Alan Shatter interview - 'I know I could have an easier life, but I still have something to offer'
Alan Shatter, the former Minister for Justice, tells Barry Egan about his setbacks and disappointments, his family and racial abuse, and why he is still up for the political fight
Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30
It sounds like a real-life plotline from House Of Cards.
Alan Shatter won't say, however, who he believes pulled the strings behind the curtain in an attempt to destroy his political career.
Looking back to his resignation on May 7 last year as Minister for Justice following the report by Sean Guerin into allegations made by Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe, Shatter says now that there is still a tale to be told. . .
"One day there will be a story about how is it that all of these issues coincided within such a short period of time," he says. "I think the coincidence of so many issues of this nature in such a targeted way in one moment of time, between the ninth of February of 2014 and the 25th of March, 2014, I think somewhere there is a story in that.
"The story isn't complete yet," he adds, like Frank Underwood in House Of Cards.
"I think there are some interesting questions that could be asked of opposition politicians as to what was going on also at the time. This isn't about Enda Kenny or the Labour Party or Alan Shatter or Fine Gael. I think there are some serious issues that need to be asked of the opposition parties about how it occurred that all of these issues suddenly merged into one enormous frenzy within a period of six weeks. There are some interesting issues as to what else was happening at the time. That is something that I might say a lot more about in some years to come."
Do you regret not hanging on?
"I didn't have the option of hanging on because the Taoiseach, as a result of the Guerin Report had, I think, a particular view of the matter. Also, this coincided with us being two weeks away from European and local government elections."
Did Labour say to Enda that they wanted your head?
"I have no knowledge of Labour saying that. Genuinely no knowledge of Labour saying that, but there was a huge amount of controversy generated, which was an enormous distraction from the really good things the Government was achieving and I was conscious of that. Happily, it has now been established that what was supposed to be a 'scandal' or a 'controversy' was contrived. That's the reality of it."
He arrived in Marco Pierre White's restaurant on Dawson Street on Wednesday at 5pm, saying he had to be home by 7.15pm to catch the kick-off of the big game. "I am hoping Carol is taping it!" Alan said at 8.15pm when he finally left to make his way home to his wife Carol in Dundrum.
Earlier, I asked him how was Carol during that what must have been a dark period in his life? What was it like to live with Alan Shatter?
"Let me put it this way. The period from January 20, 2014, was quite extraordinary. I never in my life experienced the level of political and media invective and targeting that I experienced at that time. I had reporters from your paper and others stalking my home on a Saturday. I found myself being perused by reporters from another paper in cars along the street as if I was some sort of criminal.
"I was constantly being accused of lying about issues on which it has since been established in a calmer atmosphere, independently by respected, retired members of the judiciary that I was telling the truth. It was a difficult period. We were subject to anti-semitic attacks with great regularity on social media.
"One individual has been before the courts for sending anti-semitic emails into the Department of Justice. On two occasions the defence forces had to visit our home to deal with parcels that were delivered, which turned out to be ash, and which contained anti-semitic messages and photographs of Stormtroopers from Nazi Germany.
"It was a very, very difficult and unpleasant period and anyone who would say anything else would be telling untruths," he says.
"I didn't expect any possibility of a report being published critical of me in circumstances where I hadn't been interviewed and I had no opportunity to address the issues. So it was a very difficult period for Carol and for both of my children. My daughter, Kelly is in Dublin but my son Dylan, who is in Australia and recently married, had access to all this through online media. But I believe you pick yourself up, you dust yourself down and then you get on with it. And that's what we're doing. I know that there are some friends of mine who think I am completely insane to remain in politics. I constantly joke that probably someone should provide me with psychotherapy."
Did you ever think of retiring or moving abroad?
"Obviously, at some point, Carol and I discussed would I remain in politics and would I not. I feel that I still have something that is positive to offer to public life. I know that I would have an easier life if I stepped outside the public domain."
And so would Carol?
"And so would Carol," Alan says of the woman to whom he got engaged two years into his four-year degree course at Trinity. "And we got married two days after I did the second year exams in Trinity."
"But she is fantastic. She is both supportive of me and extraordinarily tolerant. Some of what happened was deeply upsetting for her and I am very conscious of that."
"Of course, before deciding would I put my name forward for the convention it was a conversation that we had. I don't make unilateral decisions about these things. There were family considerations."
"I think it is quite notable, by the way," Shatter adds, "that there is not a single opposition deputy in the House who threw a myriad of false charges at me - from Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein or from the Independent benches - who has had the decency to acknowledge that what they were alleging was untrue. Common decency would indicate that there is a moment in time when you accept you were wrong."
On moving to the backbenches he says: "My interest in politics has always been to ask the why questions and to address issues that either have not been addressed or I feel could be better addressed. And the best position to do that is from being a member of the government. But right now we're heading into a difficult election. The constituency I'm running in is shrunk from a five seater to a three seater - Rathfarnham and Knocklyon, where I would have received a very substantial vote is now in Dublin south-west. So there is a building exercise to be done in the constituency. I'm hoping my contribution to national politics and my engagement locally and the various issues I have addressed over the years will stand me in good stead."
