Leaders' Questions

As the Taoiseach knows, on 15 May the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, received a report from the Garda Commissioner in regard to allegations that were made concerning the improper cancellation of fixed charge notices. That report found no evidence of criminality in that area but, subsequently, on "Prime Time", in a debate with Deputy Mick Wallace, and even though he was armed with the facts of the report, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, decided to use private information supplied to him by An Garda Síochána about Deputy Wallace in an attempt to undermine him in a political debate on the issue.

Fundamentally, this action represents an abuse of power and the office the Minister holds. The position of Minister for Justice is a very powerful and sensitive one. As the Data Protection Commissioner said, there is a solemn duty on behalf of such a Minister, indeed all Ministers, to hold such information as he or she receives privately with the greatest of respect and to treat it properly and honourably. The use of this private information on a Deputy to undermine him in a debate is fundamentally wrong. It represents the politicisation of An Garda Síochána which is also reprehensible. The Minister has crossed the line and shown contempt for democratic norms. He publicly set very rigorous standards in this area some years back when he said such behaviour in disclosing Garda information publicly by any Minister in any Government was entirely unacceptable. The Taoiseach has compounded the problem by endorsing the Minister's misbehaviour. There seems to be a reluctance on his or the Minister's behalf to accept that what the Minister did was wrong. He does not seem to get to the core of the issue. Will the Taoiseach outline to the House how this private information on an incident that occurred over 12 months ago found its way to the Minister last week? Are there files in existence in which such information is kept and stored for use eventually? Does the Taoiseach accept that the use by the Minister of private information supplied to him by An Garda Síochána to undermine a political opponent was wrong?

The Minister and the Government decided that there should be a full, thorough and comprehensive analysis of fixed penalty charges. That report was brought before the Government, together with appendices, and sent to the Garda Inspectorate. It was also sent in unredacted form to the Oireachtas committee, together with the appendices in unredacted form. This allows the Oireachtas committee to do what it wishes with the information.

I do not agree with the Deputy that the Minister wished to undermine Deputy Mick Wallace who is present in the House. The Minister did not say Deputy Wallace had done anything wrong. I would contest this with the Deputy because what the Minister wished to undermine was the argument made by Deputy Wallace that there should be no discretion applied after fixed penalty charges had issued. In the context of the information made available as part of the general briefing about the background and reports on fixed penalty charges, the Minister made the information publicly available. It was not a case of wanting to undermine Deputy Wallace who is elected like anybody else. It was clearly to undermine his argument because it was that there should be no discretion when it had been applied in his own case.

This matter will be the subject of statements and questions and answers by the Minister for Justice and Equality this evening. Anybody who wishes to ask a question on it or the relevance of the information on the background to the comprehensive report for the Minister will be entitled to do so.

I will take a supplementary question from Deputy Micheál Martin.

That is an appalling response. The debate later today will not be specifically about this issue, which the Taoiseach has camouflaged also. I did not say the Minister had said Deputy Mick Wallace had done anything wrong. The Taoiseach is a great man for answering questions that have never been asked and making points about points that have never been made. I never said that. Neither did Deputy Wallace say discretion should never be used. The point is that it was private information supplied to the Minister by the Garda and used in a debate to undermine a political opponent. There was a background of threatening innuendo that "if you question us too much, we will get you." That was the import of what the Minister was saying and that is what is distasteful about it - "Don't push this one too far, Deputy Wallace, because we have information." It was private information supplied by the Garda Síochána. By the Minister's own standards, he said this kind of behaviour involving the making public of information on the part of any Minister in any Government to undermine a political opponent was utterly unacceptable. The Taoiseach did not answer the question I asked him. Does he believe it is appropriate behaviour? Does he believe it is right for a Minister to reveal private information - the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has confirmed this - in the context of a debate to undermine a political opponent? Is that behaviour on the part of a Minister for Justice right or wrong?

In his previous question the Deputy said this was an attempt by the Minister to undermine Deputy Mick Wallace. I made the point that the information had been given as part of the general briefing about fixed penalty charges and that it was relevant to the argument being made by Deputy Wallace. In that context, the information made available by the Minister was important in pointing to the difference between what the Deputy was saying about fixed penalty charges and how discretion had been applied to him. I am glad that he cleared up that matter and said it had taken place.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will answer all questions in the House today and at the committee about the general briefing given about fixed penalty charges. It is outrageous that Deputy Micheál Martin makes a claim or insinuates here that the Minister is going around collecting files on individuals or Members of this House of all parties and none.

That is what he is doing.

