Mr O'Dea's false statement

 

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen has a duty of care to the democratic system that goes beyond the knee-jerk protection of Fianna Fáil colleagues or the immediate concerns of government. That places him in an invidious position, because of the relaxed attitude adopted by his predecessors to ethical issues. But, at a time when public confidence in all forms of authority has waned, there is a need to promote high standards and to ensure political accountability.

After weeks of pressure from Fine Gael, Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea may attend the Dáil and explain how he happened to make a false statement, in a sworn affidavit, to the High Court last year. But only if Mr Cowen asks him to do so. This is a most serious matter for the Minister. But to appoint the Taoiseach as the effective arbiter of his behaviour complicates the situation considerably and may eventually create friction between the Coalition parties.

On two occasions in the Seanad, Fine Gael’s spokesman on justice Eugene Regan raised the behaviour of Mr O’Dea and questioned his fitness for Government. The controversy will be extended to the Dáil today by Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan.

Last year, the Minister denied making false allegations against a Sinn Féin councillor in a sworn affidavit. He withdrew the document and apologised to the court only after his deposition was shown to be false. Mr O’Dea said that as soon as he realised the mistake he “put his hands up” and apologised to the court.

In other jurisdictions, prominent people have been sent to jail for incorrect statements. Here, Fianna Fáil closed ranks. Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern ignored the substantive issue and described Fine Gael’s behaviour in pursuing the matter as “despicable”. Earlier, leader of the Seanad Donie Cassidy declared that the people of Limerick were fortunate to have such a capable representative. There is no question about Mr O’Dea’s political or ministerial abilities. What is at issue is his behaviour in maligning a political opponent during an election campaign and the legal and political consequences that have flowed from that action. As a solicitor, Mr O’Dea must realise the seriousness of the situation. If he does not, then Mr Cowen, who is also a solicitor, should be able to advise him.

This controversy is all about trust and accountability. Mr Cowen may be reluctant to engage in a Cabinet reshuffle because of possible destabilising effects within Fianna Fáil. If he fails to convince Green Party Ministers that the issue is being treated with the seriousness it deserves, however, they could review their commitment to government. Already, pressure is building. Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore has demanded that Mr O’Dea should not only make a statement to the Dáil, but should answer questions on matters arising.

Under the Standards in Public Office Act, Ministers are required to observe the highest standards of behaviour at all times. In coming days, the public will judge whether that legislation is being taken seriously.