Assuming Fine Gael were returned to government, would he take a job as a minister if Enda Kenny asked him?
"Well, of course I would. I would go back into any position that I was offered if I was to be offered a position. But I don't take it for granted. There is a lot of talent in Fine Gael, all of whom would aspire either to be back in government or to be in government for the first time."
When was the last time you met Enda?
"We had a lengthy conversation at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting in Adare in September. It was only two or three weeks ago. It was a friendly conversation and I regard it as confidential between us." Was it necessary to put the past to bed?
"I think the worst thing anyone can ever do is live in the past. There may be issues arising out of the past that you have to address but I'm looking to the future."
Do you fully support Enda Kenny?
"Yes. I have no issues around supporting him as Taoiseach. There are issues about which we would have some differences but I would like to see him returned as Taoiseach after the next election. I believe this government, and Enda as Taoiseach, have done an extraordinary job in getting the economy back on the road, and in bringing about a very major recovery, in producing financial sanity in the context of the public finances. It has been a historical period for both social and legal reforms. I am pleased that I had an opportunity to substantially contribute to that. But my fear at the moment and my over-riding concern is that at the election there is a risk that because so many people have been through difficult times and the Government had to make some very difficult decisions, the next government instead of being a Fine Gael-led government, could be a Sinn Fein-led government. And if that happens the recovery will be destroyed. We will be back to where we were three or four years ago. I believe it would be extraordinarily damaging to this country to have Gerry Adams as Taoiseach."
Do you believe there is any likehood of Micheal Martin becoming Taoseach?
"I don't believe so, because I don't believe Fianna Fail should be trusted. They are not trusted by the public, because they have no credible identifiable policies. Fianna Fail were the first party to agree with the Troika to implement water charges. They have been playing crass political games with that for months. When I became Minister For Justice we were still working on the budgetary figures that Fianna Fail put through in late 2010 - the funny money game. So there wasn't enough money to pay the Guards until the end of 2011. I had to bring in a supplementary budget. "As the party responsible for the financial disaster inflicted on the country they should not be allowed into government.
"And a Sinn Fein government would penalise initiative because they believe no one should ever profit from the work they do."
When you were Minister For Justice, did you see proof that Gerry Adams was a member of the IRA?
"I am very conscious as a former Minister For Justice that anything that I might say has implications for the Peace Process in Northern Ireland; for the engagement that must now continue in Northern Ireland to ensure that the current structures are preserved. I am very anxious to ensure that, in the context of the electoral contest in the Republic, things aren't said or done which have unintended consequences in Northern Ireland.
"My concern about Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein is that while the Provisional IRA may no longer exist as the military wing of Sinn Fein, and I don't believe that they do, I believe that we have the remnants of the Provos engaged in criminality. They are engaged in diesel laundering and a whole range of criminality. I personally don't have a visibility as to the extent to which the current leadership of Sinn Fein knows the detail of the criminality that some ... are engaged in.
"I am concerned that there are former people involved in leadership positions in the IRA who are an 'intimidator' presence in Northern Ireland. I am concerned that what I would describe as the official military wing of Sinn Fein no longer exists but in Irish politics, we have what I would describe as Sinn Fein Militant.
"Most people wanted to get away from the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other, and have a Sinn Fein party that was truly democratic and engaged in democratic politics, bringing their community with them.
"To an extent that has been achieved in Northern Ireland but there are parts of Northern Ireland where people fear intimation by those in former leadership positions."
Have you ever been intimidated by the IRA or by Sinn Fein?
"No, I haven't been personally intimidated by the IRA. But what I have a concern about is the extent to which Sinn Fein's engagement in democratic politics is actually contaminating democratic politics in this state. Sinn Fein need to make a choice - and the electorate needs to make a choice in the next election - as to whether they favour the politics of protest or whether they favour democratic politics. Sinn Fein believes you can do both things.
"One of the changes in Irish politics, particularly during the life time of the current government , is the extent to which supporters of Sinn Fein, supporters of Paul Murphy's party, supporters of People Before Profit engage in what I would describe as street intimidation of individuals. And the role of the Dail chamber is being undermined by it being used as a sort of kangaroo court where it is acceptable for independent deputies, members of Sinn Fein, members of the smaller parties to effectively name and shame private citizens and to abuse Dail privilege," he says.
In relation to what he believes were the tactics of some, Shatter says he has experienced some disgusting and physically threatening anti-Semitism outside the Dail.
He says he is in no doubt as to the political allegiances of those making the threats.
"They are entitled to protest, but not to behave in an intimidatory way. I have been subjected to anti-semitic taunts from people of that nature. Once I was surrounded outside Leinster House by a group of water protestors shouting 'Go back to Israel' or 'You Jewish wanker.' It does become obvious particularly on Twitter what the political allegiances of the people are."
Alan Shatter says the economy cannot be entrusted to Sinn Fein, and neither could the security of the State. "What we know of Sinn Fein - and some of the current deputies in Sinn Fein who are in the Dail - I don't believe the security of the state could be trusted to Sinn Fein. I don't want to see a government led by Gerry Adams who is both Taoiseach and Minister For Defence, because he believes he has some expertise to bring to the Defence area. I don't believe remotely that he was ignorant in any shape or form of the activities of the Provisional IRA and that he wasn't privy to a whole heap of information as to what was happening and when.
