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Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD at the MacGill Summer School


Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD
MacGill Summer School
21 July 2015

A Productive Year

Ladies and Gentlemen,
You all know the old question and answer:

Question:        How do you eat an elephant?
Answer:        In very thin slices.

I would propose to you that the same Q&A applies to reform. The temptation, if you are hungry for reform – and we allshould be hungry for reform – is to try to do it all at once, in one big swallow.

It never works, that way. Reform needs to be in manageable chunks – but it also needs to be a continuum. I am  always wary of enthusiasts who want to do Big Bang reform: “We will  lay down all the rules for everything and then we will  be set.”

The problem with that approach is that – irritatingly – not even the most idealistic, not even the most determined, not even the most energetic reformer can control the external context. The world outside of the reform keeps going at breakneck pace, and, just when the reform seems to have solved all past problems, up come another quite different set of challenges.

I believe that this is one of the lines of separation distinguishing politicians who are in it for the long haul, and politicians who flame out quickly. It is  not that either one is better than the other. It is that the long-haul politicians (and I have to suggest that Taoiseach Enda Kenny may be the definition of a long-haul politician) — they actually achieve more over time. Because they know the context is always changing.

And because they know bad politics lies in solving yesterday’s problems.

Good politics lies in solving today’s problems.

Great politics lies in preventing tomorrow’s problems.

The continuum of change is particularly important in the legal environment. Ireland’s justice and policing systems are deeply rooted, which gives both great purchase. But it also means that both operate, in many ways, in a  traditional, conservative zone.  Many things are done largely the same way as they have been done for centuries. In some areas, that is  right, proper and appropriate. In others, it does not work at all – because the context has changed so completely.
What all that adds up to is that reform must not just be constant, but it must have other characteristics attached to it as well. We sometimes look on reform in a self-righteous, punitive way: we are the good guys, everybody else are the bad guys, and the key thing to do is find them and punish them.

Reform, in my view, needs to start with a scrutiny that sets out to catch people doing things right, as well as catching people doing things wrong.

The Toland Report into my Department, for example highlighted core strengths in the Department, including the willingness, flexibility and can-do attitude of many loyal staff – on which I have relied myself over the past year. It also pointed to the significant depth of specialist knowledge and expertise within the Department of Justice and Equality.

Of course it also found weaknesses that required addressing. Which we speedily did.

The new practices introduced in response to the Toland Report are in line with best practice and underpin a much more robust approach to managing the Department and oversight of agencies in the sector.  It was published last July. This July, I can tell you that all the short term recommendations in the report have been implemented.

Clear, measurable, provable reform. That is what we have delivered.

What is particularly significant is that all of this was achieved as part of one of the most productive years the Department has ever experienced. We have made massive changes to the operation and governance of An Garda Síochána and we have  made massive strides in Equality  – I will come to those in a minute.

These massive changes are matched in every area of the Department of Justice and Equality.

Garda recruitment has recommenced and we have significantly increased investment in Garda vehicles.
The Children and Family Relationships Act has been enacted – the most comprehensive reform of family law since the foundation of the State.

The Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission has been established as has the Court of Appeal – the biggest reform in our Courts system since the 1937 constitution.

Reforming new legislation has been prepared:
·        to introduce tougher sentencing for repeat burglars,
·        to put Victims at the heart of our criminal justice system,
·        to introduce pre-trial hearings to make courts proceeding more effective;
·        to tackle child sexual exploitation online; and
·        to reduce the length of time in asylum seekers need to spend in the protection system.

The survivors of the Magdalen Laundries are getting justice at long last. Nearly €20m has been paid out in lump sums to over 500 applicants and legislation was enacted to make provision for a broad range of health services free of charge.


The truth is that my Department has managed a hugely productive year while addressing recommendations around internal culture, leadership and management processes. A series of in-depth focus groups are currently taking place with staff to take on their views on the Department’s future organisational culture.  The Department has engaged international expertise to assist in the cultural change project which emphasises the need – and I think we can all see this – for a bottom up, organisation-wide approach to this change.

Which brings me to an aspect of reform about which I feel very strongly.

Reform is not  just about the what.

Reform should be about the how.

A new set of structures, a new timeline for meetings, a new set of appointments can be made, but if the rigidity — the crippling, limiting rigidity — of the past continues, then what you have is improvement (which is welcome) but not reform (which is essential.)

Since I became Minister, I have laid unprecedented emphasis on consultation, on listening, on finding out what people at every level think and on finding out what those we serve think.

Therein, I suggest, lies the politics of the future. In the past, it is fair to say, those who wanted to go into politics and wanted to become Ministers, saw themselves as making The Big Decisions. I hope in future they will  see themselves as doing the big consultations, the big listening exercises. Politicians are public servants, let’s never forget.

None of this is an aversion to making decisions. The Taoiseach personifies what I’m talking about.

He listens to everybody.

He quotes the people who talk to him.

He encourages deep and open debate within Government.

In many cases, the end result is the logical progression that goes:




Not always. Synthesis and consensus are sometimes difficult to get your hands around. And in that case, it is  a Minister’s job to make a decision in the full knowledge that it will — vex and dissatisfy many people who made input to the consultation. But that does not invalidate the consultation, and that is  the direction in which we should head. On all issues. Because consultation and expert input leads to better streams of change adding up to a continuum of reform.

Another stream of the productive year I talk about in my own department includes the comprehensive reforms relating to An Garda Síochána, where we are  a quantum leap ahead of where we were this time last year.

