead.
While all of the facts still remain unclear, there are few things that we do know. We know Deputy Fitzgerald had no hand, act or part in the former Garda Commissioner’s legal strategy and did not devise or guide it in any way. She was advised by her own officials that she had no function in the matter. The Attorney General has since confirmed this advice and further advised that she would have been acting improperly and inappropriately if she had sought to interfere with the work of the O’Higgins commission. We know from the emails that Deputy Fitzgerald had no knowledge of the approach that was being taken until the commission’s inquiries and hearings were already under way and that her knowledge of the detail was limited.
I believe a calm, measured reading of the evidence will show that the Tánaiste acted appropriately and I hope the Charleton tribunal will establish this conclusively in the weeks ahead and that she will have her good name vindicated. I expect her to continue to play a full role in political and public life, including at the highest level into the future. Throughout her career, the Tánaiste has been a champion of women’s rights and equal rights and she has been a pioneer when it comes to supporting children and fighting against all forms of inequality and injustice.
The events of the past few days have exposed major problems once again within a dysfunctional Department of Justice and Equality, including the way important emails were not found and therefore not sent on to the Charleton tribunal during discovery.
I am therefore directing that there will be an external inquiry into that to report before Christmas. Systemic problems within the Department were identified in the Toland report and the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, began the process of implementing the report. This has continued under her successor, Deputy Charles Flanagan. These reforms will now be accelerated and the Government is planning radical action to restore public confidence in the Department of Justice and Equality.
An independent change and implementation group will be established to assess progress in implementing the recommendations of the Toland report; review the culture of the Department and make recommendations for change, particularly in the light of evidence of a continued siloed and secretive culture and a failure to provide accurate information to me and the Oireachtas; examine in particular the relationship between the Department and the Garda to ensure that the relationship is appropriately structured, is understood in both organisations and operates in such a way as to ensure accountability and better performance; and draw on the expertise of the Policing Authority in conducting its work. The Government will in the coming days provide further details on this.
The Minister and the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality will ensure that all future parliamentary questions are replied to as fully and openly as possible, subject to Dáil Standing Orders and the law. All recent parliamentary questions asked by any Deputy relating to Maurice McCabe will be reviewed and it will be ensured that they have been answered as fully and openly as is possible. Any additional relevant information will be provided to Deputies as quickly as possible.
These events have reminded us of some of the ways in which Maurice McCabe was undermined when he shone a light into some very dark places. As Taoiseach, I am determined to shine the brightest of lights into the darkest of places so that we arrive at the truth and have true accountability. I continue to believe that the Tánaiste acted throughout in a way that was appropriate, but these are matters that will now be investigated and adjudicated on by a tribunal. In the meantime, the Government will continue to work for the good of the country. We will focus on the challenge of Brexit and deal with the many other problems we face. We will not be distracted as we strive to do what is in the best interests of all the people.