Let’s get the facts straight.
Alan Shatter, minister for justice, stated on public television that a member of our national parliament had committed a criminal offence.
What criminal offence? you might be wondering.
Why, the criminal offence of holding a phone while driving.
But that’s not a crime, you might say, to which I’ll respond that it most certainly is. A minor criminal offence, admittedly, but a criminal offence nonetheless.
Is that why I’m saying this? Am I so upset about the assault on Mick Wallace’s good name that I feel compelled to defend him? No. Mick can take care of himself. He’s big and ugly enough. What bothers me much more is the idea that a justice minister would firstly have access to information about routine police activity, secondly that he would seek to use that privileged information against a political opponent, even if that opponent happens to be an insignificant independent member of the House. And thirdly, that Alan Shatter of all people, a man who built his name and reputation on issues of human rights law, can see nothing wrong with what he did, or refuses to acknowledge it if he does.
Richard Bruton was on the radio today explaining that it was in the public interest to release this information, while ignoring the fact that, in order for Shatter to have these details in the first place, somebody must have committed a crime. Shatter, even in his position as minister, is not entitled to know what takes place between a citizen and the police. This is privileged information, regardless of whether or not that citizen happens to be an elected member of our national parliament. Indeed, all the more reason that a government minister should not be made aware of such things.
There are five possibilities.
One: Alan Shatter personally witnessed a policeman stopping Mick Wallace and heard the conversation that ensued.
Two: Mick Wallace told Alan Shatter he had been stopped.
Three: Mick Wallace told somebody else, who passed it on to Alan Shatter.
Four: a witness with exceptionally keen ears overheard a conversation between a policeman and Mick Wallace at the side of the road and passed it on to Alan Shatter or his proxy.
Five: A member of an Garda Síochána informed Alan Shatter or his agent that Mick Wallace had been stopped and warned for holding a mobile phone while driving.
Let’s write off the first four straight away. What does the fifth option imply? Simple — some guard has broken the law by revealing sensitive information about a citizen. Who’d have thought it? Who could possibly have imagined that a guard might breach confidentiality? Another first .
Now, you might say that it’s all trivial, and to some extent, I’d agree with you. Wallace is using the penalty points issue to distract from his own abysmal performance, but at the same time, once Shatter used the secret information, he escalated the issue out of all proportion to the petty squabble it started out as.
Here was a government minister using confidential police information — that he was not entitled to have — in a political manner to silence a member of the national parliament who happens to be criticising the police force.
Forget Mick Wallace and his ridiculous pink t-shirts. Forget penalty points. If an intelligent man like Alan Shatter considers it expedient to use confidential information against somebody in a relatively secure position, what will this government do to others who challenge them?
Will silencing a political critic always be in the public interest? Is it acceptable that the government and the police force should be working hand in hand to stifle criticism?
Where have we seen this before? Oops! I think it’s time to worry about the tendencies of this Fine Gael government and this police force.