We opened up recruitment to international competition for the posts of Garda Commissioner and Deputy Garda Commissioner

We expanded the powers and remit of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission

We put new whistleblower protection into law

The new Policing Authority is on its way: the CEO position has been publicly advertised with public advertisements for members of the Authority itself following shortly afterwards.

The Authority will provide a new independent forum for the public oversight of policing services in Ireland. Senior Garda management will report to the Authority on the performance of policing services.

The Government has designated Ms. Josephine Feehily as the first Chairperson and I would like to acknowledge Josephine’s huge input and practical assistance as we have developed our thinking on the legislation and the structures.
The selection process for the eight ordinary members of the Authority will begin shortly, to be undertaken by the Public Appointments Service. This will allow the Authority to commence its operations as soon as possible after the Bill is enacted.


In relation to An Garda Síochána and its reform, I have  been talking about the what: the structures for oversight and the legislation backing them.

The how is just as important. The level of consultation behind the actions I have taken is unprecedented. That consultancy process included a seminar I hosted in Farmleigh in June of last year and the detailed consideration by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Preparation of the Bill was also subject to detailed discussion by the Cabinet Committee on Justice Reform, chaired by An Taoiseach.


This week, I will be in Templemore to witness new Guards and Reserves being attested, and I will stress, in what I say to them, the need for them to inform the overall thinking of the service. Yes, every member of An Garda Síochána must take instruction, must act as part of a team, must undertake tasks without always knowing where that task fits in the totality of an operation.

But that is not to say they must be silent and subservient. They have insight and energy and idealism, and An Garda Síochána should capture that. One relevant statistic:  I believe that every one of those reserves has unique insights to offer about a diverse new Ireland (62 of our reserves are of 25 different nationalities)  – insights that can inform the thinking of the service right up to Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.


I have  said before that the MacGill summer school provides a unique challenge to its speakers – a useful and welcome challenge. It forces us to take the time to look at the assumptions that run beneath public discourse.

One of the most important of those assumptions, in relation to An Garda Síochána, is that the organisation has a deeply embedded, deeply flawed culture.

I have to question that. In my dealings with An Garda Síochána at many levels, I have not found the service demonstrating an arrogant or a corner-cutting culture.


Does that mean I think arrogance and corner-cutting does not  happen?

Of course not.


But what I want to suggest is this.

When we elevate bad behaviour – even several instances of bad behaviour – into an all-pervasive culture, it can be oddly disempowering.

If a Garda or more than one Garda operates in a shoddy or sleazy way, the task is to nail the behaviour, re-train the individual (or take disciplinary action if that is  necessary) and make it crystal clear: “This will not be tolerated in this instance or any instance. It is not what we stand for. Here is  what we stand for.”

Addressing a bad behaviour or an action is the right and responsibility of any employer, and it is what I expect and demand of An Garda Síochána.

But let us  do that. Let us  address specific behaviours, specific actions, not roll them all up endlessly into a big shapeless accusation of “flawed culture.” Where change is happening let us recognise it rather than repeating old mantras.

And – let me make it very clear – that is not to say that An Garda Síochána’s culture should not – like every other area of the Irish public service – be subject to constant reform. It should be. It must be.

However, changes to culture rarely happen by dictat. They more frequently happen by example.  Top management in any organisation can exemplify the changes that will add up, over time, to a better culture. Yeats said that ‘peace comes dropping slow.’ So does culture change. We know it when we see it, and as far as An Garda Síochána is concerned, we will  be watching out for it – all of us. Positively…


One of the great moments for me, this year, was standing on a platform in the quadrangle of Dublin Castle after the Marriage Equality Referendum result came out. I will  tell you something, when you’re my height, standing between Miriam O’Callaghan on the one side and Panti Bliss in five inch heels on the other is some challenge!


But what a great day, what a great result, and what heroic contributions from families and individuals. I must also pay tribute to the dedicated and committed officials in my own Department and the Attorney General’s Office who worked day and night to develop both the successful Referendum wording and the Child and Family Relationships Act which preceded it.
One of the reasons it was a great day was because it was about more than the what. It was totally about the how.

In advance of the referendum, you had to be struck by how many people expressed the hope that the debate, which was inevitably going to be conducted with passion, would also be conducted with courtesy and mutual respect. For the most part, that is  exactly what happened. The debate established a new definition for diversity in Ireland: that fundamental disagreement on fundamental issues is possible without endangering either side.
But to go back for a minute to the scenes in Dublin Caste and the thousands of flag-waving people of all ages, from toddlers to pensioners. Happy out. Joyful. Relieved. Good-humoured and well-behaved.

The what of the win was so important.
The how of the way it was celebrated, equally so.

We showed the world how far Ireland had come from when it was “the Valley of the Squinting Windows”; an inward looking, fearful but punitive country.  In little more than half a century we had transformed ourselves into a confident, outward-looking nation rooted in tradition but unrestrained by it.

It has been a transformation. But it has been a reformation, too.

We are  pretty good, in this country, at re-examining what we receive by way of a legacy from previous generations. Pretty good at identifying the real values embedded within various cultural themes. Pretty good at saying “We still stand for that value, but, you know what? We no longer need that particular manifestation of it.”

Which, to me, is a good definition of reform:

Continuity of values, but abandonment of out-dated expressions of those values and elimination of practices that represent unexamined corruption of those values.

I said at the beginning that – like eating an elephant – reform needs to be thinly sliced.

I will conclude by fearlessly stating the obvious.

There is  always another elephant!

There is  always new reforms to be made.

That is  the challenge of politics – and why I’m glad and privileged to be a part of it.