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Brendan O'Connor: By playing the victim FG ignores its responsibility

ALAN Shatter refuses to say if he met disgraced TD Michael Lowry since the findings of the Moriarty tribunal were published. It is unusual, and a bit petulant. But more unusual, and more petulant, is Shatter's stated reason for not admitting if he has met Lowry: His initial comment on the matter was that, "As Minister for Justice I am not participating in Independent Newspapers' agenda".

Subsequent to this story appearing, Alan Shatter released a more lengthy statement in which he again cited an INM agenda and described the desire to know which ministers had met disgraced Mr Lowry as having "echoes of the discredited McCarthy era of the Fifties in US politics. We should not allow such an approach to gain even a foothold in a robust constitutional democracy that takes political elective office and constituency representation seriously." Is he seriously suggesting that Lowry and others are victims of a media that is trying to subvert democracy?

Though not all of them have been as dramatic as to compare it to McCarthyism, it has become a cop-out for politicians wishing to cover their arses about them or their colleagues consorting with Michael Lowry or Denis O'Brien to cite an INM agenda. The Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has also used the Indo clause to get out of commenting robustly on the scandal of the links between Fine Gael and Denis O'Brien, saying: "I think it's an open secret that there's competition between Denis O'Brien and his supporters in Independent Newspapers and the O'Reilly group and their supporters. Now, I don't want to be dragged into that in any way whatsoever." Enda Kenny, for his part, doesn't see what the fuss is about.

Basically, the line being trotted out in public by elements in Fine Gael, and to a greater extent in private, even to many of us who write for this paper, is that the whole national furore about the links between the Government and Denis O'Brien and Michael Lowry don't matter in the real world and it is a campaign by Independent Newspapers that has put it and kept it on top of the national agenda, and that this newspaper is only making an issue of this to try and stop O'Brien from taking over INM.

It is, if you look at it, a form of denial. Let's take Shatter's notion that he would be feeding into an INM agenda by admitting if he met Michael Lowry. The reason that Shatter was asked the question in the first place, and the reason that ministers meeting with Michael Lowry has become an issue, is because the Examiner had a story recently about Phil Hogan meeting with Lowry for an hour around the time of the publication of the Moriarty tribunal, a time when Hogan was saying he would have no truck with people like Lowry, and around a time when Lowry was under intense pressure from Fine Gael to resign from the Dail. Now, Alan Shatter overestimates the power of Independent Newspapers if he thinks we can get our competitors in the Examiner, who fight it out every day with us in the dogfight that is the newspaper industry, to push any agenda for us.

Do Shatter and others who claim this is all a plot by INM think as well that all the other newspapers and media outlets that have been covering this story have also been pushing our agenda? Do they think that Vincent Browne, in last Wednesday's Irish Times, who wrote a piece excoriating Fine Gael for their "Deafening silence on O'Brien", was also serving an INM agenda? That would be unusual given that Browne is well known for his robust and critical pieces about INM and the O'Reillys. When Brown wrote that: "It was a Fine Gael-led government and a Fine

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Gael minister that granted the most valuable award the State ever bestowed: the second mobile phone licence. And it was not just a single minister that was engaged in that; the entire government was involved", was he doing it for Sir Anthony? Or Gavin?

Does Alan Shatter believe, for example, that the two editorials that the Irish Mirror has carried on this matter in the last week, and the one it carried last week about Lowry and Hogan, represent it being part of a rival's agenda? Does he believe all the rest of that newspaper's extensive coverage of the story has been to serve our agenda too? What about the extensive coverage in the Irish Daily Mail these past weeks? Was that to help INM's supposed agenda too? Headlines like "Kenny's crisis is down to the same old habits", which was over a leading article on April 6. Pieces like the lengthy front-page piece on "Lowry's troubling access to Enda's top ministers". What about the 3,000-word interview with Lucinda Creighton, in which she said her party should have nothing to do with Michael Lowry? Were both she and the Mail pushing an INM agenda there? What about RTE, which has carried the Lowry story and the story of ministers meeting him, extensively? Do the conspiracy theorists think they are working for us too? And going back to The Irish Times, one could show Shatter a thick file of that newspaper's coverage of the whole issue. Just some recent headlines for you: "Old friends keep popping up to trouble Fine Gael's ideals"; "Noonan met Lowry last year after adverse Moriarty report"; "Lowry defends Hogan meeting"; "Call for clarity on people implicated by tribunal; "Coalition rift over FG links to O'Brien". I could go on. The matter has been aired extensively in the Irish Examiner, who, as I said, broke the story in the first place, and the Sunday Business Post too.

Is Thomas Crosbie Holdings, another newspaper group fighting for survival in these difficult times, also pursuing our agenda? In terms that Alan Shatter would understand, this would be like suggesting all the other political parties are pushing a Sinn Fein agenda. It just doesn't make sense.

So Shatter and others can keep convincing themselves that this is just INM making trouble, but to do so is very dangerous for them. To circle the wagons about something like this and claim victimisation by INM might make them feel a bit better now, but in doing so they ignore a very real and very serious issue that people are quite exercised about. Among the people who are exercised about it are their own Labour colleagues at Cabinet, a number of whom have spoken out on the matter, one of Fine Gael's own ministers, Lucinda Creighton, and virtually every media outlet in Ireland, from tabloid to broadsheet to radio to TV.

This is the real issue Shatter and his colleagues should focus on. Many people despise Fianna Fail now because they blame them for ruining the country. They also despise them for the fact that two of their last four Taoisigh have been found to have dodgy finances, and because there seems to have been somewhat of a culture of corruption in the party. People have promised themselves, never again. And people like to believe that Fine Gael is not like that.

But having spent hundreds of millions of our euro to investigate dodgy practices in Fine Gael, and for nothing to happen on foot of that, is a very real issue for people, not just in the fevered imagination of Independent Newspapers. For the Government to continue to be pals with the person who was found to have acted improperly in that report, and for the Government to continue to consort with the businessman over whom that report cast a shadow, and for Government ministers to argue robustly that this is okay, is not what people expected or wanted from Fine Gael. And this is something that will ultimately cause Fine Gael huge problems -- with the people who voted for them, with their Labour colleagues, and potentially within the party itself. Lucinda Creighton has spoken out bravely of her discomfort with the matter and there are other leading lights in Fine Gael, more senior than Lucinda, who feel the same but have decided, for their own reasons, not to go public.

Shatter and the others can decide to accept reality now and deal with it, or they can continue to indulge in dangerous fantasies about victimisation. The only McCarthyism the minister will find around here is Colm McCarthyism.

Sunday Independent