Shatter’s mistake in the Wallace saga was purely political

Column: The recoil from the Minister for Justice’s revelation was more severe than any impact on the Independent TD

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter at this week’s citizenship ceremony at the Convention Centre, Dublin. “Shatter was seen initially (and still sees himself) as an energetic and reforming Minister but his style and personality in office have depleted his political capital.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter at this week’s citizenship ceremony at the Convention Centre, Dublin. “Shatter was seen initially (and still sees himself) as an energetic and reforming Minister but his style and personality in office have depleted his political capital.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Sat, May 25, 2013, 02:00

The error at the heart of the controversy surrounding Minister for Justice Alan Shatter is a purely political one. The Minister decided to reveal publicly how gardaí had once spotted Mick Wallace on his mobile phone while driving and, having spoken to the Independent TD about it, they decided not to issue a summons or a points penalty. Shatter’s calculation was that this revelation would damage Wallace politically but, as it happens, he has done greater damage to himself. The recoil from the shot was more severe than any impact on the target.

One suspects most voters have a less than sympathetic view of the two protagonists in this saga.

Wallace, initially an endearing political maverick, has long been lacking in credibility, not least because of his tax difficulties. Shatter was seen initially (and still sees himself) as an energetic and reforming Minister but his style and personality in office have depleted his political capital.

There is a colourful old saying among senior gardaí to the effect that every new minister for justice is a friend and defender of the force until he or she needs to save his or her political skin. According to this axiom, every minister ends up dumping on the Garda.

There is an element of that in what Shatter did this week. Pressed to explain where he got the information about Wallace, and anxious to refute the suggestion that he was proactively gathering data on political opponents, the Minister revealed that Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan had told him about the Wallace incident in passing.

One could see how a story like that about Wallace might make its way up the Garda command, especially from within the Dublin metropolitan area. It’s unlikely any record of the encounter between Wallace and the garda í was kept at the time.

Alleged cover-up
One might understand, however, how in later months, as Wallace and other Independent deputies publicly alleged cover-up and corruption in the Garda in the waiving of penalty points, that somebody reminded their superiors of how Wallace had been seen on a mobile phone while driving.

The story then made its way, probably verbally , to the highest level in the force and ultimately through the commissioner and on to the Minister. Another m inister for j ustice might have thought the wiser of using such information in public debate but the incumbent just couldn’t resist.

For that misjudgment Shatter has paid a price. It generated notions of the Minister sitting in his office on St Stephe n’s Green, like some modern-day J Edgar Hoover, salivating over Garda files on the alleged crimes and misdemeanours of other politicians. These suggestions are overly imaginative. However, the way he used the Wallace story gave rise to understandable concerns that Shatter’s approach to such information was not one appropriate to his office.

Wallace announced on Tuesday that he had written to the Standards in Public Office Commission asking it to inquire into whether the Minister had breached the code on conduct for office- holders. The office’s capacity to pursue such a complaint is likely to be limited. The use of the material was for political rather than personal benefit, and the Minister maintains he disclosed it in the public interest. These distinctions might seem moot but are sig- nificant in this legal context.

The Data Protection Commissioner’s role in dealing with a complaint from Wallace is also likely to be limited. Billy Hawkes’s first task will be to establish whether a breach of data protection occurred. It is not clear that a story passed verbally in the circumstances the Minister outlined amounts to data in the legal sense.

It is also open to debate whether an account of an exchange be- tween garda í and a driver at a busy Dublin intersection could be said to be private information of the type this legislation is designed to protect.

The most peculiar twist
in this saga was Mattie McGrath’s revelation in the Dáil on Thursday that Shatter had been unable to complete a random mandatory breath test some years ago. Deputy McGrath told the Dáil that a Garda report existed on this incident involving the Minister. One can again see why such an encounter between garda í and the then opposition spokesman on justice might be consider ed sensitive enough to require preparation of a note on what had occurred.

The Minister has explained that the inability to complete the roadside breath test arose from his being asthmatic. T here being no other basis for the garda í to suspect he had consumed alcohol, it was appropriate for them to let him drive on. How the details of that incident winged their way to Mattie McGrath this week raises others questions.

In the absence of any further developments, however, Shatter will come through Fianna Fáil’s motion of no confidence next week. He will survive this undignified incident bloodied but sure in his own mind that he did the right thing.

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