Alan Shatter – Why it’s wrong and the unanswered questions
There is a story told of a man who heard a knock on his door late one night. He opened it to find the devil standing outside. The Devil proceeded to tell him that there had been an accident and someone needed his help. The man thought about this and while he did not trust the devil he still went to help and saved his friends life. The moral of the story is that the truth is the truth, no matter who utters it, and the source should not be our only consideration when deciding if what is said is right or wrong.
Mick Wallace has already had his fair share of problems since entering the Dail only two years ago. His record and his position do not make him the kind of figure that many will particularly want to side with. However, this must be cast aside. Mick Wallace was making an argument that there should be no room for letting people off when Gardai are dealing with certain incidents. Now perhaps Mick Wallace is a hypocrite. Some of the best arguments and decisions in history have been hypocritical ones. Nobody is prevented from doing or saying the right thing by virtue of the fact that they once said or did the wrong thing.
Democracy is about making arguments; it is about electing people to represent those arguments on our behalf. Debate cannot be silenced or else we become something very different. Minister Shatter was also making a very reasonable argument against what Mick Wallace was saying. However, he decided to stray from the merits of the argument, he decided to use information he had received confidentially as a result of his position, in an attempt to end the argument and silence the debate. In that moment he stopped making his case and decided to try show the world that they just shouldn’t listen to Mick Wallace no matter what he said. Wallace was the devil at the door and should be ignored in all circumstances. A dangerous path.
Over the years I have attended many meetings with government figures and many briefings on different issues. They are no different to any meeting you will have attended elsewhere. There may be a report and points made within that which form the central part of the meeting and what is reported, but there is always a discussion around it, questions must be asked, answers given, examples provided and explanations that are not put in writing. That is the purpose of a briefing rather than just sending a file. It is also expected however, that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and understands confidentiality. A policeman discussing matters with the Minister for Justice is entitled to believe that this man, his boss, knows and understands the rules and necessity of confidentiality the same as anyone else in the force. There would have been no expectation that the Minister was about to go on TV and use this information.
Here we come to the nub of the issue and the questions facing Alan Shatter. Firstly, was there a public need to know? Was he doing a service? Well let’s face it we all know how this works. The media has a role and it is their role to find out and uncover such information. It cannot be the role of government to selectively release information through a minister. If Minister Shatter is so concerned that the public should know, then is he equally committed to revealing all information on all public figures, especially all TDs, held by the Gardai? Will he reveal details of all warnings, conversations and points issued by Gardai to such figures? After all that’s surely of just as much interest?
Is the Minister aware if any TD has ever made representations to a Garda in order to have a traffic offence overlooked on behalf of a constituent? Given that a Garda has this power and given that TDs have made representations on far more serious issues does he really expect us to believe that no TD has tried this?
During the briefing did the Gardai mention any other examples aside from Mr Wallace to illustrate the point? Shatter says that he was right to reveal the information because it was about a public figure, but would he have done so if the example was an FG backbencher? Would he have done so if the Gardai jokingly admitted that the once let Enda Kenny off with a warning? This is what makes a lie of the Shatter’s defence. There is no doubt that he would not have revealed the information in the absence of it helping to silence an argument. The message is simple, keep to the rules, be agreeable and no one needs to hear anything. Cause me a problem, speak out and people will hear all about any misdemeanours.
Alan Shatter could have admitted that perhaps the timing and placement of his use of this information was inappropriate. He could have been honest about that and left his fate in the hands of Enda Kenny and his colleagues and indeed, the court of public opinion. He did not. He did what all Irish politicians do. He defended it to the last and says it was the right thing to do. Enda Kenny quickly backed him 100% as a warning that ‘we are all in this together’ and it was time for everyone to get behind the Minister.
So that raises even more questions. If Shatter thinks this is right and proper then is he saying clearly and without any equivocation that he would do the same again? If he had it over would he still do it and should he find himself in a similar position next week on TV would he do the same to someone else? Is he saying that it is his modus operandii and that if he comes across information on any other TD or individual then he would see no difficulty in using that information in the debate?
A minister is a representative of the state, bound by its laws and its protections. The role carries duties and responsibilities that are not to be taken lightly. If we expect the Gardai to treat matters confidentially then we must expect the same from the man in charge of the gardaí. Alan Shatter does not see what was wrong here, many of his colleagues don’t get it either. However, it is not just about him or one incident, it is about freedoms and rights and whether these can be eroded in certain circumstances or not. Minister Shatter is like a bold child that has wandered a little way down a slippery slope, the parents are calling him back and he laughs at them, fixes them with a bold stare and says ‘Its fine, stop worrying, its ok this far down.’ The parents know sometimes you get away with it but if you don’t……..