Sunday 24 September 2017

Shatter puts petty political shots ahead of his position

Dishing out his own idea of justice against Bertie after attack lowers gold standard expected of his office, says Niall Collins

Earlier last week, I submitted a question to Justice Minister Alan Shatter. In it, I asked about what policies were in place on the issue of ministers using their departmental facilities to make party political statements. What prompted me to submit the question was Shatter's extraordinary comments in response to queries about the attack on former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. It is most unusual for a Justice Minister to comment on an incident such as this, but of course he could not resist the political temptation.

To recap, Ahern was attacked by a private individual while socialising, and when asked to comment on the attack the Justice Minister chose not to simply condemn the attack. Instead, he said he would not condone any form of violence and that if Ahern needed additional security, he should pay for it himself.

The urge to make a petty political point was apparently too strong for Shatter to resist. This is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, and forgetting for a second that it was Bertie Ahern who was attacked, are we really okay with a Justice Minister being in any way equivocal about a citizen being attacked for no reason?

Secondly, it is important because the attack did take place on Bertie Ahern. No matter what anyone's political views about Bertie Ahern are, any fair-minded person will acknowledge his immense contribution to peace in this country. As my party leader Micheal Martin has said, there are thousands of people alive today who would not be if it were not for the efforts of Bertie Ahern and others. As the Justice Minister, Shatter should know this better than most. He has access to the files and briefings that would tell him about the capacity and activities of terrorist organisations. The fact that he would ignore all this and take a cheap shot after the assault says much about the minister.

And of course it's not the first time that Mr Shatter chose to put politics ahead of his role as minister. We remember his disgraceful behaviour on RTE's Prime Time when he used private information from a confidential briefing with the Garda Commissioner to score a cheap political point against independent TD Mick Wallace. Shatter's approach to politics has served him well and secured him a senior seat at the Cabinet. But securing the role and how you exercise it are very different things. There comes a time when partisan attacks are not appropriate and when you have to put the responsibilities of the office you hold ahead of your urge to damage opponents.

In the Department of Justice, that responsibility is perhaps greater than in any other department. As the minister in charge of An Garda Siochana, the holder of this office should be completely non-political and above reproach.

While Shatter has brought in some much-needed reforms and has a prodigious work rate, we can only judge his adherence to that gold standard when he is tested. Unfortunately, when he faced the test, being asked to put politics to one side and stand behind a citizen and former Taoiseach who was the victim of an assault, I believe he fell well short of the standard expected.

With their overwhelming majority in the Dail, this Government can protect any colleague for as long as they choose and force through whatever legislation they choose. But it does not mean that they can ignore well-established standards and behave as they choose. If this incident is anything to go by, it seems this Government are increasingly coming to believe they can.

Niall Collins is Fianna Fail spokesperson on justice and the TD for Limerick West

Sunday Independent

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