That is an outrageous claim for Deputy Micheál Martin as leader of Fianna Fáil to make. We had a situation in this House before-----

The Taoiseach is at it again. I did not make that claim. I asked him a question.

Let us never forget the past when the Minister sitting beside me who was then Minister for Justice had to intervene when conversations were being listened to in respect of the business of the House.

Was it right or wrong?

The information was relevant in the argument being made by Deputy Mick Wallace.

We must move to the next speaker.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach is leader of the Government and cannot stand up and say whether it is right or wrong for a Minister for Justice to use private information given to him by An Garda Síochána to undermine a political opponent. That is the level he is at.

(Interruptions).

We must move on. Can we have order for Deputy Gerry Adams, please?

In 2010 the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O'Dea, was forced to resign. The Minister for Justice and Equality, then Fine Gael spokesperson on justice, said:

What Minister O’Dea admitted yesterday is that he willingly and publicly discussed, for his own electoral gain, confidential information furnished to him by a member of An Garda Síochána. Such conduct is entirely unacceptable by any Minister in any Government.

He went on to say members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces could not be assured that information provided by them for Ministers would remain confidential. These are not my words. That is what the Minister said and what he clearly meant was that information given by gardaí and members of the Defence Forces to Ministers should be kept confidential. He holds a very special brief where he has unique access to sensitive information on other citizens. His actions in using this information to smear a political opponent raise serious questions about his suitability for office because it is abuse of office, pure and simple.

The Taoiseach spoke about the past. Given his criticism of a former Minister for Justice, Mr. Michael McDowell, who in 2005 tried to smear a journalist, how can he stand 100% behind the Minister?

If it is good enough for Michael McDowell and good enough for Deputy Willie O'Dea, it is good enough for the Taoiseach's Minister for Justice and Equality and this Government which was to bring so much transparency, democracy and clarity into the way it does its business. Is it not time for this Minister to stand down, to resign?

The answer to that question is No. What is good enough for everyone else is never good enough for Michael McDowell who had his own way of putting information into the public domain. I remind Deputy Adams that the issue that arose with the previous Minister for Justice, Deputy O'Dea, was to do with a false sworn affidavit. That is a hell of a different matter to making a comment relevant to a discussion here about a very thorough, very comprehensive-----

That is not what Deputy Shatter said.

-----report on fixed penalty charges. As I said in reply to Deputy Martin, the question was whether the information which was made available was relevant to the argument being put forward by Deputy Wallace, whom Deputy Shatter did not accuse of anything other than hypocrisy in respect of his argument. I am glad that Deputy Wallace confirmed that the incident referred to actually happened.

I do not think there can be any argument about the means used to put this information out. The question is should a Minister use information against a political opponent which has been given to him or her by a member of An Garda Síochána. That is the nub of the question.

The way in which the whistleblowers in this case were dealt with was completely unsatisfactory. There has not even been an independent investigation by the Garda Ombudsman. These folks brought forward their concerns to the appropriate Garda authorities and they were ignored. They brought forward their concerns to the Comptroller and Auditor General and they were ignored. They were never interviewed. There is some suggestion that they were anonymous but that is not the case; they put their names to their concerns. They have been in an awful situation since and one of them has been forced to resign. This matter needs to be examined.

What is really annoying people is the attitude of the Minister. The Taoiseach has said the Minister should not resign. I acknowledge that is within the gift of the Minister and of the Taoiseach. However, could the Taoiseach provide for a truly independent investigation into this penalty points debacle, including the Minister's handling of the whole affair? Could that be done as a means to try to restore some confidence in the claims the Taoiseach has made about this being a different form of governance and a cleaner, fairer and very transparent Government? Patently that is not the case.

The reason for such a comprehensive and far-reaching report is because the Minister recommended that it should be so. The report was presented to Government and approved. I repeat that the unredacted report and the very comprehensive and unredacted appendices have been sent to the Oireachtas committee which is fully entitled to call anyone it wishes, including the Minister and anyone else, to discuss the report. The report has also been sent to the independent Garda Síochána Inspectorate. I repeat that the report was commissioned as a result of Deputy Clare Daly and others raising this matter. It was accepted by the Government and sent to the appropriate and proper bodies-----

That is not what I asked. I know all that.

-----the Garda Síochána Inspectorate and the Dáil committee.

Why was it not sent to the Garda Ombudsman?

I expect the Deputy will attend the committee and ask all these questions. The Minister for Justice and Equality will be in the House this evening to make a statement about this matter and to answer any questions.

I am asking the Taoiseach.

