Shatter and Varadkar fall out in penalty points row
Published 21/03/2014 | 02:30
Fine Gael ministers Alan Shatter and Leo Varadkar have dramatically fallen out over the handling of the penalty points affair.
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.
But the commissioner himself last night stood over his comments, which he said were "not in reference to the character of either Sgt McCabe or former Garda Wilson".
Instead, he said they were a reference to "the manner in which personal and sensitive data was inappropriately appearing in the public domain without regard to due process and fair procedures".
The controversy of recent weeks had appeared to recede until Mr Varadkar reignited the row with his speech at the road safety conference in Dublin.
He said he would like to personally thank the whistleblowers for highlighting the widespread abuse of the penalty points system.
"They (Sgt McCabe and Mr Wilson) may not have got everything right but they did shine a light into a dark place and forced those who would rather turn a blind eye to face up to the truth," he said.
"There have been many words used to describe their actions. But if I was to use one word, the word I would use is 'distinguished'."
And speaking before the event, Mr Varadkar said: "I think the commissioner should withdraw that remark."
The two whistleblowers welcomed Mr Varadkar's comments. A source close to Sgt McCabe said: "He would like to extend his thanks to Minister Varadkar for his comments. He would also like to thank the Road Safety Authority and Gay Byrne for their support."
But a spokeswoman for Mr Shatter said he would not be drawn on the remarks.
"Minister Shatter is only completing his official duties in Mexico today. Any issues that arise will be addressed in the Dail next Thursday when the Garda Inspectorate Report will be discussed."
Speaking in Brussels, the Taoiseach would only comment on the Garda Inspectorate report, which made highly critical findings of the force.
Mr Kenny said: "We have been over this ground on so many occasions. Clearly, the Inspectorate report is now being implemented with 37 conditions, along with the O'Mahony report. And what you need here is a system that is transparent, that is accountable, that is oversighted and that removes any semblance of interference from any quarter about how this should be regulated."
But several senior coalition sources admitted that Mr Varadkar's move had come as a major shock. One Fine Gael minister, speaking to the Irish Independent, said Mr Varadkar had "landed a major bucket of s**t" on the Taoiseach's lap, which "he most certainly wouldn't have wanted".
Another senior Fine Gael figure said the Transport Minister gets "an orgasm every time he sees a microphone and a television camera".
The source added: "He's always stirring it up and I would say he will be in trouble over this. He has put awful pressure on the commissioner."