"I don't believe it would be appropriate that Sinn Fein have access to, or be privy to, information in the Department of Defence or the Department of Justice. I think there are too many people still in Northern Ireland, who I am willing to accept are not part of any organised current Provo structure, but were part of the Provo structure with whom communications, I am assuming, still take place on the part of Sinn Fein.
"I simply do not believe that Sinn Fein should be in a position in government where they would have access to information that could endanger people's lives, and could endanger the lives of our Defence Forces or members of An Garda Siochana.
"In this context, every voter needs to ask themselves: who will the person I vote for, when in the Dail if elected, support to be Taoiseach of the country?
"Will they support Enda Kenny, Micheal Martin or Gerry Adams? If you look at the group of Independents that we have in the Dail at the moment the overwhelming majority of them have in the current Dail consistently voted with Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail."
"Shane Ross in my constituency has consistently voted with Sinn Fein. So the question is: is a vote, for example, for Shane Ross, or is a vote for Clare Daly or Mick Wallace or any of the other Independents, ultimately, a vote for Gerry Adams as Taoiseach?
"I don't think we have the luxury of electing to the Dail individuals without knowing who they would support on a vote for Taoiseach. I think that is absolutely vital."
Do you feel in some way vindicated by the Fennelly Report?
"What was extraordinary about that period was to find yourself in a position where you were consistently telling the truth about issues and being consistently being accused of telling lies. It frankly didn't matter what you said or did. There was a narrative that my political opponents - and some commentators - were very enthusiastic about. The classical example was the story that developed in February of 2014 that the Garda Siochana had GSOC under surveillance. I asked that the chairman of GSOC explain to me what was happening, which he did.
"I then told the Dail what I knew as I was informed by GSOC. So I went through a number of weeks on that issue where the allegation was: I wasn't telling the truth, I was covering up for the guards, the guards definitely had GSOC under surveillance, the Garda Commisioner and myself were too close.
"I was pleased that six weeks after I resigned, the Cook Report came out. It established that everything I said at the time was true and that the opposition narrative was untrue, and a lot of the commentary was completely inaccurate; even to the point that I had misbehaved in some way by asking the head of GSOC to tell me what was going on.
"Judge Cook was able to point out there was a legal obligation on the head of GSOC to tell me what was going on. I am pleased that it turned that what I said then was true." With regard to the Fennelly inquiry, he says that he first learned some three and a half hours after Martin Callinan resigned that two weeks earlier he had furnished the Secretary General of the department with a letter about the Garda taping issue.
"When I learnt of that I was firstly astonished that I hadn't been handed the letter earlier and expressed some very serious criticism to the Secretary General as to basically what the hell was going on and why didn't I get this earlier.
"The Fennelly report shows that there was a failure on the part of the Secretary General and other officials including the Assistant Secretary General, Michael Flahive, to inform me of the existence of the letter and to furnish it to me. But, again, I was subject to the accusation. 'You must have seen it. You covered it up. You're telling lies.'
"So I was very pleased that Judge Fennelly established that I told the truth about that issue. When you are in public life you have a relatively thick neck, but it is extraordinarily difficult when you know you are telling the truth and members of the Dail attack you consistently for telling lies and that narrative is adopted unquestionably by commentators."
You told the Fennelly Commission that the notion that Brian Purcell had been 'asked to go seek information was fantasy'.
"I took a vow to myself that when the Fennelly report was published, I wouldn't become a commentator on the report. The report speaks for itself. I am pleased that Judge Fennelly accepted the truth of the evidence that I gave". Some would take the view that Enda shafted you?
"I'm not going to get into the circumstances relating to my resignation."
Did you feel he treated you unfairly?
"The circumstances relating to my resignation derived from conclusions reached in the Guerin Report, and I am already on record as saying that Mr Guerin never interviewed me, and I never had any opportunity to see what his initial conclusions were and comment on them - which is a basic issue of fair procedures. I am a little constrained in talking about that because there are outstanding court proceedings in this particulate area. I'm on Dail record as saying that the manner in which that report was concluded did not comply with fair procedures. Because I felt as a matter of principle it wasn't just about me . It was how we do politics and how enquiries are conducted in this country."
Presumably any problems you would have had with Enda would have had to be sorted out for you to consider accepting, however hypothetically, a role in a future government?
"As I said, he and I have had a friendly conversation and I don't want to say any more about it than that."
You didn't feel shafted then?
"I think that who is elected to government at the next election and what parties compose the next government, how we secure and protect the recovery, how we generate more jobs in this country, how we attract back to Ireland the many young people who have emigrated is a far more important question and a far bigger question than any issue I may have around the circumstances of my resignation."
Has that issue been sorted out?
"I don't want to reveal the confidences of a private conversation. As long as Enda Kenny is leader of the party I will support him."
Down the line, if Enda was no longer leader of Fine Gael, would you favour Leo or Simon or Frances as a future leader?
"I have no view on that at all at the moment," he says.