Arrogance and hubris clouded a great legal mind
Published 08/05/2014 | 02:30
IT is customary, when writing political obituaries, to highlight the positive attributes of the recently departed. And so it should be said, in the style of political colleagues that rallied to the defence of former Justice Minister Alan Shatter – even as his credibility sank like a stone – that he was a talented legal thinker who worked incredibly hard on his reform agenda.
What a pity that Mr Shatter, who resigned in disgrace after a series of mostly self-inflicted scandals, did not work incredibly hard on the hubris and arrogance that characterised his tenure and led to his downfall, one that could yet unseat the entire Coalition.
What a pity his superciliousness and omnipotent conceit, despite his acknowledged talents and achievements, constantly got in the way of a promising legacy.
The ambitious if kooky family law solicitor, who once wrote a best-selling erotic novel, spent many years in the political wilderness before he was appointed Justice Minister by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
On taking office, Shatter embarked on a radical reform agenda including far-reaching plans to overhaul the legal profession.
He caused political embarrassment at an international level for the Government after his initial refusal to ensure the new regulatory authority to oversee the legal profession was not subject to political control.
This led to complaints by august overseas bodies that companies would be deterred from trading in Ireland if its legal system was akin to China's.
Mr Shatter dismissed the international outcry over aspects of the planned Legal Services Regulation Bill, like many of the controversies that engulfed him, as "unfortunate hysteria".
The same can be said of his dismissive attitude towards the failed Oireachtas Inquiries referendum which led to an unprecedented move by eight former Attorneys General to sound alarm bells about the poll.
The Attorneys' concerns were dismissed by Shatter as "nonsense" and "simply wrong" but voters took them close to their hearts and roundly defeated the poll.
The 2011 referendum was, in my view, designed to put the judiciary in their place after they had cut politicians' inquisitorial wings following the Abbeylara Inquiry. And it was not lost that one of its main sponsors, Alan Shatter, was on the parliamentary committee whose conduct was impugned by the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case.
On taking up office, Mr Shatter entered into a war of attrition with the legal profession and the judiciary, leading to a near breakdown in communications between the executive and judicial arms of Government. The legal sector requires significant, radical reform.
But some of the taunts from the poacher-turned-gamekeeper were needless and counterproductive.
Oh how the legal eagles must be dancing with delight in their wigs and gowns that it was a report by a Senior Counsel, one who represented Fine Gael to boot, which was the straw that broke Shatter's ministerial back.
Alan Shatter, who perilously straddled the Departments of Justice and Defence – the two most sensitive intelligence wings of Government – enjoyed the allure of power. But he got carried away with it and lacked the critical skills of self-awareness and humility required of a leader.
He was at continual pains to highlight his own brilliance, although his Personal Insolvency legislation – usurped by the banks veto – may turn out to be the one of the biggest white elephants in the wake of the financial crisis.
His departure from the Irish political scene will be mourned most by those who have campaigned for reform of our reproductive laws, including surrogacy, our family courts as well as those who support same-sex marriage.
Shatter was also working hard to improve the plight of sexual abuse victims when he suddenly resigned.
But his key failures were homegrown. He abused his ministerial office when he revealed personal information about Independent TD Mick Wallace.
He obliterated trust in the administration of justice when he blindsided the Garda Siochana Ombudman Commission, which raised concerns its offices were bugged, and when he rubbished the claims of garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
Like the previously untouchable prelates in the Catholic Church, it was Alan Shatter's failure to adequately handle the allegations, as distinct from their substance, that was most heinous.
The Department of Health was long seen as a poison chalice. The same tag now applies, under Mr Shatter's reign, to the Department of Justice. That is an unthinkable prospect for Fine Gael, the party of law and order. It is a tragic legacy for a talented man and a huge tragedy for Irish society as it seeks to rebuild trust in our legal order.