Politicising the police


By most people’s standards the use of a mobile phone while driving, although deplorable, does not rank high on the Richter scale of criminality. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that a report of a verbal admonition to TD Mick Wallace should find its way to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter’s attention. And then be used by the Minister in a political attempt to discredit the TD.

Yesterday he produced an explanation of sorts. Mr Wallace’s name came up in a briefing by gardaí on the penalty points saga. Mr Shatter claimed to journalists there was “no question” of using private information. “This wasn’t private information,” he said. Mr Wallace was a public figure. “I was required to get a full briefing from the gardaí on everything to do with the fixed charge issue and to my surprise, this came up. It’s no more complex than that.”

Data protection obligations, notwithstanding. And privacy? And the notional ministerial remove from day-to-day operations is now definitely notional. And, what of that bête noir, the politicisation of the police, over which Fine Gael volubly condemned Sean Doherty and Michael McDowell for using gardaí respectively to bug and to smear journalists?

The Minister used the information on Prime Time , he claimed, because Mr Wallace had said no discretion should allowed over those who had been levied penalty points. Not that it’s relevant, but in fact Mr Wallace had opposed discretion only in the quashing of fines/points, a far cry from the roadside discretion from which he benefited and which is a necessary and appropriate feature of routine policing.

Mr Shatter was inappropriately briefed by gardaí and then inappropriately used what was, yes, private information. It’s no more complex than that. And there are still other questions to answer: by what procedure did a trivial incident in a garda notebook make its way to Garda HQ and then on to the Minister? Was a call put out suggesting reports on such compromising situations were of particular interest? Or would gardaí with political nous simply know what was expected of them?

The willingness of Taoiseach Enda Kenny to spring uncritically, “100 per cent” to Mr Shatter’s defence is deeply disappointing. This was not a minor spat on TV, but profoundly important questions being raised about the political abuse of the Garda with their connivance. Not a matter to be brushed aside. Mr Kenny insisted that the Minister was not “collecting files on any individual or any member of the House or anybody else”. And just as well. But no one claimed Mr Shatter was creating files.

And what of Labour’s muted response? The conscience of the Coalition? Both Mr Shatter’s actions and his dismissive response to criticism will certainly alarm the party’s cowed backbenchers. Time to call a halt to an arrogant Minister’s contempt for democratic norms.