De­part­ment de­nies claim it with­held in­for­ma­tion

Top of­fi­cial de­fends fail­ure to dis­close emails about Garda strat­egy on McCabe ‘Gen­eral trawl’ of in­ter­nal emails re­lat­ing to whistle­blower was not con­sid­ered

The Irish Times - - Home News - SI­MON CAR­SWELL

The De­part­ment of Jus­tice’s most se­nior of­fi­cial has de­fended its fail­ure to dis­close emails that showed it was aware of a Garda strat­egy in 2015 to un­der­mine whistle­blower Sgt Mau­rice McCabe un­til last month.

Oon­agh McPhillips, who be­came act­ing sec­re­tary gen­eral after the res­ig­na­tion of Noel Wa­ters last week, told the Oireach­tas Joint Committee on Jus­tice and Equal­ity the de­part­ment fully com­plied with all dis­cov­ery or­ders for in­for­ma­tion from the Charleton tri­bunal that is in­ves­ti­gat­ing an al­leged smear cam­paign to dis­credit Sgt McCabe.

There were heated ex­changes be­tween Ms McPhillips and committee mem­bers over the fail­ure to dis­close emails from May and July 2015 that showed then min­is­ter for jus­tice Frances Fitzger­ald was aware of the Garda com­mis­sioner’s legal strat­egy to un­der­mine Sgt McCabe at the O’Hig­gins com­mis­sion.

Ms McPhillips said the emails were only dis­cov­ered on Novem­ber 9th when Labour TD Alan Kelly and the me­dia asked about con­tacts re­lat­ing to the legal strat­egy pur­sued by the then com­mis­sioner Nóirín O’Sul­li­van.

Res­ig­na­tion

The emails were brought to the at­ten­tion of Ms Fitzger­ald on Novem­ber 16th on her re­turn from a trade mis­sion, she said. They even­tu­ally led to Ms Fitzger­ald’s res­ig­na­tion as tá­naiste and a Cab­i­net min­is­ter last month.

Ms McPhillips told the committee she re­gret­ted the de­part­ment did not no­tify Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar about the emails and, as a con­se­quence, he pro­vided false in­for­ma­tion to the Dáil on Novem­ber 14th and 15th.

“I re­gret that the Taoiseach was not more fully in­formed on those oc­ca­sions,” she said. She was “dis­ap­pointed” that Mr Varad­kar crit­i­cised the de­part­ment as “dys­func­tional” over its han­dling of the emails, she said.

She de­fended Ms Fitzger­ald’s de­ci­sion not to in­ter­vene once she learned about the Garda’s in­ten­tion to un­der­mine Sgt McCabe say­ing it would be “wholly wrong” and “quite im­proper”.

Range of doc­u­ments

Ms McPhillips faced the most in­tense ques­tion­ing around the de­part­ment’s de­ci­sion not to carry out a gen­eral trawl of de­part­ment emails or pro­vide a more ex­ten­sive range of doc­u­ments to the Charleton tri­bunal this year.

John O’Cal­laghan, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary in the de­part­ment’s polic­ing unit, said he was not sure a gen­eral trawl of records re­lat­ing to Sgt McCabe was ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered.

Ms McPhillips said it would be up to the se­nior coun­sel appointed by Mr Varad­kar to de­ter­mine whether the de­part­ment should have gone beyond the tri­bunal’s dis­cov­ery re­quests and handed over more doc­u­ments.

“If we were to take a to­tally wide-rang­ing view of all of that stuff and land it down to Dublin Cas­tle, I don’t think that would be of as­sis­tance to the tri­bunal,” she said.

Mr Kelly told the committee meet­ing that it was “very alarm­ing” to dis­cover the de­part­ment ef­fec­tively did not pro­vide in­for­ma­tion to the tri­bunal be­cause it was not specif­i­cally asked about it. “It is no ex­cuse to say that just be­cause there are spe­cific dis­cov­ery or­ders that we didn’t pro­vide in­for­ma­tion,” he added.

Ms McPhillips de­nied the de­part­ment with­held or in­tended to with­hold in­for­ma­tion.

Mr Kelly asked whether the de­part­ment would be hand­ing over de­tails held on per­sonal emails and mo­bile phones be­long­ing to se­nior of­fi­cials to the tri­bunal. Ms McPhillips said the tri­bunal had not asked for this.

In­de­pen­dents4Change TD Clare Daly ar­gued the de­part­ment should have handed over the emails in the first place un­der the tri­bunal’s terms of ref­er­ence.

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