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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Shatter and Varadkar fall out in penalty points row

Niall O'Connor, Daniel McConnell and Fionnan Sheahan

Published 21/03/2014 | 02:30

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Ministers Alan Shatter and  Leo Varadkar
Ministers Alan Shatter and Leo Varadkar

Fine Gael ministers Alan Shatter and Leo Varadkar have dramatically fallen out over the handling of the penalty points affair.

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The relationship between Justice Minister Mr Shatter and Transport Minister Mr Varadkar has deteriorated over their differing views on the handling of the allegations by garda whistleblowers of abuse of the system.

It is understood that they are now barely speaking to one another.

Mr Varadkar is being blamed in Fine Gael circles for reigniting the controversy with his open criticism of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan's stance on the whistleblowers.

Speaking yesterday at a road-safety conference, Mr Varadkar described the actions of the whistleblowers as "distinguished" and said that Mr Callinan was not "above criticism".

But notably, Taoiseach Enda Kenny declined to back Mr Varadkar's views.

Senior sources within both Labour and Fine Gael admitted that Mr Varadkar appeared to go on a "solo run" and his comments have now created a huge dilemma for Mr Kenny.

But the Labour Party is supporting Mr Varadkar's stance, as tensions between cabinet colleagues mount.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore is sick but is understood to be supporting calls for the Garda Commissioner to withdraw his comments about garda whistleblowers.

The Transport Minister caused surprise with his praise of the whistleblowers yesterday and his call on the Garda Commissioner to withdraw his description of their actions as "disgusting".

The Taoiseach was among those blind-sided by Mr Varadkar's decision to reignite the row.

Last night, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton weighed in, telling the Irish Independent it would be "helpful" if the commissioner withdrew the remark in which he used the word "disgusting". She added that she had "sympathy" with the comments made by her cabinet colleague Mr Varadkar.

Mr Varadkar's comments had not been cleared through Government in advance, but they are consistent with his views to date.

Government sources say Mr Shatter and Mr Varadkar now barely talk as a result of their opposing stances on the handling of the issue.

The Transport Minister has been supportive of the core point raised about abuse of the system and met with whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe to discuss his concerns.

The two ministers have overlapping responsibility for road safety, as Mr Varadkar is responsible for penalty points legislation and Mr Shatter for implementation through the gardai and the courts.

"They always had a good relationship – until this. Now they don't talk much," a senior government source said.

Meanwhile, the Irish Independent can reveal that Mr Varadkar's intervention has sent shockwaves through An Garda Siochana and infuriated senior officers close to the commissioner. It is understood that Mr Callinan's office moved quickly to make contact with Mr Shatter's officials following the speech yesterday.

Senior sources say the commissioner is particularly annoyed at the decision by Mr Varadkar to criticise him at an event attended by senior gardai.

"Some of our most senior officers were sitting at what was a road-safety event and had to listen to their boss being criticised, as well as the whistleblowers being lauded. It was outrageous," said a senior source.

Irish Independent

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