Thursday 23 January 2020

Shatter has shown courage but someone's out to get him

Alan Shatter
Alan Shatter

Liz O'Donnell

ONE glance at the Sunday papers was enough. Someone is out to get Alan Shatter. The spat over Mick Wallace's mobile phone use and the revelation about the Justice Minister's breathalyser test-waiver has run all week. But the controversy still has legs, with moves to table a no-confidence motion in the minister.

All of this is par for the course in Dail drama, but when the story veered off to embrace claims of buying fake watches, it moved from the far-fetched to the sinister. Could it be that forces in the State's justice and security apparatus are actively working to undermine the minister by leaking damaging facts about him?

Mr Shatter is not popular among deputies even in his own party, due to his superior air and a tendency to put the knife in when political opponents are already gravely wounded. His broadside against Mick Wallace in a live TV debate was instantly seen as a low blow and inappropriate use by a minister of official information for base political motives. It rebounded on him badly and he is paying a political price.

His cabinet colleagues are clearly fed up with the controversy, viewing it as a "ball of smoke" and a distraction from the apparent miracle at Beggars Bush.

But if the subject matter of his lapse was more serious than the exercise of garda discretion over the use of a mobile phone, Mr Shatter might well have had to resign.

There is legitimate concern, even alarm in political circles, that such a trivial misdemeanour, not worthy of a formal complaint, made its way to the Garda Commissioner and ultimately to the minister. It suggests an unhealthy culture of intelligence gathering about deputies and citizens, inappropriate in a properly functioning democracy.

It raises questions about how the State holds information about individual citizens and what protections there are to safeguard against the abuse of that information.

Information is power. It is not so long ago that the phones of journalists Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold were tapped. A macho culture evolved in the Department of Justice over time against a background of subversion of the State by the IRA.

The "security of the State" justified at times unorthodox methods of intelligence gathering, including the use of informers, phone tapping and unethical policing, as revealed not so long ago in the Morris Tribunal. Indeed, the public stand-off between the force and the Garda Ombudsman is an indication that all is not well on those legacy issues.

The concept of freedom of information is anathema to the Department of Justice; frequently they seek and achieve exemptions from legislation on the grounds of state security.

As justice spokesperson, I experienced huge frustration in extracting information in parliamentary questions. Frequently I was told that the "value of the information sought by the deputy is not commensurate with the amount of time that would be expended in providing the information sought". Replies to questions were minimalist, bordering on the misleading.

Indeed, we would have been spared the expense of the various tribunals if parliamentary questions were accurately answered. I refer in particular to the Beef Tribunal, the Hep C inquiry and the various reports into child abuse scandals.

Who can forget that draft reply to a parliamentary question disclosed in the Beef Tribunal that bore a handwritten note in the margin "that should confuse the deputy"?

Contrast this culture of withholding information and secrecy with the casual release of garda intelligence about Wallace to a serving minister for political purposes. The whole penalty points issue, in particular the unravelling of justice for select people with influence, is a deeply worrying state of affairs.

Shooting the messengers because they lack credibility misses the point. Something nasty has been exposed. It is wrong that the two garda whistleblowers are suffering as a result. The handcuffing of Deputy Clare Daly and false accusation of drink driving that was leaked to the media was a disgraceful episode. It now looks like the Justice Minister is on the receiving end of malicious leaks designed to discredit him. If true, this is subversive.

Alan Shatter has been a reforming and energetic Justice Minister, tackling vested interests with characteristic courage. Like him or not, he has taken on and withstood pressure from judges, barristers, solicitors, prison officers and garda representatives without fear or favour. His has been a welcome pro-woman and liberal voice on the X Case legislation, which has made him a target for personal abuse from the pro-life bullies.

The Wallace affair, for which he has apologised, has damaged him. But the public are tired of the phoney war of claim and counterclaim. It is not in the national interest to have a serving Justice Minister undermined by leaks to a manipulated media.

Irish Independent

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