Wednesday 22 January 2020

Onus on minister to reassure public

Fionnan Sheahan

BY the nature of the job, the Justice Minister is going to be privy to highly sensitive information on matters of national security.

Briefings from the highest ranks of the Garda Siochana are part and parcel of his role.

Since the merger with the Minister for Defence portfolio, Alan Shatter is also the only port of call for the Defence Forces too.

Of the other Cabinet members, only the Taoiseach would be in the loop on some of this information – sometimes.

During the Troubles, the role of Justice Minister carried an even greater importance as the State was battling subversives.

It would be extremely unreasonable to expect the Justice Minister to relate all the information he receives in a public domain. However, the minister does have a duty to reassure the public that access to sensitive information will not be abused.

Over the years, some incidents caused legitimate concern.

The tapping of journalists' phones by the Haughey government in 1981 was motivated by a desire to find out who was leaking damaging secrets. Justice Minister Sean Doherty was ordered to carry out the tapping and illegitimately used the resources of the gardai.

It was the most serious case in the modern era of an egregious abuse of the uniquely privileged position afforded to the Minister for Justice.

Latter-day incidents are of less import but still raise questions. In the last decade, former Justice Minister Michael McDowell accused former journalist Frank Connolly of travelling to Colombia on a false Irish passport in the company of a known IRA member.

The minister used information provided to him by the Garda Siochana. Now Mr Shatter appears to have used information provided to him by the gardai to accuse Mick Wallace of receiving a caution for using his mobile phone while driving.

Either he received this information in an official capacity from a member of the force or just heard it on the grapevine.

The latter is doubtful.

The Justice Minister has proven highly touchy about garda information making its way into the public through the media.

In his case though, he seems to feel his judgment is infallible.

Irish Independent

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