Check Against Delivery
I am grateful for the opportunity to address issues arising from last Thursday’s Prime Time programme.
I regret that comments made by me may have inadvertently resulted in concerns being expressed that I am prepared to use confidential Garda information to damage a political opponent. Nothing could be further from the truth but I am happy to offer reassurances to Deputies on this point.
I want to give a solemn assurance to the House that I am not in the business of receiving, seeking or maintaining confidential, sensitive information from An Garda Siochana about Members of this House, the Seanad or, indeed, anyone in political life. Nor are the Gardaí in the business of providing it.
It is, of course, the case that as Minister it is necessary that I am informed of certain matters. Section 41 of the Garda Síochána Act provides a clear statutory basis for the information which is provided to me by An Garda Síochána. In turn, I am subject to the laws of the land in relation to what use I might make of that information but, more importantly still, I am responsible to the House for how I discharge my Office.
The House will appreciate that there could be exceptional circumstances where it would be necessary for the Minister for Justice of the day to receive confidential information about the activities of members of this House. It would arise, for example, if members of this House were also involved with organisations who were carrying out terrorist activities. However, I and all members of this House can agree that it would be absolutely abhorrent if the Gardaí were to collect information about anyone, whether in public life or not, for political purposes. There is no question of that happening. There are simply no circumstances in which I would countenance the abuse of Garda powers.
For my own part, as Ministers for both Justice and Defence, I am acutely aware of the importance of ensuring confidentiality with regard to sensitive information and information relating to the security of the State. Indeed, I think my discretion in maintaining confidences and not revealing information inappropriately is well known to many who have been writing and commenting on this controversy. I think on reflection they would regard it as absurd too to suggest that I keep files on anyone.
I now want to turn to the very particular circumstances in which I mentioned on Prime Time a particular incident involving Deputy Wallace.
I want to emphasise first that, despite some of the subsequent commentary, I was making absolutely no allegation of wrongdoing on the part of Deputy Wallace in his dealings with An Garda Síochána. Indeed, if I had been referring to some very serious incident involving the Deputy no doubt he would have been immediately able to recall it. The manner in which I acquired this information was quite straightforward and there is nothing sinister about it. I have taken the allegations which have been made about the integrity of the Fixed Charge Notice System and the controversy which arose with great seriousness. In the circumstances I asked that allegations made be fully investigated and was briefed on the matter by the Garda Commissioner. During the course of one of our conversations in which a number of matters relating to the Reports on the Fixed Notice Charge issue were discussed, including circumstances in which the Gardaí exercise their discretion in relation to traffic offences, the incident in relation to Deputy Wallace was mentioned by the Garda Commissioner. I most certainly did not request any information in relation to Deputies and no big issue was made of the incident involving Deputy Wallace. I have no doubt the Garda Commissioner was mindful too that Deputy Wallace might make public reference to the incident as part of the public controversy which was going on about Fixed Charge Notices and, in those circumstances, he had a duty to mention it to me.
It is important to see this matter in perspective and context.
Deputy Wallace and his colleagues have put in the public domain a whole range of allegations about the operation of the Fixed Charge Notice System they had no way of knowing were true or not, many of which have since been disproved. They wanted to put in the public domain information about third parties, implying wrongdoing on their part, with no basis for any assertion of wrongdoing. And, above all, they have been demanding transparency in this area. Indeed, they wrote to An Taoiseach on 22 April saying the review which was taking place into the issue of penalty points must 'address the lack of transparency surrounding the process'. Their position seems to be that any information from whistleblowers, whether correct or not, should be placed in the public domain but are outraged when anyone else provides information relating to this matter.
Despite the extensive nature of the investigation conducted under the supervision of Assistant Commissioner O'Mahoney and the report published, Deputy Wallace and other independent Deputies continued to denigrate An Garda Síochána and sought to undermine public confidence in and damage the reputation of the Force. They also rejected all the conclusions contained in the report when it was clear to any fair-minded observer that some of the most serious allegations which had been made had no basis in reality.
At the very start of the Prime Time programme Deputy Wallace stated that the Gardaí should not exercise a discretion and their doing so was unlawful. This was clearly a gravely serious allegation against An Garda Síochána. His initial comments were absolutist in this regard. I responded by saying that the Gardaí could quite properly and lawfully use their discretion. I believed it was grossly unfair to suggest that it was improper for the Gardaí to do so or that where a discretion was exercised in ease of a member of the public, the member of the public was engaged in some form of illegality. I believed that, in performance of my duties and function as Minister for Justice, it was necessary that I ensure continuing public confidence in the Force and it was wrong of Deputy Wallace to pillory others for the proper exercise of a lawful discretion. It was my judgement that it was both necessary and in the public interest that I point out that Deputy Wallace had himself been a beneficiary of that discretionary exercise. I believed that there was an extraordinary inconsistency between what Deputy Wallace had to say and what actually occurred in his case. I made the point, not to make a political charge against Deputy Wallace, nor for any personal benefit, but to defend the integrity of An Garda Síochána.
I did not make any allegation of wrongdoing against Deputy Wallace in his dealings with the Gardaí. In the context of the transparency demanded by him on this very issue, and the information furnished to me relating to it, I was simply making the point that like tens of thousands of others he was the beneficiary of Garda discretion being properly exercised.
I believe that I acted in the public interest and my doing should have none of the connotations that some have ascribed to it. However, as I have acknowledged on other occasions, none of us have a monopoly of wisdom. If Deputy Wallace feels that I did him some personal wrong by mentioning it, then I have no problem in saying I am sorry.
It may be helpful, before finishing, to clarify the issue of Garda discretion in dealing with road traffic matters. After our initial exchange on Prime Time, Deputy Wallace acknowledged that it was ok for the Gardaí who stopped someone to exercise discretion but stated that, once a fixed charge notice issued, no discretion should be exercised by Gardai. In his view, no matter what the circumstances, individuals should go to court if they seek to have a Fixed Charge Notice cancelled. What Deputy Wallace does not take into account is that many fixed charge notices are issued as a result of speed cameras where there is no contact between the motorist and An Garda Síochána. This reinforces the need for a Garda discretion, properly exercised, even where a notice has been issued.
The distinction which Deputy Wallace now makes would be unjust and not reflect reality. If all of those who received Fixed Charge Notices, in circumstances where the courts would inevitably dismiss any summons issued, were required to go to court it would cause stress, inconvenience and financial loss to thousands of people; Gardai would be unnecessarily tied up in our courts and removed from regular policing duties; there would be many thousands of unnecessary road traffic summonses to be processed by court clerical officers; and backlogs in court hearings putting the judiciary under unnecessary pressures. This would delay the hearing by our district courts of other criminal prosecutions to the detriment of the general public. The presentation to date on this issue, by Deputy Wallace and his colleagues, pays no regard to any of these issues and the public interest in ensuring a common sense and cost effective approach. These are important issues to which I must have regard as Minister for Justice.
There are genuine issues that have to be addressed about the penalty point system. That is why I sought a Garda investigation, why new procedures are being put in place and the Garda Inspectorate will independently monitor the operation of the system. It is also why the report has been referred to the Joint Oireachtas Committee for its deliberations. I am of course happy to assist the Committee in its deliberations if it asks me to do so.