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.
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”.
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.