Tuesday 15 October 2019

Alan Shatter: 'Taoiseach's dangerous reaction to Bailey case more befitting of a cult than a political party'

 

Controversy: The Maria Bailey swing case was perceived to have damaged Fine Gael in the recent European and local elections. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Controversy: The Maria Bailey swing case was perceived to have damaged Fine Gael in the recent European and local elections. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Alan Shatter

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Brendan O'Connor when being interviewed on RTÉ Radio One last Saturday that Fine Gael is going to require all election candidates to "make us aware of previous convictions or court cases they may be getting involved in".

As a result of perceived damage caused to Fine Gael in the recent European and local elections by the Maria Bailey controversy, Mr Varadkar stated: "We can't just treat these things as private matters any more because they do have an impact on the rest of the party."

Pending court proceedings are also to be referenced in some way in the party pledge candidates sign at selection conventions in the presence of hundreds of people.

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There are a number of problems with all of this. The first is that Fine Gael won five seats, the maximum politically possible, in the Euro elections and won an additional 20 seats in the local elections.

In the Dún Laoghaire constituency, which Ms Bailey represents in the Dáil, the Fine Gael local election results were good. Among those re-elected was John Bailey, Maria's father. There is no reliable evidence that when it came down to voting the Bailey-related controversy did Fine Gael any electoral damage at all, despite the 10 days of sustained critical media coverage devoted to it.

In so far as Fine Gael made fewer gains than hoped for in the locals, while it is convenient to make Maria Bailey the scapegoat, there are myriad other explanations.

They include the crass handling of the cervical smear scandal; the Government's failure to provide a non-contentious compensation scheme to facilitate the women both fatally and detrimentally affected from having to become embroiled in contentious and stressful court proceedings; the financial incompetence relating to the massive cost overrun in constructing the new National Children's Hospital; the ongoing housing crises; the ever- growing hospital waiting lists; the failure to properly tackle climate change; the Taoiseach's verbal bloopers and obsession with public relations - the list is endless.

Top of the list for many people, despite the good economic and jobs figures, is the daily pressure experienced by young families in meeting the costs of simply maintaining a reasonable standard of living. Few so affected were thinking of Maria Bailey when voting.

In my many years as a member of Fine Gael, I do not know of anyone under prosecution or convicted for a serious crime who has attempted to represent or who has represented the party as an election candidate. So presumably that is not the issue. The issue it seems is whether a Fine Gael candidate is a plaintiff or defendant in a civil case or in the Taoiseach's language "may get involved" in such a court case. Whether "getting involved" extends to simply being called to give evidence as a witness is unclear.

The requirement of disclosure was not confined by the Taoiseach to compensation claims for personal injuries, but let's look at the issue of personal injuries first. It is unclear what is to happen upon Fine Gael being "made aware" of a person's involvement in such proceedings.

Will the very fact of being a litigant rule that person out as a Fine Gael candidate for fear of embarrassing the party regardless of circumstances?

If someone has clearly been injured by another's violence or negligence, will that disqualify him or her? What if the alleged negligence is of the medical variety which resulted in an individual not getting required medical care or in the loss of a child at birth or the child suffering catastrophic injury?

Will that exclude standing as a candidate for fear a court action taken might embarrass the Health Minister? Who is to do what, upon Fine Gael being "made aware"?

What if a Fine Gael candidate is a named defendant in a personal injuries case? Will he or she be excluded? What if the action being defended is vexatious?

Will the validity of each claim and defence be assessed by a secret kangaroo court operated by specially selected party Gauleiters in Fine Gael's Mount Street headquarters? If so, Sinn Féin might provide some handy advice.

And what about being "made aware" of other types of court cases? Are Fine Gael candidates to violate the privacy rule and inform Fine Gael of the details of any family law case affecting them, or those involved, to furnish details of company or employment law disputes or a constitutional or defamation action and seek a Fine Gael seal of approval in some secret subsidiary justice system? And what about the resulting vulnerability of sitting TDs and selected candidates to blackmail by being threatened with litigation by the unscrupulous and dishonest or threatened that court proceedings rightly issued will be deliberately publicly misrepresented to generate media criticism and public opprobrium?

I have some experience of Fine Gael central and the party leader disapproving of court proceedings. As I recount in my book 'Frenzy and Betrayal', my challenging in the courts senior counsel Sean Guerin's wrongful condemnation of my ministerial actions without affording me a fair hearing clearly caused some upset.

Had I given in to the urging of some or the frenzied commentary on the Guerin Report, no proceedings would have been issued and the Supreme Court decision that Guerin exceeded his terms of reference and unfairly damaged my reputation when wrongly condemning me would never have been delivered. As a consequence, the important principles the court detailed which should provide protection for others in any future preliminary inquiry, would not have been prescribed.

No individual already selected or who seeks to be selected as a Fine Gael candidate should be required to sacrifice their personal and constitutional rights to initiate court proceedings.

No such individual should be discriminated against nor required to seek the approval or sanction of Fine Gael central to initiate or defend court proceedings. The Taoiseach's dangerous and ill-thought-out proposal has more in common with the conduct of a cult than a political party. It is an extraordinary overreaction to the Bailey controversy born of an obsession with public relations, spin and image. It essentially involves using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Alan Shatter is a former Fine Gael minister for justice and defence and author of 'Frenzy and Betrayal'.

Irish Independent

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