Thursday 5 December 2019

It was all in my head, says Shatter

Comment

Former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter
Former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

THE casual observer who sat through yesterday's appeal by former Justice Minister Alan Shatter against a finding that he broke data protection laws might reasonably have come to the conclusion that a quick chat can cost you your job.

Mr Shatter resigned last May, a day after the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) found he had broken data laws.

Mr Shatter was found to have breached data rules when he revealed personal information about rival TD Mick Wallace during a May 2013 RTE Prime Time debate.

The man who famously represented himself in the Abbeylara Supreme Court case did not attend the appeal. But he says that the DPC ruling was a factor - by no means the only one - in his resigning his Cabinet seat.

Mr Shatter has raised an interesting public interest-style defence. He says it was legitimate for him to reveal that Mr Wallace had been stopped by gardai two years ago and warned about using his mobile phone when driving because he had, as Minister, to defend the integrity of the gardai in the operation of the penalty points system.

The May 2012 incident involving Mr Wallace wasn't recorded on the PULSE system and, unusually perhaps, a formal garda record of the incident was not created until January 2013, nearly eight months later.

Mr Shatter subsequently found out the incident during a conversation with former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan when no one else was present.

Thereafter, the information resided solely in Mr Shatter's mind.

For this reason, Mr Shatter said he could not be considered a joint data controller as he made no written record of the chat with Mr Callinan, who himself had been informed about the apparent non-event by senior gardai.

Yesterday, it emerged that Mr Shatter, who once had the power to sack the Garda Commissioner, did not see the mysterious document detailing the incident not recorded on the PULSE system.

How, asked Mr Shatter's lawyers, could he have broken data laws when he was "walking around" with the information about Mr Wallace in his head, in circumstances where Irish data law requires the information to be manually or electronically recorded?

For the DPC, Mr Shatter has no right to appeal the ruling, having deployed the information and appearing on TV in his capacity as a Government minister.

It was all a bit much for Mick Wallace, who sat diligently in the benches of Court 22, scribbling notes like an enthusiastic devil attending his master.

Solicitor Gareth Noble, representing Mr Wallace, warned of a dangerous precedent being set if Mr Shatter insisted data laws were not breached because the information resided solely in the then minister's head.

The ministerial Merc would not even have left Montrose, home to RTE, before Mr Shatter would have lost his job had he revealed information about the Independent TD's health records, said Mr Noble.

Mr Noble sidestepped protests by Senior Counsel Eileen Barrington, for Mr Shatter, of taking part in a party political broadcast.

Mr Noble said that it was a historic act for a Government Minister to be found in breach of data protection law. "This is as serious as it gets," said Mr Noble, to wry smiles from the courtwatchers.

The appeal will continue today.

Irish Independent

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