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Thursday 21 August 2014

Great legislator's crown is slipping

Shatter's political longevity is at risk as his once-stellar reputation takes hit after hit

John Drennan

Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30

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Justice Minister Alan Shatter pictured at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis earlier this month.  Picture: GERRY MOONEY
Justice Minister Alan Shatter pictured at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis earlier this month. Picture: GERRY MOONEY

If Alan Shatter was looking for the perfect epitaph he would struggle to improve upon Enda Kenny's description of his troubled minister on Wednesday.

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Mr Kenny noted that Alan "is not liked by the judiciary, he is not liked by the legal profession, he is not liked by the gardai, he mightn't be liked by a lot of people.

"But I'll give you one thing, he has the courage to deal with the truth and change it when necessary''.

Outside of noting that quite a few enemies were absent from an admittedly already long list, Mr Kenny perhaps left out one small final query.

When a minister is at war with so many different individuals and groups, it surely does beg the question at some point as to whether the problem 'might actually be you, Alan'.

The good news for Mr Shatter is that the Taoiseach was most emphatically not minded to ask that question.

On Tuesday afternoon the hopeful mood might have been one of 'man down; how many more to go?' for when Irish political leaders force one individual to walk the plank, the hope that this might appease the gathering sharks rarely works out.

For the moment at least we shall have to make do with the Garda Commissioner for once the Justice Minister delivered a mincing apology that was three months late the Shatter furore was over, bar the shouting.

Despite the smiling faces the minister's actual situation was actually doleful, for, as a lawyer, Mr Shatter knows the most important thing a citizen can possess, particularly if they are in a court-room hoping for a big cheque, is your reputation.

And though Mr Shatter may have survived last week, even the minister's well cherished ego will have been in need of some tender loving care.

Mr Shatter may have previously gloried in the reputation of being a minister who knew if a feather had fallen on the floor of his department ... or Mick Wallace had been finger wagged at over using a phone whilst driving.

Last week, though, he was reduced to the all too typical role of being the minister who hadn't been told anything and knew nothing. It was all quite confusing for this was normally the default position of a collective of Fianna Fail ministerial stumble-bums and Mr Shatter is the cleverest man to ever walk across Irish soil.

But, whilst ignorance was the source of some political bliss for Mr Shatter, the sense is growing that the cleverest minister ever is like the cat with nine lives that keeps on running across the motorway.

For now he may be safely back purring in the Taoiseach's parlour with the rest of the special pets but, how many lives does the minister have left?

Outside of noting that if Shatter does not know himself he might well be in for a terrible shock, the minister's political longevity may yet be heavily influenced by a major change in his public political persona.

As FG and Labour lined up to support the minister with all of the enthusiasm of that army known as Slattery's Mounted Foot, the united position of all parties was that the minister was a wonderful legislator with great achievements whose loss to Irish politics would be irreparable.

But, whilst he may indeed be the best legislator in the

world, Mr Shatter's much-cherished public profile as such a figure is in danger of being replaced by a very different image.

Success in politics is a child of character and the capacity to create that sense of authority where individuals and institutions are prepared to be led by you.

Intriguingly the much-criticised former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan displayed this school of character and authority last week.

Mr Callinan may have been an imperfect politician, but, when he believed the future of his force was best served by resignation, Mr Callinan had the integrity and the courage to fall upon his sword.

In contrast, Mr Shatter's previous reputation as the great legislator is being eclipsed by a new persona as the minister who, rather like the woman who kept on walking into doors, cannot avoid walking into debilitating public controversies.

Unfortunately, that blight means Mr Shatter now finds himself surrounded with many wars and an excess of highly motivated enemies.

As the minister has also found himself engaged in an ongoing series of public spats with the judiciary, Labour, fellow Fine Gael ministers and the gardai, it is bad enough that Mr Shatter's status as the great legislator is being eclipsed by all these unfortunate squabbles.

The true measure of Mr Shatter's declining status is that his retention is now deemed to be essential to secure the passage of the 'complex' legislation required to steer our gay marriage referendum through.

Outside of noting that a smart Labour junior minister such as Alex White would be capable of sorting that out, given that the major task in gay civil marriage will consist of the winning of hearts and minds, one would question if the quarrel ridden Mr Shatter is the man for that job.

Indeed his referendum track record when it comes to the parliamentary inquiries fiasco, whose defeat essentially collapsed the government's political reform agenda, suggests it would be a 'brave' government indeed that would have Alan fronting that particular political bogey.

Charlie Haughey once wisely claimed that accountants do not make good Ministers for Finance.

When it comes to Justice it is becoming increasingly clear a similar rule of thumb applies to 'great legislators'.

One of the great arts of politics, particularly if you are trying to lead a revolution in government, is the capacity to bring people with you.

In the wake of the ongoing whistleblower debacle, Mr Shatter's legislative abilities were being cited as justifying his retention in order to also oversee the new police inspectorate.

It was once noted in a previous crisis that Ireland has far too much law and far too little order.

Given that we seem when it comes to the current administration of justice to be suffering from a similar imbalance, an increasing number of observers are beginning to wonder if Mr Shatter's legislative abilities are what is required.

Given that Mr Kenny appears to be well pleased over the survival of Mr Shatter, the query is moot for now.

But the 'Dear Leader' might, however, be wise to be somewhat cautious in his celebrations, too, for ministers who draw their kings into too many wars often end up doing more harm to the king than themselves.

Sunday Independent

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