Penalty points fiasco - Minister’s response is an affront

Sometimes you have to pinch yourself, take a deep breath and listen carefully to be sure that you heard what you thought you heard.

Sometimes you have to pause and reorientate yourself to confirm that you were listening to adults, some politicians, one a minister, articulating their reality. Sometimes you must step back to assess something through the prism of realpolitik and try to see the bigger picture and try to be fair and understanding. Sometimes, even if you do all of that, you remain confounded, wondering if you were listening to political debate or one of the more hallucinogenic scenes from Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s response to a perfectly legitimate question on the penalty points row is unfortunately such a moment. Asked if he thought that he had what should be confidential information that allowed him accuse Deputy Mick Wallace of benefiting from the flexibility around penalty points was, for him, a resigning matter he responded by asking the journalist if the question “was a joke”.

That a minister for justice imagines that this kind of abuse of position, this sleazy, Tammany Hall insider trading, can be shrugged off with such contempt is not just a cause of real concern for every citizen but it must be a cause of great concern for a Government elected on a platform of transparency and openness.

This is especially so at a moment when stability and delivery are more important to Government than they have been for quiet some time. It is especially true too when a Government has an unassailable majority and nothing other than its own conscience to hold it to account.

It is especially disheartening too as Mr Shatter had shown a determination to impose badly needed reform in many areas under his remit. How those happy to languish in the balmy shade of the status quo must enjoy watching him undermining himself so completely.

It is tragic too that the air of vaudeville is exacerbated by the fact that Mr Shatter’s opponent in this minor-but-significant contretemps — Deputy Wallace — remains a member of the Dáil despite his admission of multi-million euro tax evasion.

Both men have added to the cynicism that is making politics more and more remote from its primary function and, probably most tragically of all, both men seem to believe they have right on their side. How skewed the moral compass guiding our public life has become.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has the unenviable task of regenerating the economy, satisfying obligations long ignored on abortion and a huge unemployment problem to deal with. He finds himself in that position because so many of his predecessors, and their ministers, played fast and lose with the idea of accountability, integrity and proper standards in public behaviour.

Unless he holds his justice minister to account — publicly — and establishes if Mr Shatter or any other minister has sought, or been provided with, garda information that could be used against an opponent in a similar way he will stand accused, as his predecessors are, of ignoring the principles he championed to get elected. Penalty points and how they are nullified, rightly or wrongly, are no longer the issue, it is something far more important and fundamental. Now the question is has the faith we placed in politics been betrayed again?


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