The annual report of the Data Protection Commission released yesterday highlighted disturbing abuse of the public sector's information system because of inappropriate employee access and abuse. This is a very serious matter. The public sector and the Minister heading that Department, has a solemn duty to protect data in its possession which it may only disclose with the consent of the individual concerned or under legislation enacted by the Oireachtas. Hence, the Minister for Justice and Equality, one of the most important and influential positions in Government, has been using privileged information on national television - for whatever reason - which, in my view, represents a threat to every citizen. The fact the Taoiseach supports this misuse and abuse of the ministerial office, strengthens that threat, as does the relative silence of Deputies from both Government parties.

I ask the Taoiseach whether, prior to last Thursday night's "Prime Time", the Minister, Deputy Shatter informed the Taoiseach of his intention to disclose confidential information relating to Deputy Mick Wallace on national television. Did the Taoiseach speak to him before the programme? Was the Minister acting with the Taoiseach's authority?

The Minister, Deputy Shatter, has said that he was made aware of the incident at a Garda briefing. Does the Taoiseach seriously expect us to believe that the Garda Síochána makes the Minister aware of every single incident referred to at these briefings? Was it just pure fluke that Deputy Wallace's name was mentioned? These are fundamental questions that need to be answered. For example, does the Minister have further information on public representatives, on the media or on journalists? These are very relevant questions.

Will the Taoiseach agree it is the role of journalists rather than of the Minister with responsibility for law and order, to go on national television and disclose information? Indeed, if a journalist were to put such an allegation to the Minister, he would be asked to reveal his source.

Democracy is built on the basis that Government, the Judiciary and the police act as separate entities. If the Government interferes with the other two, then we are slowly heading towards a banana republic. In his support for the Minister, is the Taoiseach saying that he will now give the go-ahead to all Cabinet Ministers likewise to disclose publicly any sensitive information they might see fit in order to abuse State power for political purposes? I think the Taoiseach has under-estimated the public concern. I do not believe this was a once-off action by the Minister. I believe it probable that he has information, however ethical it is, on Deputies, journalists and others. People want to know whether he has this information and whether the Taoiseach was aware that he planned to make this information public when he appeared on "Prime Time" last week.

The answer is No. The Minister did not brief me or inform me on that matter. I understand the Minister appeared on a television programme along with Deputy Wallace. The Minister made available information that was relevant to the case being made by Deputy Wallace in respect of discretion being used or not being used. During the debate I understand that Deputy Wallace could not recall that the incident had occurred. He clarified that fact the following day.

Deputy Halligan is correct that it is important for the Minister for Justice and Equality to attend the House this evening and he will answer any questions from Deputies.

When an allegation is made against any citizen in this State, information on that allegation is between the citizen, possibly the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Garda Síochána and maybe the offended individual. Are we seriously saying that it is now the position in this State that an allegation can be made against an individual by a Minister who may have been informed by a member of the Garda Síochána and for that Minister to go on television and mention the individual by name when, to my mind, having listened twice to the programme, no offence was committed? An offence has been committed if a person is charged by a garda. No offence was committed because he was not charged with any offence. Does it give any Minister the right to go on public television and to name an individual?

This relates back to the fundamental issue in the first question I asked. If the case is as he stated, the Taoiseach is opening it up to other Ministers to do likewise where they have information on an Opposition Member, journalist or other person. A Minister can say, "Oh well, I got this information from the Garda, so it is relevant and correct information." We cannot gloss over this. The Taoiseach cannot throw it under the carpet. We must understand that it is unacceptable that the Garda would provide this information and that the Minister would make a statement on it where no charge had been brought and nobody had been brought to court. We should forget that this man is a politician. That the Minister can put an individual's name out on public television on the basis of an assumption, allegation or words passed at a meeting to the effect that something had taken place is dangerous to democracy.

I repeat that the Minister for Justice and Equality is not going around collecting information on any individual or party.

(Interruptions).

The discussion that took place on the television programme in question involved the Minister and Deputy Wallace and was on the question of fixed penalty charges. What the Minister said was not an allegation about anything. What he said was a comment - a piece of information - which was actually confirmed by Deputy Wallace himself as being true and accurate. It is not an allegation, it was a segment of information that was true and was relevant to the overall discussion and the argument being put forward by Deputy Wallace in respect of a fixed penalty charge.

The Minister assumed it to be true on the basis of what a garda said to him. That is the point I am making. That is what is dangerous.

The Minister for Justice and Equality will attend the House this evening to make a statement, hear statements from Opposition Members and take questions from any Member who wishes to raise them. He has already made it perfectly clear that he will be available to attend at the Oireachtas committee depending on the way the Chairman and members decide to use the information that is in the unredacted report and the unredacted appendices.

That concludes Leaders' Questions.

That was very informative.