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Colum Kenny: Ming mucked up – but penalty points report must not be swept under carpet

The penalty points scandal matters. It goes to the heart of Irish society, and of a way of doing business that has contributed to creating the State in which we now find ourselves. But a report on it is likely to be spun by ministers before the public sees it.

The scandal is not just a question of principle. There is a range of very practical matters involved. For example, the whistleblowers suggest that some of those whose points where quashed went on to be involved in fatal accidents. Had they been put off the road, or suffered serious consequences for earlier offences, some people might still be alive.

And then there are many ordinary citizens who have been hit hard by the consequences of penalty points that were not terminated by gardai. Many have suffered points on their licence, fines, hefty loadings on insurance and restrictions on moving insurer (some of which factors can affect a person's job prospects).

They obviously did not know the right garda. One garda is said to have quashed 1,000 offences.

It had been hoped that Justice Minister Alan Shatter would publish last week a Garda report that he requested. But then in the Dail he said that he first wishes "to consider its contents and bring it to Cabinet". There is no particular reason why the public, living in a democracy, could not be allowed to read the report at the same time as the Government. This looks like spin.

And the idea of gardai enquiring into themselves is problematic. On December 7 last, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan denied that there was a culture of non-enforcement within the Force.

A Garda superintendent or an inspector acting on their behalf is said to have the authority to cancel penalty points for humanitarian reasons or where there is an error on the notice. And there may be exceptional circumstances where this is reasonable.

Deputy Mick Wallace gives an example of a possible fair exemption as being the case of someone rushing to hospital. But he adds that in such cases there is at present no transparent paper trail, which should require two garda signatures and a record kept.

The campaign by Wallace and others, including Deputy Clare Daly, has not been helped by the shenanigans of their colleague Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan. But the fact that Ming mucked up does not detract from the fundamental issue, which is whether or not we live in a fair democracy, or one where things are fixed for the favoured.

Flanagan unwisely took his cue from an interviewer and defined his own action in seeking to have penalty points quashed as "corrupt". But it is not corrupt to ask for points to be quashed. What is corrupt is any system that agrees to quash points randomly and depending on who you ask.

And any public representatives who benefited from that system owes their constituents an explanation. It looks like stroke politics at their worst.

Minister Alan Shatter is concerned to protect the privacy of those who had points quashed. He said in the Dail that, "We must also ensure that individuals who have done no wrong do not have their privacy violated by information appearing in the public domain which could unfairly damage their reputation."

He may be right in respect of private individuals who contacted gardai. But the public interest outweighs privacy if there are public representatives who have used this secretive system in cases that did not involve a genuine family emergency. If there are valid reasons for having points quashed, then we ought all to be able to know and use them.

In his familiar combative style, Minister Shatter rebuked Deputy Daly for not being willing to afford those who have used the backdoor system to quash points the same right to privacy that critics claim gardai allegedly broke by leaking details of her arrest and of Deputy Flanagan's penalty points fiasco to the media.

But two wrongs do not make a right, and the attitude or behaviour of some independent deputies does not justify this scandal being swept under the ministerial carpet.

Irish Independent