John Downing

Wednesday 30 July 2014

John Downing: Tough times ahead for Kenny as more Garda controversy on way

John Downing

Published 24/03/2014|02:30

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Extraordinary though it may seem, some in the Cabinet are hoping Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan can help them out of some very serious bother ahead of tomorrow's meeting.

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If the commissioner could find words to publicly make amends to two garda whistleblowers, then a good deal of tension could be taken out of this never-ending garda penalty points controversy.

The notion actually screams out of the weekend comments made by Labour Ministers Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte.

et's recall Mr Quinn is a veteran of four coalition governments, and in November 1994 he famously told Fianna Fail Taoiseach Albert Reynolds to choose which 'head' he was to give the Labour partners in government – his own or that of the newly-appointed president of the High Court.

But now Mr Quinn is trying to make the move as easy as possible for Mr Callinan.

"Anyone in public office can, on occasion, find themselves in a position where their choice of words has been unfortunate," he said in a preamble to asking the commissioner to "move to end the controversy".

Rabbitte was equally emollient as he suggested that Mr Callinan could help them park a row within a row and borrow some time.

"It would be a great pity if we couldn't bring the controversial aspects of the saga to conclusion," the Communications Minister said.

Any way you look at things, this is a very tricky one for the Taoiseach. We are heading into the second quarter of the year – and one more time the news agenda is dominated by garda controversies.

There is little space in the news agenda for the Government to put out messages that the economic recovery is continuing apace. Nine weeks from the local and European elections, both Fine Gael and Labour are supposed to be leading national conversations about more positive things.

Instead, the Government did not even manage to get the full St Patrick's week out of an expected 'political ceasefire'.

And, as things panned out, they got precious little positive domestic blowback from their successful international promotional blitz.

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar decided to open up and applaud garda whistleblowers, Sgt Maurice McCabe and former Garda John Wilson, last Thursday morning.

Mr Varadkar's further call for Commissioner Callinan to withdraw his comments about 'disgust' in relation to the whistleblower controversy, then started a bizarre chain reaction.

The Labour ministers had all the signs of being able to live with the garda situation up until then.

But Social Affairs Minister Joan Burton, a constituency rival of Leo Varadkar's, was quick out of the traps to support the Transport Minister.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore quickly confirmed that Ms Burton's comments were not a solo run. Mr Rabbitte then went on radio to add his own concurring views.

Then things get a bit ropier. At the close of an EU leaders' summit in Brussels, the Taoiseach said ministers should keep their controversial views for cabinet meetings and not air them in public.

Mr Kenny was taking a good public swipe at Mr Varadkar.

But Labour felt the need to show no public fear. So, they fielded Mr Quinn with his comments to show they would not be cowed.

THE upshot is that by now five government ministers, four Labour and one Fine Gael, are calling on Commissioner Callinan to say something. That is one-fifth of the Cabinet and that, in anyone's terms, is pressure.

Commissioner Callinan has made it clear that he has another difficulty in all this.

He has twice in recent days said his use of the term 'disgusting' was not a reflection on the character of the two garda whistleblowers.

The commissioner has insisted the term related to the way confidential information from the Garda Pulse system had found its way into the public domain. The view is to some degree supported by Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes. By that evaluation he is perhaps being asked to apologise for something he never did.

Away from this row within a row, two other things are happening. First is that there is more garda-related bad news in the pipeline, with at least two of three reports due to drop in or around Easter.

Former High Court Judge John Cooke is expected to deliver his review on alleged bugging at the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission's (GSOC) Dublin headquarters.

Senior counsel Sean Guerin is also due to report on the whistleblowers' allegations about penalty points and other alleged malpractices.

It may take a little longer for the third inquiry – being done by GSOC into penalty points – to be completed.

But it all means Mr Kenny is going to have to find ways to dial down this issue, lest it become a sub-theme in the forthcoming election campaign.

Meanwhile, Labour has begun to eye the much bigger prize of being able to claim credit for a new comprehensive system of garda supervision, modelled on current practice in Northern Ireland.

That will very probably add to the internal cabinet friction.

The Taoiseach must brace himself for some pretty tough times ahead.

Irish Independent

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