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Shatter would be first to stick the boot in if it were on the other foot

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ALAN Shatter has landed himself in a right mess and it's entirely of his own making. Tempting as it might be to cite Albert Reynolds's line about how, in politics, you trip up over the little hurdles, it doesn't even apply here.

There were no hurdles in the Justice Minister's path during what should have been a routine 'Prime Time' debate last Thursday night.

The more appropriate comparison would be Devon Lough – the race horse who famously collapsed just yards from the winning post in the 1956 British Grand National.

The high-level garda report into allegations about the cancellation of penalty points had largely backed up the Justice Minister's stance. It had seriously undermined what Shatter said were "wild and exaggerated claims" made by Mick Wallace and other Independent TDs.

An ineffectual Wallace wasn't in a position to lay a glove on Shatter in the debate. But, the Justice Minister couldn't resist gilding the lily.

In what seemed like a pre-planned move, Shatter announced that Wallace had escaped with a caution when caught using a mobile phone while driving the previous May.

Wallace didn't immediately realise the significance of what Shatter had said. But presenter Pat Kenny did, asking the Wexford TD if he was "not concerned that the minister should know about your private business dealing with the gardai".

As did Fianna Fail's justice spokesman Niall Collins. He wrote a piece for yesterday's 'Sunday Independent' criticising what he alleged was a "blatant and disturbing abuse of ministerial power" and calling for Shatter's resignation.

Opposition calls for a ministerial head are hardly surprising, but Shatter has serious questions to answer. The main one being: how he came to learn that Wallace had received a garda warning for using his mobile phone while driving?

And it's not just the opposition asking this question. Labour TD for Dublin South East Kevin Humphreys has put down two parliamentary questions for this week asking the Justice Minister to disclose where he got the information about Wallace.

Humphreys said he would be very concerned if it emerged the information was supplied by the gardai, as it would raise serious data protection issues. It would also, he said, set a dangerous precedent.

Shatter was in typically combative mood over the weekend. In a statement on Friday, he said it was "a matter of public importance" that RTE viewers were made aware of what happened with Wallace. The following day he refused to take any questions from the media.

That latter position is not sustainable, not least because of the Dail questions put down by Humphreys. And the answers will dictate whether the story is a short-lived controversy or something far more damaging for Shatter and the Government.

The position of Justice Minister is arguably the most sensitive of all in cabinet. The holder of the office inevitably comes across very personal information about citizens.

It's vital, not only that such information is handled with the utmost discretion, but that the public have absolute confidence this is the case. Any perception – fair or not – a minister could use information sourced from the gardai to gain political advantage against an opponent would be damaging in terms of the force's independence.

Of course, we don't know yet where Shatter did get the information. But if it does emerge he received it in his official capacity as Minister for Justice, then he will be in considerable difficulty.

At the very least, Shatter showed poor judgment in using the information in a television debate. And his argument that what was revealed – the TD getting a warning, rather than penalty points, for his transgression – was "a matter of public importance" looks tenuous.

Equally tenuous is the argument coming from government figures over the weekend that the context for Shatter's use of the comments is important.

Even if they are right that Independent TDs made "wild allegations" against the gardai, it doesn't justify disclosing the information about Wallace.

The standards applied to a Minister for Justice, as Shatter would have been the first to point out in opposition, have to be considerably higher.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent