| 7.7°C Dublin

Andrew Lynch: Pick your battles wisely, minister, after all plenty would love to face you down

When Dermot Ahern took to the airwaves over the weekend, he had two distinct messages that he wanted to get across.

The first was that the threat from republican dissidents in Northern Ireland is now greater than at any time since the end of the Troubles.

The second was that he is still gung-ho about publishing the results of an internal Garda inquiry into how the letters that brought down Trevor Sargent were printed in this newspaper.

It would be nice to think that our Minister for Justice would be able to spot the slight difference in importance between these two issues. Instead, Ahern gives every impression that using this inquiry to protect his own political reputation is at the top of his agenda right now.

This would be pretty juvenile behaviour at the best of times -- but with the Northern peace process under attack and gangland murders becoming even more frequent, the Minister's warped sense of priorities is truly deplorable.

As has been pointed out here before, promising to make a police inquiry of this kind public is completely unprecedented. Even before this one has properly got underway, however, Ahern is demanding public apologies from the opposition TDs who suggested that he might be responsible for the leak -- proving beyond doubt that boosting his own image is the only point of this ridiculous charade.

There is no disputing that in the heat of the moment following the Sargent revelations last Tuesday, some of the more excitable politicians in Leinster House jumped the gun.

When Pat Rabbitte made his famous remark, "the empire strikes back" with a sly grin on his face, everyone knew what the former Labour leader was implying. A number of other conspiracy theorists have leaped to conclusions without knowing the facts, exactly the sort of reckless behaviour that landed Trevor Sargent in hot water in the first place.

However, Dermot Ahern should know better than most TDs that politics is sometimes a contact sport.

As his widely criticised performance during the Dail debate over Willie O'Dea a fortnight ago demonstrated, he didn't get his nickname "the bootboy from Dundalk" for nothing.

By demanding apologies for a few trivial remarks that everyone would have forgotten by now if he had been gracious enough to let them drop, the minister has shown himself to be unable to take what he so happily dishes out himself.

The upshot of all this is that we are now entering a kind of political twilight zone, where a Government minister has been engaged in "unlawful behaviour" but the people who exposed him are being portrayed as the bad guys. By any standards, this is a rather strange kind of justice.

It's also an outrageous attack on press freedom -- which, given his recent proposals on blasphemy that sounded like something from the Middle Ages, probably shouldn't be a surprise coming from this particular Minister.

Dermot Ahern should think long and hard before turning the Sargent affair into some kind of personal vendetta.

After all, a minister who picks as many stupid fights as this one does is almost certainly heading for an early bath.