News Eoghan Harris

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Labour looks after Shatter – and its own pensions

Eoghan Harris

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Justice Alan Shatter
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter
Illustration by Jim Cogan

AS a political drama, Shattergate recalls the Arms Trial of 1970 - but only in one respect. Both stories came to a head when the leader of the Opposition shared confidential information with the Taoiseach.

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Back in the spring of 1970, Liam Cosgrave, Fine Gael leader of the Opposition, told Taoiseach Jack Lynch that some of his ministers were planning to smuggle arms into Ireland for the IRA. Lynch promptly sacked Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney when they would not resign.

In sharp contrast, Enda Kenny's reaction to Micheal Martin's toxic transcript has been to back Shatter to the hilt. In this he has been helped by hapless RTE reporting and the complicity of the Labour Party.

Back in 1970, most of the media saw the Arms Trial story had a holistic plot. Today, RTE pundits don't realise that all great scandals have a plot in retrospect. Gallaghergate has a plot still waiting for a catharsis. Lowrygate has a plot whose end has been postponed.

Likewise, Shattergate has a plot whose climax may come next week, next month or even on the eve of a General Election. But great journalists don't have to wait for that retrospective – they actively begin to join the dots as they go along.

Last week, we got great journalism from Newstalk. Unlike RTE, it kept our eyes on the big unfolding drama, and did not break it up into bitty distractions. Each day, Ivan Yates, Chris Donoghue and Pat Kenny fitted each fresh event into its proper place in the mosaic of this major political drama.

True, RTE reported on each new toxic tree. But it could not seem to see the whole wood. Like Henry Ford's view of history, RTE pundits seemed to think the story was "just one damned thing after another".

But of course Shattergate is best seen as a Greek tragedy which has not yet reached the point of catharsis. Alan Shatter is the brilliant but flawed protagonist who suffers from hubris. And it has the same classic structure: a prologue, three acts and an epilogue.

The prologue should have featured a Greek chorus of commentators ironically chanting the Coalition Government's promises to be different from Fianna Fail. Alas, many in our media chorus have sworn vows of silence.

The first act featured the Minister for Justice, the Garda Commissioner, the file on Mick Wallace, the arrest of Clare Daly and abortive attempts to prevent the Public Accounts Committee hearing the explosive testimony of a brave whistleblower.

The second act began with the suspicion that the Ombudsman's office had been bugged, the Government's gormless attempt to put GSOC in the dock and Alan Shatter's arrogant pre-emption of an inquiry by carrying out a "peer review" security sweep of his own.

The third act began with the transcript which Micheal Martin handed to the Taoiseach last week. Enda Kenny also pre-empted any inquiry by saying he had full confidence in the Minister for Justice. The Labour Party lined up to say the same.

In any decent democracy we would now be approaching the catharsis: the resignation, enforced or voluntary, of Alan Shatter. But in a self-fulfilling prophecy, our consensus media claims that Enda Kenny will never sack Shatter.

Spoiler alert. My plot hunch tells me we are waiting on more events. If so, we will be writing both the epilogue and Shatter's political epitaph pretty soon. But, of course, we should have been able to write it long ago.

Because the big question is how Shatter has lasted so long? The answer is that as long as RTE and the Labour Party toe the line, Enda Kenny doesn't have to deal with Shattergate, or indeed any other political scandal.

Let's start with RTE's poor performance. Last week, if you did not move the dial you only got a partial picture. On Newstalk, Ivan Yates, Chris Donoghue, Shane Coleman and Pat Kenny dug deeply into Shattergate, helped by expert commentators like Conor Brady and Tom Clonan.

By contrast, RTE was managing rather than digging into the story. Some of its reporters greeted each revelation with a sullen reserve. And this culture of caution seemed to affect even abrasive presenters like Sean O'Rourke.

The contrast between Pat Kenny and Sean O'Rourke's handling of Tom Clonan can be heard by downloading both interviews. Clonan was brilliant in both. He spoke in what I call his navy-blue voice: his father and grandfather were both gardai.

Coming from a garda tradition of which he was rightly proud, Clonan's voice trembled with controlled passion as he criticised the cosy relationship between the Department of Justice and the Garda Commissioner. Pat Kenny fully shared his concern.

By contrast, Sean O'Rourke reacted with what I can only call nervous caution. He sounded increasingly edgy as Clonan began to connect the dots, his voice rising in pitch and speeding up as he interrupted frequently.

O'Rourke's reaction was in some ways a repeat of his performance the previous week in an interview with Niall Collins. We heard vocal unease when Collins brought up the tape of the Garda Confidential Recipient and audible agitation when Collins mentioned that Oliver Connolly had contributed €1,000 to Shatter's election fund.

As a former television producer I may be more sensitive to subtle variations of voice than most. But if you compare Sean O'Rourke's and Pat Kenny's conversations with Tom Clonan, I believe you will find that O'Rourke seems less relaxed than Pat Kenny, less in tune with the tone of what Clonan was saying.

Let me now turn to the Labour Party. Again Newstalk presenters cut to the core of that bad apple. Finishing up last Friday, Ivan Yates rightly said that Labour ministers "in the twilight of their careers" were not going to rock the boat by calling for Shatter's resignation.

Judging by the Labour leadership's reactions last week, there is now no scandal they will not swallow so that the Coalition can run full term and preserve full pensions. Like Michael Noonan, who bizarrely blamed Fianna Fail for Shattergate, Labour is now totally out of touch with the Irish people.

Again we must ask: how does Labour get away with it? Again the short answer is that most of the media, particularly RTE, seems anxious to give Pat Rabbitte a soft ride. Especially when he is playing his favourite game: running interference for Enda Kenny by playing hard cop to Eamon Gilmore's soft cop.

Last Tuesday, Alan Shatter went into the Dail and announced a judicial inquiry. He then pre-empted that inquiry by saying he had commissioned a "peer review" security sweep, which – surprise, surprise – had found nothing. Naturally, I waited for the media to go mad.

But next day, to my amazement, the Irish Times headline simply said: "Rabbitte had input into Shatter GSOC reply, says Labour." Incredibly, the Labour Party was actually claiming credit for Shatter's pre-empting of a proposed inquiry!

So far, most of the media has been willing to overlook how a four-leaf clover of Fine Gael and Labour ministers functions to protect Alan Shatter from his actions. Whether the Irish voter will wear it next May is another matter.

Sunday Independent

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