Friday 23 March 2018

The line between political criticism and personal attack

Willie O'Dea refuses to be intimidated or silenced by Fine Gael Senator Eugene Regan's accusations

I usually devote this column to considering the national issues of the day. Today I am departing from that practice to address a very personal matter. I do so following comments made and reported last week. While these have not been widely reported, they have been repeated so persistently as to require me to refute them.

Over the years I have got into passionate arguments with Sinn Fein representatives. The views of the overwhelming majority of the people of Limerick about Sinn Fein are equally passionate.

Early in 2009 a war of words with a Sinn Fein representative in Limerick ended up in a legal tussle. I won't rehash the details here, except to say that I was mistaken in my memory of the details in my original statement. It was a genuine omission based on my flawed recollection of an interview. This was accepted in the settlement between all sides agreed in court. All fair-minded people would have seen this as an end to the matter.

But this is not good enough for Fine Gael's Senator Eugene Regan. He wants to reopen and misrepresent a matter that has been finalised and closed. He has chosen, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, to use the strongest and most aggressive words available in order to attack me.

He accuses me of committing perjury -- a criminal offence -- and contrives through wordplay to imply that I have been found guilty. One of the most amazing things about this, and a clear demonstration of his purely political motives, is that there is already on the record an instance of him dismissing the significance of actual convictions with the statement that the person merely made "a mistake".

Regan says that I was "found out", claiming that it "wasn't until a tape of the interview emerged that he was forced to retract". The clear implication is that I had not been aware of the existence of the tape. Wrong.

Of course, I knew there was a tape. The cassette recorder was there in front of me when I gave the interview. I didn't have a transcript of the interview when I made my statement, but as I had seen the report of it in the paper, I thought the tape would vindicate my recollection. I was wrong, it didn't. I made a mistake. I apologised and agreed a settlement in which the other party accepted that there was no intention to mislead. The matter has been dealt with and is closed.

While Regan has been unashamed in propagating this, he has not been alone. Others in Fine Gael have alluded to the claim, though they been more cautious in their approach.

The obvious political intention has been to try to silence or undermine my political criticisms of Fine Gael. It's an old tactic and one that George Lee is starting to experience for himself.

While Regan now strains daily to label my mistake as perjury and ignore the record, two years ago he dismissed the operation of an illegal animal drug distribution and supply racket simply as a "mistake".

How does Senator Regan account for this double standard? Very simple: the man sentenced to six months' imprisonment in December 1996 on 13 charges of possessing and keeping illegal growth promoters for sale was his own brother, a suspended veterinary surgeon.

When his brother's racket -- which potentially put public health at risk -- returned to public attention two years ago, Regan played down the affair, saying: "It happened. The guy made a mistake."

According to him, a racket that was compared in court to drug barons supplying heroin and crack cocaine was just "a mistake".

Two years ago, Regan went on to say that he wouldn't allow the emergence of the facts of the story to intimidate him. If Regan can't be shamed into decency by facts, then let me assure him that I most certainly will not be intimidated or silenced by his tactics. I will continue to be robust in my criticisms, but I will, unlike Regan, be fair and avoid character assassination.

On political matters, everyone accepts that individual public representatives will use an opportunity to attack an opponent, but on personal matters higher standards have always applied. It is possible to be robust in politics, without being personally vindictive -- unfortunately some like Regan just don't understand the difference.

Willie O'Dea is Minister for Defence and Fianna Fail TD for Limerick East

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