Sunday 25 September 2016

Time to wake up and smell the bullshit

Shatter's account of penalty points row has become gospel – in truth it stinks, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 26/05/2013 | 05:00

Defence Minister Alan Shatter apologised to ex-soldiers dismissed en masse from the Irish Army during the Second World War
Defence Minister Alan Shatter apologised to ex-soldiers dismissed en masse from the Irish Army during the Second World War

THE road to the political hell in which Alan Shatter now finds himself was liberally sprayed with bullshit – and for the past 10 days too many people have pretended not to see it. What a pity that Mr Shatter now finds himself somewhat embarrassed, having slipped and ended up sprawled in that foul substance.

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The Minister for Stirring It Up started off well, expertly stitching up his political opponents. Shatter put the knife into Mick Wallace, then he despatched Luke 'Ming' Flanagan with a few verbal karate chops.

The James Bond of Irish politics, was Mr Shatter. Each blow to his opponent followed by a limp quip. "I have an inconvenient habit of telling the truth," he drawled.

"Journalists find me quite awkward," he proudly told the Dail.

Let's sniff the bullshit surrounding the famous occasion on which the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan briefed Shatter about the penalty points scheme. Shatter says the Wallace titbit came up "almost incidentally".

Wallace had been seen in his car, on his mobile phone, but the garda let him off. Why did the commissioner pass on this private information, acquired – somehow – in the course of his job?

Shatter said he believed the commissioner "was mindful" that "Deputy Wallace might make public reference to the incident . . . and, in those circumstances, he had a duty to mention it to me".

This is obvious bullshit; it has been treated as if it was credible. Why would Wallace raise the matter, even if he remembered it? And if he did, so what? From what possible eventuality was the commissioner protecting the minister or the force? What possible relevance had it to anything? What possible use was it to Shatter to be forewarned about it – other than as a bit of gossip that he might use in a debate?

Here are two opposing opinions about what happened.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan: "The Garda Commissioner under law is obliged to fully brief the Minister for Justice – so, as part of the full briefing, all sorts of things can come up in the conversation."

And Professor Dermot Walsh of the University of Limerick, who specialises in the law and policing matters: "It was perfectly proper for the Garda Commissioner to brief the minister on the operation of the penalty points system. There was no necessity and it was not proper for the Garda Commissioner to tell the minister about a named individual. There is a question about whether the Garda Commissioner was playing politics."

I go along with the professor. He described what happened as "highly improper".

Shatter then went to RTE and let the nation know he had gossip on Wallace. He was there to discuss two very serious – and damning – reports on garda operation of the penalty points system. Throwing bullshit around, he diverted attention from the important matters. Suddenly, this was all about Mick Wallace.

Why did Shatter reveal a personal titbit about Wallace? Shatter gives two reasons.

Reason 1: "Had I not referred to that matter I could have been accused of covering up the fact that the discretion was exercised in favour of Deputy Wallace."

Bullshit. He's claiming that if he hadn't made public a personal titbit about a political opponent he could be accused of covering something up.

This is too silly to even refute. If Shatter discovers that one of his media critics – 'Soapbox', for instance – regularly has carnal knowledge of a cabbage plant, must he announce it on national television, in case he's accused of a cover-up?

Reason 2: Shatter claimed that Wallace said that "gardai should never exercise discretion in favour of anybody – if they do so, they're acting unlawfully". And, over the days that followed, Fine Gael big shots defended Shatter by parroting that line. Here's Charlie Flanagan: "Mick Wallace stated that he didn't think that there was any room for any form of discretion on the part of the gardai." So, Wallace the hypocrite had to be exposed.

Utter bullshit. Wallace said nothing of the sort. The row over penalty points is not about the routine exercise of discretion by frontline gardai. Everyone agrees that such discretion is part of the job.

The row is about senior gardai interfering with the system, when frontline gardai have exercised their judgement, or when traffic cameras have caught someone speeding.

Wallace was on Prime Time specifically to discuss two reports on the actions of senior gardai – he had nothing whatever to say about the proper use of discretion by frontline gardai. Yet, for the media, Shatter's bullshit version has become gospel.

Shatter's use of Commissioner Callinan's titbit derailed the discussion. Wallace got as far as mentioning a "comment box", but suddenly the issue was his supposed hypocrisy in being against all garda discretion.

Unlike many who have condemned him, Wallace has obviously read the two reports on garda behaviour. They reveal widespread abuse of the system. Gardai are quite properly allowed to speed when on duty – a life might depend on it. But the practice has grown that any garda, no matter why he or she is speeding, can get off on the basis that they're "on duty". This is dangerous abuse of the system.

Even worse, the Pulse software is supposed to stop senior gardai from cancelling penalty points without entering a valid reason in a "comment box". Senior gardai have been using a flaw in that software to get around this requirement.

This is disgraceful behaviour – and the political establishment stands over it.

We now know what happened when Alan Shatter failed to properly use a breathalyser. He's "waved on" by the police. And we know what happens to people such as Clare Daly, in similar circumstances.

She winds up handcuffed by the side of the road, taken to a police station and put in a cell. When she gives a urine sample she's released with the remark: "Come back when you're sober."

The details of her alleged "offence" are then leaked and end up in the media. The fact she subsequently passed the drink-driving test with flying colours is beside the point.

Two whistleblowers started this. They misinterpreted and got wrong significant details, but they did us a service in disclosing what's going on. Four TDs sought to clean up what has become a very, very rotten system.

Clare Daly ended up in handcuffs. Interaction between the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice led to the release of private information about Mick Wallace. Ming Flanagan was publicly skewered for his bad behaviour.

The names of the VIPs and celebrities on whose behalf senior gardai quashed penalty points remain unknown. That's confidential.

There are garda practices that should be stopped. Meanwhile, leading politicians have repeatedly endorsed the practice of officers of the State passing on private information they've picked up on critics of the Government. The same politicians have no qualms about the conduct of the penalty points system.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality is to consider the reports on penalty points. They could play party politics, in which case this will fester. And erupt at a later date. Or, they could play this straight.

Meanwhile, the fourth TD who tried to do something about the penalty points scandal – well Joan Collins might want to watch her back.

Irish Independent

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