News Eoghan Harris

Friday 22 August 2014

Callinan culled to save Alan Shatter and the Coalition

Eoghan Harris

Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30

  • Share

I PREFER cock-up to conspiracy theories. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe De Valera had no hand in the killing of Michael Collins. But I am convinced that the retirement of Commissioner Callinan was contrived to save Alan Shatter and the Coalition.

  • Share
  • Go To

Certainly, Callinan deserved to be chivvied into standing down if he refused to withdraw the "disgusting" remark. But if, as he clearly believes, he was led to think that loyalty to the then Shatter line required him not to withdraw the remarks, then he has been treated contemptibly.

There are two schools of commentators in relation to the events of the crisis weekend. The first consists of respected commentators like Stephen Collins and Fergus Finlay, who – in the Irish Times and on Newstalk respectively – broadly accept the Coalition's narrative. Let's look at what that entails.

They must accept that although the Attorney General knew about the tapes as far back as last November, she did not realise the "import" (Finlay's word on Newstalk) of the tapes until they were brought into focus by the Bailey case.

They must accept that although the Bailey tapes had been banging around for a while, it was a pure coincidence that they were only brought to the Taoiseach's attention on the Sunday of the weekend the Cabinet was in crisis.

They must accept that although the Taoiseach was horrified by what he heard from the Attorney General, he did not call up his Minister for Justice and ask him about the tapes. Instead, he bravely went to bed with his burden.

They must accept that next day he still did not call in the Minister for Justice, but conferred with officials from the Department of Justice and then dispatched an emissary to Callinan's home.

They must accept that Justice officials were correct when they told Callinan about the Cabinet being so bolshie about the tapes that he should consider his position.

They must accept that although Callinan had sent a letter about the tapes to Shatter on March 10, Shatter did not finally find out about the tapes until 6pm on Monday, exactly 24 hours after the Taoiseach had been told about them.

Finally, they must accept that Shatter did not finally read Callinan's letter until 12.40pm on Tuesday, during the Cabinet meeting, but after Callinan had retired.

Now I belong to the second dissenting school of commentators, who find all these coincidences, communication cock-ups and the serendipity of the tapes surfacing at the crisis weekend – when they could be used to distract attention from the Cabinet problems – hard to swallow. So whom should you believe?

The first step is to ask the age-old question: who benefits? Ironically there is no doubt about who benefited most. The leadership of the Labour Party. Let me try to prove that proposition.

Last Friday week, the Labour Party lay perilously exposed to events. Caught out by Leo Varadkar's appeal to the decent tradition in Fine Gael, the Labour leadership were struggling to catch up. They desperately needed something to distract the party rank and file.

So we can be sure they went into last Tuesday's Cabinet meeting full of fear and trembling. Only to be relieved by the Taoiseach's raft of wonderful news. Callinan was toast, Alan would correct the Dail record, the media would stop poking into Labour and play with the tapes issue instead.

The coalition handlers tried to make sure of that by telling the media what to think about the tapes. The website of the Irish Independent reported: "A coalition source said the new developments are extremely serious and more significant than even the whistleblowers controversies."

Then the Taoiseach took the tapes on tour. He was all shock and awe. Watching him work on his grim face, I was reminded of the ghost in Hamlet making his listeners' hair stand up on their head "like quills upon the fretful porpentine".

Well my hair stayed flat. I felt the recordings had been going on so long, were so shambolic, were known to so many ministers and were so unlikely to contain solicitors' chats with clients that there was no warrant for Kenny making a sudden crisis issue of it. Like the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers I felt the Taoiseach was trying to make our flesh creep.

By Wednesday, the Taoiseach's use of the tapes as distractors began to backfire. Women journalists seemed particularly wary. From the start, both Dearbhail McDonald in the Irish Independent and Miriam Lord in the Irish Times speculated that the Government was bigging up the tapes to distract from the cabinet crisis.

By last Friday, Conor Lally of the Irish Times was asking: "Has taping 'crisis' been overplayed for political gain?" That is still how it seems to me. Let me borrow another character from Pickwick Papers, Mr Jingle, who speaks in staccato, to give you a succinct summary of what I now think.

"Justice tells Callinan to hang tough – don't give legitimacy to whistleblowers – story will soon die – but Leo blows up that line – Labour needs head – Callinan sacked – Shatter survives – tape crisis due to break anyway used as distraction- bad business – very".

Back to who benefits? Again, the leadership of the Labour Party. They will continue in Coalition, living the high life. This includes the Tanaiste's personal team of advisers, which costs the taxpayer an extraordinary €500,000 per year.

So who loses? Just the Irish people, truth and justice. And, of course, the hapless backbenchers of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Who deserve all that is coming to them.

Last Wednesday, they went into a meeting, listened to the leadership line, swallowed a story that would tax the credulity of a small child and gave Brendan Howlin carte blanche to tell RTE News that Alan Shatter had the Labour Party's complete confidence.

The Labour backbenchers will pay dearly at the polls for this passivity. But by then the Labour leadership will have filled up its pension pot. Few of them will go through the formality of offering themselves for execution at the next general election.

So is there any upside to this ugly affair? Actually, yes.

Last week, RTE recovered some of the muscle it has lost under the Rabbitte regime. Bryan Dobson and Brian Dowling were on the ball. But the real star was RTE's new political correspondent, Martina Fitzgerald, who carefully balanced both schools of thought on the crisis.

By and large it seems to me that women journalists kept a beadier eye on events than their male counterparts. Dearbhail McDonald in the Irish Independent, Miriam Lord in the Irish Times and Miriam O'Callaghan on RTE's Prime Time put in stellar performances of balanced scepticism.

A final word of advice to former Commissioner Callinan. Get a copy of the King James Bible and read, mark and inwardly digest Psalm 146:3, which warns: "Put not your trust in Princes." After that he should try to rescue his reputation by publicly recording what really happened.

Sunday Independent

Read More

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice